Why loneliness hurts
Loneliness is a painful emotion. It tends to be worse among people in their late 20s, mid-50s, and late 80s. Studies looking to measure how much loneliness has increased during the COVID pandemic have been mixed. But the overall thrust is that both loneliness and depression have become more problematic during the isolation of lockdown. The public health necessity of social distancing and sheltering in place has hit those who live alone particularly hard.
Loneliness isn’t one-dimensional, however, and the lack of proximity to others can take many forms. You may be cut off from your social network. You may not have touched another human being in ages despite masking up and venturing out for groceries, the pharmacy, or your circuit of weekly errands. Even if you live with other people, circumstances can force household members to keep their distance, even sleep apart in separate rooms. You may not even have a pet to keep you company or a houseplant that you can shower with attention.
With these kinds of pressures mounting, you may feel awful.
Pleasant and unpleasant ways of being alone
That’s understandable, but try a change in perspective. The circumstance of being alone is involuntary. Lonely individuals feel isolated, excluded, and sad in their unrequited wish to be part of others’ lives. It wouldn’t be so sad if it didn’t imply that nobody cares or wants their company. In its most extreme form the individual is ostracized and shunned.
The physical sensation of exclusion, no matter its intensity, is one of pain; the accompanying mental anguish is painful, too, which is why I call loneliness a painful emotion. But consider its gradations and varieties.
- Isolation is measured in terms of how much social contact you have whereas loneliness is the consequence of having fewer relationships than you desire.
- Social loneliness reflects an unsatisfying sense of connection with others or a feeling of not belonging.
- Emotional loneliness is a lack of intimacy or attachment to another.
- Existential loneliness reflects the lack of meaning or sense of purpose one normally has in life. Feeling excluded often gives rise to existential angst.
- Solitude is fine so long as the relationships you do have satisfy your emotional needs. Being alone yet content is a world away from loneliness because loneliness wants whereas solitude has. You can indulge in solitude without needing to feel lonely. Conversely, it is perfectly possible to feel lonely and apart even when surrounded by others. Loneliness isn’t so much about physical separation as it is about missing meaningful connections that fulfill your need to belong.
Risks of loneliness
Feeling lonely is a major risk factor for depression, anxiety, and other states of mind that affect a person’s mood and thinking. How can it alter brain function this way? It may turn off dopamine neurons involved in the brain’s reward circuit, leading to degeneration among its synapses. Its effects may partly stem from a low level of chronic inflammation due to higher levels of cortisol and other stress hormones swirling in the blood.
A 2016 study in JAMA Psychiatry looked at adults who were cognitively normal but lonely. Years later they turned out to have a higher incidence of dementia, and their PET scans revealed more amyloid deposits (a hallmark of Alzheimer’s disease) compared to a control group of non-lonely peers. According to neurologist Dilip Jeste, director of the Center for Healthy Aging at the University of California, San Diego, “Loneliness is a form of stress that depresses the immune system.”
Of course, people have felt lonely since long before the COVID pandemic, but the numbers are surprising. A January 2020 survey conducted by Cigna found that 61% of adults thought of themselves as lonely. Over the course of the pandemic that number has risen in step with the lack of social support and meaningful interactions available to an individual. Zoom meetings haven’t made up for what is missing psychologically—in fact, “Zoom fatigue” can heap on more stress, as I wrote here earlier. Participation in “Zoom cocktail hours” likely dwindled once the novelty wore off.
Ways to tackle loneliness
- Identify the emotion. Once you can put a name to it and say, “Yes, I’m lonely,” you can move on to what to do about it.
- Try to understand why you feel a certain way. Are you not reaching out or are others not responding to your efforts to engage? It is so easy to “awfulize,” sink into negative thoughts, and therefore it is important to learn how to modify them. Learning to change the content of one’s thoughts is a skill of Emotional Intelligence and the basis of cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT)
- Take the initiative. Social relationships are a two-way street, so make others feel wanted and needed. If you want to be loved and wanted then act loving and attentive to others. Everyone wants to be loved, so this is easy to do. Ask neighbors and friends how they are doing and if they need anything.
- Feel, but also do. Whether you clean the house or engage in formal exercise, physical action boosts emotional regulation that can keep unpleasant feelings at bay. Teenagers—to their surprise—have discovered that walks can cure coronavirus anxiety. Physical engagement often provides a sense of purpose and shields the mind from negative thoughts and ruminating about all the things you are “missing.”
One activity that can be especially helpful for warding off the blues, self-pity, and rumination is singing. Go out for a walk and sing quietly to yourself or even just hum. Try it and you’ll see it is a remarkable tonic. It’s a demonstration of the James-Lange theory of emotion that asks whether a bird sings because it is happy or is happy because it sings. Try singing or even just humming to yourself and see if you don’t feel better.
Practicing CBT requires some work and a willingness to shift perspective. Can you distinguish feeling lonely from simply being alone? Feel free to borrow my mantra—loneliness wants; solitude has. The latter is related to wisdom, which accrues with age and experience. Those who rank high in wisdom are seldom lonely.
The antidote for loneliness lies in the quality of one’s relationships rather than their quantity—which is why we can have 5,000 “friends” on social media and still feel cut off from the crowd.
Please send comments via the Author Profile, where you can also ask Dr. Cytowic for copies of articles and papers, including "Your Brain on Screens."
Social Isolation and Loneliness in Older Adults. 2020 National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine. https://www.nap.edu/read/25663/chapter/1
Too Loud a Solitude, November 2020 Brain & LIfe, American Academy of Neurology, p 26-29