Social isolation and loneliness can have negative effects on both our physical health (such as inhibiting new neuron development and decreasing immune responses) and our mental health—think depression, addiction, and suicidal thoughts and actions. In 2017, public health officials and the former U.S. Surgeon General declared loneliness a national health epidemic. That was before the pandemic. Since the pandemic, loneliness, social anxiety, and isolating behaviors have increased for many—making the goal of helping people build positive social relationships an important aim for mental health professionals. But to better treat loneliness, it's important to understand some factors that keep it in place.
Common approaches that focus on improving social skills and encouraging people to expand their networks may be adequate for people experiencing situational loneliness, in which loneliness is temporary. Situational loneliness could occur after moving to a new location, going away to college, or experiencing a breakup or divorce. It can also be a side effect of job loss or remote working conditions. Loneliness can be amplified after the death of a loved one, when the last child leaves home, and when injuries and health conditions—or global quarantines—inhibit social experiences. Put some or all of these together, and situational loneliness can morph into chronic loneliness, which comes with corresponding health impacts and mindset changes.
Temporary and chronic loneliness can be similar, in that people experiencing both types employ more maladaptive coping, like choosing unhealthy foods and engaging in impulse spending. However, Fumagalli et al.'s (2022) review on loneliness found that chronically lonely people also compensated by pursuing money and material items as a form of happiness and employed more avoidance strategies to maintain their safety from others. The researchers cited an evolutionary psychological theory positing that chronically lonely people may resort to avoidance as a self-protection mechanism. So even though the person feels lonely, their efforts to connect with others are thwarted by higher levels of distrust and the relative safety of avoiding intimacy.
Chronically lonely people were also found to be on the constant lookout for perceived threats from others, to have higher levels of self-centeredness, and to tend to display less pleasure with touch. Thus, the compensations served to make them keep people at arms’ length while simultaneously leading them to exhibit repelling behaviors that kept others from getting closer to them.
Both the temporary and the chronically lonely appear to be motivated by self-preservation. However, the key difference is that someone who is temporarily lonely may try to meet that need by reconnecting with others, while someone who is chronically lonely may unconsciously desire avoidance because intimacy is unconsciously perceived as a threat.
While a therapist may help someone to recognize and work through their underlying avoidance, the greater challenge is that many chronically lonely people may not reach out for help and may feel less comfortable and less trusting of a therapist or counselor.
Perhaps what the broader society can do is understand that loneliness may be at the heart of some people’s avoidance, antagonistic, and materialistic behaviors. This may help to increase compassion and tolerance for others who may be hurting in deeper ways than one can see.
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Fumagalli, E., Shrum, L. J., & Lowrey, T. M. (2022). Consuming in response to loneliness: Bright side and dark side effects. Current Opinion in Psychology, 46, 101329. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.copsyc.2022.101329