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Loneliness…The Biggest Disease of Our Time

Not so long ago I found myself alone. My husband and son were away. At first I was in heaven having the apartment to myself. I could eat what I wanted, when I wanted. Oh the joy of having the TV remote all to myself! The first day or so I slobbered around the house. By the end of the week I was going stir crazy. The silence was deafening. One day and this is no word of a lie. I didn’t receive 1 phone call. Not even from the phone sharks who usually call to ask if I have been involved in an accident. I began to have crazy thoughts. What if I died and no one found me for weeks. Would maggots eat my body? By 3rd week I decided to shop daily, anything to get out of the house. I made a conscious effort to get up, take a shower, get dressed and go out. One day, I’m not going to lie, the only person I spoke to was the woman at the check-out at my local. If on occasion someone called and asked ‘how I was doing’ I always reported that I was ‘fine’. I’d do anything rather than admit I was lonely.

Loneliness is insidious in our society today. Did you know there are websites, groups you can join and online quizzes to test your loneliness status? I am moderately lonely apparently.

What is loneliness?

Frieda Fromm Reich is the psychologist most recognized for her research on loneliness. She herself was deaf and spoke of her own isolation and could relate to the solitude that the lonely feel.

She wrote:
“Loneliness seems to be such a frightening painful experience that people will do practically anything to avoid it. This avoidance also includes a strange reluctance by psychiatrist to seek scientific clarification on the subject. Thus it comes about that loneliness is one of the less satisfactory conceptualized psychological phenomenon not even mentioned in most psychiatry text books”. She figured that loneliness lay at the heart of nearly all mental illness and that the lonely person was just about the most terrifying spectacle in the world. She attacked her colleagues for not treating the patient who shows all the hallmarks of loneliness. She argued that we shy away from dealing with loneliness as it touches our own susceptibility. We think if we don’t address it may go away.

Many years after Fromm Reichmann’s death we find that loneliness is still as frightening as she said it was. It is now linked with many bodily ailments as well as the mental ones. Loneliness hastens death by 14%. Psycho-biologists can now show that loneliness sends misleading hormonal signals, rejiggers the molecules on genes that govern behavior, and throws the systems out of whack. They have proved that long-lasting loneliness not only makes you sick; it can kill you. Emotional isolation is ranked as high a risk factor for mortality as smoking. A partial list of the physical diseases thought to be caused or exacerbated by loneliness would include Alzheimer’s, obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, neurodegenerative diseases, and even cancer – tumors can metastasize faster in lonely people.

Who are the lonely…

The answer is anyone and everyone. Everyone has the potential to be lonely. The confirmed bachelor. The single mom. The divorcee. The widower. The pensioner. The student. The mentally ill. People with disabilities. The migrant and the immigrant. The mother’s whose children have flown the nest. The retiree. Children.

Loneliness knows no age barrier or age limit. It has no preferences in gender. It doesn’t care about your social class or whether you have money or not. Money only buys you a better class of loneliness. Surveys confirm that people who feel discriminated against are more likely to feel lonely. Women are lonelier than men…though unmarried men are lonelier than unmarried women. The less educated are lonelier than the better educated. The unemployed and the retired are lonelier than the employed.

“Real loneliness,” or “that” loneliness as Fromm Reichmann called it, is not the solitary life that some people have made for themselves out of choice. Nor is it the location, people who live in remotes areas do not necessarily suffer from loneliness. Loneliness is not being sick in bed for a long period of time. It’s not being unhappy with your partner or current relationship status. It isn’t the loneliness people suffer when a loved one dies or leaves. The well-adjusted eventually get over that. Loneliness is the absence of intimacy. Loneliness is felt when there is no one to say good morning or goodnight. No one to witness you doing anything. To desire you. To compliment you. To see you and know you are there.

Why loneliness affects us…

Loneliness affects us because we are social animals. We crave human interaction. A hug. A smile. It actually satisfies our soul. One of the most important thing that we need to feel as humans is that we are significant to at least one other person. The fact that we are significant creates meaning for us and a reason to get out of bed in the mornings. Feeling connected to others is vital for our emotional health. The thought of existing without others caring about our existence is a painful thing to come to terms with.

Alone in a crowd…

Not everyone can walk into a room full of people and work the crowd. Many of us have been at an event or social gathering and couldn’t wait for it to end. Loneliness can be even more acute when you are actually with people that you cannot relate to or have nothing in common with or in a relationship where for all intents and purposes you don’t exist for the other person.

In the city there is a lot of activities you can do. You can sign up a class or do any weird and wonderful thing you can imagine. There are lots of people around in the city to do things with but no one to do nothing with. It is the most wonderful feeling just to be with someone, doing nothing. I think the real issue is that people are ashamed to say “I’m lonely. It is tantamount to saying that you have failed. To say that you are lonely is to admit that you got your social networking wrong. The invisible man. The invisible woman.

It seems sad but true but people are lonelier in the cities than they are in remote areas. People who live in remote areas usually have the personality type to deal with solitude.

People are under the illusion that big cities means more opportunity to meet people and make friends. Not necessarily. Big cities means more people, simply that! Everyone’s in their own world. Everyone’s in a rush. The problem with the big city is that everyone lives parallel lives. We pass people on the stairs… in our cars… in our lives. We seldom face each other anymore. Back in the day people took the time to talk to each other. My mother knew very one up and down our road. We knew each other enough didn’t feel embarrassed to ask for help. Today we live in boxes we drives in boxes to go to work in a box. The problem with that is that we don’t really know anyone. Apart from the perfunctory meet and greet we don’t make friends easier. For an adult to walk up to strangers and ask them to be your friend is a little creepy.

How to cope with loneliness…

Loneliness is one of the social diseases of living in our society. In order to combat it we need to talk about it and we need to embrace it as a by-product of the way we live today.

1. Take a cool look at your social network and ask yourself have you build reserves if circumstances change. What would happen if your partner passed away or you lost your job?

You need to start investing in your social network now. The time to act is now. Instead of spreading yourself thinly across the people that you know. Start building deep meaningful relationship. Start to develop bonds with people from all walks of life and of any age. If you are thinking that this is a little calculated. I agree and to me there is nothing wrong with this. We need to start scratching each other’s backs. We need to be able to ask for help without feeling ridiculous. People need to look out for one anther we need to face each other physically more. We need to lean in towards each other more. Talk and listen. If we don’t we may wake up one day and realise that the only friends we have are virtual and on face book.

2. If you find yourself alone and lonely then make friends with yourself. I know this sounds a bit of a cliché but it works. Treat yourself like a friend that you need to get close to. Learn all there is to know about yourself. What music do you like? What hobbies do you have? What books do you like to read? Where do you want to go on holiday?

3. One of the best cures for loneliness is volunteering. Helping people in need will feed your soul. The dividends you will reap from helping will pay off in ways that you ever dreamt of.

4. One of the thinks that loneliness does when it gets a hold of you is give you an ‘I can’t be bothered’ or ‘what’s the point’ approach to life. You need to get off you butt and make the effort. The next stop down the line from this attitude is depression.

5. Develop a routine where you have to do certain things at certain times of the day. It will help with your focus and concentration.
6. I think I have saved the best until last. Get a pet. Dogs are the best but if you cannot keep a dog, then get a cat. If you can’t keep a cat then get a guinea pig. If you can keep guinea pig then get a gold fish. Share your space with another breathing creature.

Do you think that loneliness is a disease? What strategies do you recommend to combat loneliness?

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