I’ve been reflecting on loneliness recently and realised I hadn’t read any research on the topic for quite a while. To correct that I accessed a couple of articles on the topic (here, here), which inspired me to write this blog post.
What is loneliness?
Loneliness is the discrepancy between a person’s desired and actual social relationships.
I’m lonely if what I want and need from the social connections in my life, I can’t obtain.
Loneliness is distinct from social isolation. Social isolation refers to an objectively measurable lack of connection between an individual and other people/ the community/ society. Social isolation can certainly give rise to loneliness but some people might choose social isolation for a period of time in which case loneliness would not be expected (i.e. there is no discrepancy between their desired and actual social connection). Social isolation is more about the quantity of opportunities to connect. Loneliness is about the quality of those connections.
Humans experience loneliness because we are social creatures, we need the presence of others to exchange touch, to value and validate each other, help plan and execute those plans, to survive, prosper and care for offspring.
Loneliness is an aversive experience, designed to motivate us to seek or renew social connections, a type of social thirst or hunger. In this sense, loneliness is not an abnormal state, but an evolutionarily derived experience designed to drive us to make, renew and sustain social connections.
As such we find that loneliness is common (most people will experience it at some point), transient and corrected by social connection.
But it is possible to get trapped in loneliness.
There are many reasons not to want to get trapped in loneliness but two big ones are:
First, it feels crap. Emotionally it is an unpleasant experience combining feelings of isolation, disconnectedness, not belonging, sadness, depression, and hopelessness. For some, these feelings are so unpleasant that they consider suicide.
Second, it can screw up your health. Chronic loneliness is associated with poorer cardiovascular health, poorer sleep, enhanced stress response, reduced immunity, inflammation, being overweight, high cholesterol and blood pressure and cognitive decline. And I’m sure further research will link it to a range of other physical and mental health issues.
That is why health professionals are so interested in trying to address chronic loneliness.
Why do we get lonely?
There are many situations that might lead us to be lonely.
Cruelly, sometimes the relationships most important to us degrade or disappear. We may lose people to death or conflict or break-up. Important emotional, practical, intellectual, spiritual or physical needs that were previously being met by those people, now are no longer being met.
It isn’t just losing individuals, it might involve the loss of involvement in a group. Perhaps you have to leave a sports team because of injury. Perhaps you have to leave a supportive workplace. Perhaps you move to a new city or country (e.g. international students) and lose involvement in your usual friend and colleague networks. Perhaps groups that you are a part of disband for some reason. Whatever the reason, the loss of involvement in a group can mean losing all the social and emotional benefits of group membership. If we can’t get those social needs met in another place, but still have those needs, then we get lonely.
We can get lonely, even if our social network remains intact. Perhaps our needs change and we can’t get those new needs met by the same people anymore or we don’t know how to articulate our new needs to those people. This can be the case if you get sick and don’t know how to call upon your friends or family to help, so you withdraw. Or maybe we get caught up in the busyness of life and don’t allocate enough time to the most important relationships and the quality of those relationships reduces.
Once we’ve lost supportive relationships, it isn’t always easy to get new ones. I regularly joke that the older you get, the harder it is to make a ‘best friend’ cause all the good ones have been taken up, or the nuances of developing new friendships at 40+ get more challenging to navigate. It is why lifelong friendships are so valuable.
So how does loneliness become chronic?
In one of the articles I read, they outlined a model for how loneliness becomes chronic. I’ve reproduced it below.
If you aren’t a psychologist, this diagram is probably 90% gobbledygook, so here is a plain language summary.
- For whatever reason (some outlined in the prior section) a person finds themselves separated from their primary supports.
- They start feeling isolated and lonely (normal response).
- They’re motivated to connect with others but also find themselves cautious about dealing with people, maybe they’ve been hurt (from rejection) or are anxious about making new friends.
- They become hypervigilant to any signs of being rejected or excluded or evaluated negatively (social threats).
- They start seeing most interactions they have with people in a negative light. They get less able to see the positive aspects of their interactions with people.
- They start to believe that other people are inherently untrustworthy or rejecting or judgmental or unkind.
- They start to believe negative things about themselves: that they are bad, they are social failures. They get very self conscious.
- They experience anger or shyness or anxiety or self-doubt when interacting with other people.
- They start acting strange around people, which limits the chance of new interactions forming into good relationships.
- They notice that people are reacting negatively to them.
- They start feeling isolated and lonely (back to #2). The cycle continues.
I’ve summarised this far more simply as “if you spend too much time alone, you get a bit weird and that weirdness makes it hard to make friends when you start socialising again”.
What do you do to tackle chronic loneliness?
First up, we have to remember that loneliness tends to be transient. Feelings of loneliness act as motivation for us to reorient ourselves within our social network – deepen existing relationships, forge new ones. change perspectives. Thus if you are feeling lonely, it may be a normal response to a change in your social situation, which you can use as fuel to make changes in your life. You may feel lonely for a few months as you re-jig your social life. Perfectly normal.
However if you notice that your loneliness is not changing over time and is accompanied by:
- high levels of distress in social situations
- negative beliefs about yourself and other people
- significant awkwardness in social situations
- avoidance of social situations for fear of the above
- pessimism about future relationships
then it is possible that maybe your loneliness is more than a transient event.
Approaches to helping people who are lonely tend to fall into 4 groups, which can give you some clues as to how to address it in your own life.
Social Skills Training
Some of us just aren’t very good at being around people. We act weird. We say strange things. We don’t understand different social conventions and norms. We lack ‘social skills’.
There are many reasons why this can be the case: living in a different culture, language barriers, the presence of mental health issues, just being a slightly weird person. Or maybe it is as simple as we didn’t have many good social role models to learn from as a kid growing up.
Loneliness can arise in the context of poor social skills because our social interactions tend to go badly, we might be rejected or excluded, and we lose the opportunities to form supportive relationships.
The good thing is social skills can be trained, like any other skill. We can get better at being around people.
Start by reading books on ‘social skills’ or ‘dealing with people’ or watching Youtube videos on topics like conversational skills, active listening, giving and receiving compliments, handling periods of silence, enhancing physical attractiveness, nonverbal communication methods, and approaches to physical intimacy.
Listening is a basic skill you can learn and apply straight away.
As you start to acquire knowledge about different social skills, try attending groups where you can practice those skills.
Oasis here at Flinders run a number of programs that give you a chance to practice your conversational skills:
FUSA also have a range of clubs you could join that would give you the chance to socialise with others.
If your struggles with social situations relate more to anxiety (e.g. fear of being negatively evaluated or embarrassing yourself) than a lack of social skills, consider doing one of the free online social anxiety treatment programs. These programs teach you to challenge your thinking about social situations and give you practical tips for engaging people when feeling anxious.
Professional Social Support
Some of the experiences that can lead to loneliness commonly lead individuals to seek professional support. Experiences such as grief, loss, depression and anxiety often lead individuals to seek support from people such as GPs, psychologists and counsellors.
Professional support can provide a buffer against loneliness, whilst the individual addresses the situation that made them lonely in the first place.
Professional support isn’t usually a long-term solution to loneliness (although some individuals go into long-term therapy), but it is a starting point from which a person can re-build important aspects of their life, including developing their own support network.
Professional support can also include joining therapy groups. Therapy groups can provide both therapeutic benefit (e.g. treating a mental health issue) but also the chance to interact with other people with similar experiences. This can be a double-win for those struggling with loneliness alongside a physical or mental health condition. A chance to get treatment but also support from peers.
Opportunities for social interaction
If you reckon your social skills are OK and you don’t need professional assistance, then you might want to focus on simply creating more opportunities to interact with people.
The more you put yourself out there, the more likely you are to meet interesting people, find people with common interests and start forming long-term friendships and relationships.
Try attending a few https://www.meetup.com/en-AU/ groups.
Patience is key here. When we are lonely we want to fast-track the process – find a new ‘best friend’ RIGHT NOW. But close relationships take time to form. You can’t rush these things, even if you are feeling lonely.
So make the commitment to attend a group for a few months at least, so you get the chance to form friendships through proximity and repetition.
Opportunities for social interaction don’t just have to include meeting new people! Perhaps you’ve just neglected some of your existing relationships. Now is the time to organise to catch up with people you know. They’ll probably relish the fact that you are getting in touch and organising to catch-up, because a lot of the slow degradation of friendships simply happens because of being busy and neglecting to specifically organise times to catch up.
And don’t forget the online world. Forums and communities exist for just about every condition, interest, hobby, and group you can imagine. When I was in my early twenties I went through a period of significant loneliness. The friendships I formed through internet-based communities and chat rooms helped sustain me during this period.
Addressing maladaptive social cognitions (CBT)
I wrote earlier about how loneliness can become a cycle, where loneliness changes how you think, feel and act in social situations.
One of the more successful treatment options for loneliness is Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT).
CBT for loneliness teaches individuals to identify the thoughts, feelings and behaviours that contribute to ongoing negative social interactions. Individuals are encouraged to view social situations in different ways and experiment with different ways of acting in social situations that make those interactions more rewarding and satisfying.
The goal is to break the cycle of negativity that keeps the individual lonely.
It is important to note here that providing CBT to lonely individuals does not imply they are the blame for their loneliness. Rather it is the case that loneliness leads people to fall into a number of cognitive traps that make it harder to address the loneliness. CBT teaches individuals to identify and counter-act these cognitive traps.
CBT is delivered primarily by psychologists. In Australia, access to psychologists is organised primarily through mental health care plans that can be completed by your GP.
You could also have a chat to one of our counsellors about therapy options.
Final words/ summary
Loneliness is a common unpleasant experience arising from a discrepancy between the support a person wants, versus what they can get.
Generally it is transient in nature and acts as a motivator to seek out additional or more targeted support.
It is possible however to get trapped in loneliness.
Addressing loneliness can involve a number of different activities: social skills training, professional support, creating new opportunities for social interaction and CBT for negative social beliefs.
CBT is, to date, the best treatment we have for loneliness.
In a community the size of Flinders University it is likely that some people will feel lonely and irrelevant. This doesn’t need to be the case. There are many opportunities within Flinders for social interaction and meeting new people – FUSA Clubs, OASIS, Horizon awards, Overheard at Flinders.
For those that aren’t lonely, remember that a simple gesture like a greeting to familiar faces at lectures and tutorials can create a more welcoming social environment here at Flinders.