Is loneliness a disease?

Is loneliness a disease?

Loneliness is a common human emotion, one that is complex and unique for every person. It can prove to be a challenge for anybody at any age. Children in the playground may struggle to make friends, new mothers may feel isolated, divorced men may lose their peer support, older people struggle at home by themselves, perhaps after bereavement, and may rarely talk to anyone else for days at a time. Loneliness has been recognised as a precursor and cause of poor physical and mental health and has even been described as a ‘hidden killer’ especially among older people.

In the UK, a 2015 report by Nesta and the Cabinet Office, concluded that loneliness was as damaging as smoking and obesity.

Loneliness is defined in two ways. There is the obvious definition that it is, ‘to be alone’, but also loneliness is as much about the perception that you are alone, and therefore you have feelings of isolation. The definition goes hand-in-hand with negative feelings, of dejection, for example, sadness, or a feeling that you have lost your way.

Research suggests that people who are lonely, are more at risk of developing biological dysfunctions, psychological distress, and behavioural problems. At its worst, loneliness can be a cause of suicidal ideation, Alzheimer’s disease and dementia. It can affect the immune and cardio-vascular system, and also generally lead to an overall decline in well-being. Loneliness can be a cause of insomnia, poor appetite, depression and addiction. Increasingly, loneliness (especially in the elderly) is seen as a disease and is being treated this way.

There are three categories of loneliness

  • Situational loneliness: caused by social and economic factors such as living outside a community, or not having any money. Environmental factors can also play a part where someone has migrated away from friends and family, or cannot travel thanks to disability, a lack of transport or associated costs. There may also have been personal conflicts leading to breakdowns in relationships.
  • Developmental loneliness: Every one of us needs relationships, but many of us also desire time alone. Sometimes we don’t balance our needs properly, and before we know it, we have no-one to call upon or turn to.
  • Internal loneliness: Many people are solitary but never feel lonely; they utilise their time for self-growth. Others see people constantly, but they perceive themselves as lonely. They often feel separate and empty. Their desire for contact and intimacy with others, is not matched by reality. This may be particularly true among people with low self-esteem or self-worth. Loneliness erodes your confidence and yours sense of self, leading to stress and anxiety.

Life transitions as triggers

Many of life’s transitions act as the triggers for loneliness. Starting school for example, removes you from home. Having children means many women lose their self-identity. Separation, divorce, bereavement all cause loneliness. Physical ailments too – loss of hearing, sight, mobility etc. – may all lead eventually to loneliness.

The stigma of mental health

Loneliness, as a state of mind, may useful be treated as a mental health illness, but of course the stigma around mental health issues is rife. Viewing your loneliness as a weakness, something you are responsible for, can be damaging. You may feel embarrassed when you really shouldn’t. Many people live with loneliness but they have a hard time saying, “I’m lonely,” so we just don’t hear about the experience of others.

Tips for coping with your loneliness

  • Consider why you feel lonely. Is it a lack of human contact? Or is it that the human contact you have is not deep enough? Are there environmental, social or economic factors at work?
  • Take every opportunity to create new connections with the people you meet. Ask them about themselves. Try and get on chatting terms. Join clubs and societies, even exercise classes. Perhaps you could volunteer somewhere and meet other people who are also alone or lonely. You may find online forums useful for making connections, but guard your personal details well, and keep your expectations low and realistic.
  • Open up to others. If you are open, people will be open to you. This will deepen your connection.
  • Don’t rush it though. One day at a time. This is especially true if you have been lonely or alone for some time. New people can be overwhelming.
  • Never compare yourself with anyone else. Everyone is different and we all have different needs. You may settle for one soulmate, someone else may like dozens of acquaintances.
  • Ask for specialist support if you need it. There are community groups available in most areas, and your doctor can recommend talking therapies if that is something that might work for you.
  • Get plenty of sleep. Insomnia can impact how you feel on a day-to-day basis.
  • Take steps to improve your self-esteem. Feeling more confident about yourself and who you are can really boost how you feel. You may feel less lonely, or you just may find it easier to reach out to other people.

Never ignore loneliness

Remember, we all need friendship to survive. If you feel dejected and lonely, take steps to address the issue. We are better people when we feel part of a community and have others around us. Other people help us to stay motivated, and help us through life when we encounter hurdles, which we will.

Reach out today. Good luck!

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