Identifying and diagnosing a mental health issue is never an easy process. Most mental health struggles do not live in isolation, and many of us have negative thought or mood tendencies that, while challenging, do not qualify as a disorder.
As a relationship coach, I’ve found that loneliness is one of these tendencies that often come along with a diagnosed mental health disorder. While correlation is not causation, it seems that loneliness could be more of a cause than a symptom in some of our commonly recognized mental health issues.
Human closeness is fundamental to our mental well-being; without it, any number of pathologies could plague us. The loneliness that arises from a lack of human closeness could easily bring about any number of presenting problems.
Here are 4 recognized mental health disorders that may spring from, or be exacerbated by, loneliness:
Loneliness and depression have always gone hand-in-hand. We’ve all experienced moments when we find ourselves a little down due to a lack of close friendships. If someone had no close relationships in her life, it’s not a stretch to assume she would feel some powerful malaise as a result.
Recently, a study conducted over a five year period at the University of Chicago found that the presence of loneliness early in the five year span was an excellent predictor for depression later in the five year span. In fact, loneliness was an even better predictor than the presence of depression itself early in the five year span. What does this indicate? Loneliness may precede depression even more frequently than depression precedes depression.
2.) Social Anxiety
If one’s loneliness is not caused by physical isolation (such as living in a very sparsely populated town), it’s reasonable to think loneliness may be caused by discomfort getting to know people. This is usually called social anxiety. While there are extreme forms of this problem – not being able to leave the house, for example – the more mild symptoms of social anxiety could be caused by feeling alone. You may feel as if you’re unlikeable or unworthy of good relationships, causing fear and anxiety about the process of forming them.
On June 26th, 2015 NPR ran a story about how research suggests lonely people may actually have superior social skills than those who are not lonely. In other words, lonely people are not lonely because they don’t know how to talk to people. Instead, findings suggest they struggle with relationships because they are scared of messing up – they worry about saying the wrong thing in social situations. I see this as suggesting that loneliness and social anxiety may be intertwined, creating a vicious cycle of isolation and fear of isolation.
Released in January 2015, Johann Hari’s revolutionary book Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs made people aware that drug addiction may be much more than just chemical hooks in the brain. He posits that when people lead lives full of closeness with others, they do not become addicted to drugs – even when they are put on powerful painkillers after an accident, for example. But the opposite is also true. Those who feel lonely before ever taking a drug are much more likely to get hooked.
In a Huffington Post article, Hari references the work of Professor Peter Cohen, who says: “If we can't connect with each other, we will connect with anything we can find - the whirr of a roulette wheel or the prick of a syringe. [Professor Cohen] says we should stop talking about 'addiction' altogether, and instead call it 'bonding.' A heroin addict has bonded with heroin because she couldn't bond as fully with anything else. So the opposite of addiction is not sobriety. It is human connection.”
While hoarding is generally categorized as an obsessive-compulsive disorder, there is an element of loss and heartache in filling one’s life up with stuff. When we’re not able to fill up our lives with close friends and family, some people may turn to comforting objects to fill the void. The International Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder Foundation speaks directly to this, stating: "Loneliness is one of the main factors that causes hoarding to occur.”
We’ve likely all touched on this tendency to a certain extent – holding on to the trinkets, letters, and keepsakes of a relationship that’s ended, for example. These objects may “fill the emptiness,” but as the emptiness gets bigger, so may the mountain of objects.
If you suffer from one of the above conditions, or know someone who does, it may be worth considering if loneliness is playing a part in perpetuating the problem. Addressing your loneliness could be the key to unleashing your healthy mind.
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