DISCONNECT We might be more connected than ever, but higher levels of loneliness are being reported
Loneliness was, in years gone by, seen as the remit of older people, especially if they became isolated by illness or bereavement. But this is changing. More and more people of all ages are presenting to their doctor or counsellor with signs and symptoms of loneliness.
Many reading this will not believe that this could be a real problem, it seems it is thought we’re more connected than ever before. In a time when nearly everyone learns to drive, people travel the world, Facetime and social messaging are at our fingertips, and we open up about our feelings more than ever before, higher levels of loneliness are being reported. How is this possible?
Loneliness may have been underreported in times gone by. Also, nowadays, more and more people are using their phones as vehicles to communicate – but lots of the quick communications we are becoming used to superficial. They mask the loneliness and vulnerability of the person behind them. Social media has also inundated many people, who are finding themselves overwhelmed by variety of ways to connect, and the amount of people they can be connected with. Swamped, they don’t truly connect with anyone.
The effects of loneliness are not to be underestimated. For example, chronic loneliness is reported to increase cortisol levels in the body. Cortisol is a hormone that our body creates when under stress. Over time, higher cortisol levels can lead to inflammation, excess weight gain, insulin resistance, problems concentrating and more.
Excessive loneliness has been linked to low energy, depression, suicide and anxiety. It can often increase addictions, such as eating excessively, shopping, alcoholism and social-media, gaming and drug addictions. It is also connected to getting sick more often, as researchers have now linked loneliness to poorer immune-system function.
Interestingly, when we’re feeling lonely, we may also crave actual warmth, such as a bath or a hot cuppa, because we don’t have a sense of interpersonal ‘warmth’.
The causes of loneliness are many. It could be bereavement, moving away from family and friends, poor physical health, living with a disability, living in a remote area or in a different culture, retirement or job loss, excessive use of electronic devices or fear or anxiety about being rejected, or some other trigger.
As a first step, it is important that you take responsibility for your own feelings of loneliness. Then try the simpler things. Go outside once every day. By simply going to the local shop or taking a walk in a park, we feel part of a community, and this is proven to combat loneliness.
Get involved in a local community group or volunteer for an organisation. Offer to help someone out with something. Take care of a pet or even a plant. If these things are not making enough of an impact, next try talking to someone about how you feel. Find a trusted family member or friend. Or talk to your doctor or a healthcare professional. Try a support group, such as Aware.
Remember you are definitely not alone in your loneliness. If we all talked more about this I am sure we would discover how common it is and also how important it is to take steps to combat it.
Jannah Walshe is a fully accredited psychotherapist, course facilitator and mental-health speaker based in Co Mayo. More information about Jannah can be found at www.jannahwalshe.ie.