Loneliness is a problem. It represents a major but ‘silent health crisis’ of today. We often assume that people who are lonely are those who are alone. But some people choose to be alone and enjoy the experience of having ‘time out’. Loneliness, however, is a painful feeling of being disconnected from others. In contrast, meaningful relationships are about connection, contributing to our overall well-being.
Professor Julianne Holt-Lunstad (Psychology and Neuroscience, Brigham Young University) found that loneliness carries a risk of early mortality greater than obesity, or like smoking fifteen cigarettes per day. Holt’s findings demonstrated that feelings of loneliness are associated with higher blood pressure, and increased risk of depression. It can also be associated with poor diet, lack of exercise and alcohol abuse as a means of psychological escape. So, we need to see loneliness as a public health issue.
The Australian Government has dedicated $46M to the Community Visitors Scheme in recognition of the significance of loneliness. In Australia, 25% of people live alone and there is an increased distance from our direct neighbours and the community in general. Local councils are encouraging more community days and structured events in an effort to get us to meet our neighbours.
The loneliest people are often the least equipped to take the first steps. They have had experiences that lead to an expectation of negative social interactions. This can become a self-fulfilling prophecy of, “I told you so, I can’t make friends”.
Certain events can trigger loneliness, like leaving home or moving interstate. The death of someone close triggers loneliness, or poor health that limits our ability to connect with others. It would be unusual not to feel lonely at these times of transition. Men have been shown to be at particular risk. The rise in the ‘men’s shed movement’ has been documented to have positive psychological outcomes for men. Pets can also assist with feelings of connection, eg. service dogs used for veterans with PTSD. Pets have the added benefit of needing to be walked each day which forces their owner out of the house even for a short time.
Humans are tribal. We need to belong. Ironically, loneliness encourages us to avoid people, and making connections, compounding loneliness even more. However, the solution it is more complicated than “getting out and meeting someone”. So, if you are experiencing feelings of loneliness, and it is affecting your ability to cope, then it is time to reach out. Counselling can provide the skills to deal with social anxiety, to change unhelpful thinking, and make those meaningful connections. This involves a step by step process of changing our thinking and our behavior so that we generate a new sense of self.