All the Lonely People
What are the effects of loneliness?
Posted Aug 22, 2019
“All the lonely people
Where do they all come from?
All the lonely people
Where do they belong?”
–The Beatles, “Eleanor Rigby”
A car honk. An angry, frustrated driver. People yelling obscenities through their rolled-up windows that no one else hears. And all through it all, feeling the soul-ripping, devastating effects of social loneliness.
Getting home. Engaging in bodily functions and self-pleasuring activities in private that we hope no one would ever witness us doing. Human things. The assumption is that if someone knew, really knew us, who we are, what we do when no one is looking, that others would reject us, hate us, and shame us.
Perhaps you might start scrolling through the list of contacts on your phone. Wanting so badly to reach out to someone. Anyone. But there are always reasons not to. This person has too much stuff of their own. This other person has not spoken to you in a while, so it feels awkward to reach out to them now. But the truth is that you might just need a friend.
Checking social media. Seeing other people having a good time, as you are not invited. Again.
Everyone seems to be doing something fantastic.
Everyone but you. Or at least, so it may seem.
Later, you might run into an old friend on the street.
“How are you?” They might ask.
“I’m fine.” You will say, lying. “How are you?”
“I’m fine.” They will lie to you too.
Loneliness has now become an epidemic, according to the New York Times and multiple scientific journals. People who report often feeling lonely have a significantly higher chance of premature mortality.
Humans and many other mammals have an innate need to belong, to be a part of a social collective. Thus, the real or perceived threat of being socially isolated or rejected can create neurological changes and distress, while social connection can produce a reward-like effect in the body. Social connections can lead to positive physiological changes, including increased dopamine (the “feel good” chemical) and oxytocin (the “bonding” hormone) levels, while social isolation, including solitary confinement and punishment by rejection can lead to devastating effects in the body. For example, young people who experience social isolation may not necessarily go through more stressors but might report everyday experiences as more stressful than people who have social support. Prolonged social isolation may lead to higher levels of hypertension, poor sleep functioning, depression, and poorer overall physiological and psychological health. In elder individuals, social isolation is linked with a higher risk of mortality. In addition, social isolation is often a high-risk factor for increased risk of depression, suicide, heart disease and broken heart syndrome. Some scientists even say that loneliness can be as harmful to our health as chronic smoking, potentially decreasing our resistance to infection, increasing risk of cancer, and even Alzheimer’s disease.
Whereas social isolation can negatively affect our health, social connection might actually remedy it. A recent study at the University of North Carolina found that meaningful social connections could affect human lifespan, making us more resilient to infections and allowing us to live longer healthier lives.
So, if you have ever felt like you were dying because someone didn’t return your text, it is completely understandable. Social belonging is about as important to our survival as food and sleep. And if someone has ever told you to “just get over it” when you were devastated over a breakup or social rejection, they were the ones who were being weak, not you. It takes a certain kind of courage to show up and be empathically present with someone else during their moment of suffering. And in fact, physical and social support can reduce our physical and emotional pain. For example, holding someone’s hand or giving someone a hug, or even sitting next to that person at a time that they are experiencing emotional or physical pain can significantly reduce that person’s pain and distress levels. Interestingly, sometimes even a picture of a loved one, such as a romantic partner, a close friend, or a pet can reduce our physical or emotional pain.
As painful and horrific as some of our experiences might be, we can survive just about anything if we have proper social support. What that means is being in the kind of environment in which we can feel free to talk about what we are going through without the fear of getting judged or rejected can significantly improve our physical and mental functioning.
Some of us are fortunate enough to have friends or family members that we can talk to. Other options include seeing a therapist. Therapists are especially trained to provide the kind of supportive, open, and compassionate environment that is essential for our wellbeing. Other options include joining a support group, a sports league, a video game guild (e.g., World of Warcraft), or a fandom group (such as Harry Potter, Supernatural, or other fandom groups).
What if this kind of connection is the medicine we might need to better cope with some of the most excruciating experiences of life, such as social isolation and trauma? What if our heart can mend through warmth and kindness? What if our bodies can begin to heal and strengthen by allowing others to know when we are suffering, by getting the support, attention, and affection that we need? And what if asking for support isn’t a weakness? What if it is actually our greatest strength?
I know that this is a simplified picture and it does not paint the entire canvas. But it is a start. It is the foundation of our healing. And it can start right now by a simple message, such as, “I’m not OK today, how about you?”
By modeling such vulnerability and openness to others, we are making a powerful statement. Rather than conforming to the outdated social scripts and norms that we are supposed to be OK, we are saying that it is OK to start a truthful conversation about our feelings. We are saying that we no longer have to live a lie. We are saying that we are in this painful experience together, and together, we can do anything.