Over the years I’ve worked with thousands of people in counseling and coaching sessions as well as workshops and seminars, and one thing I gradually came to understand is that those who were suffering the most were almost always the ones who were lonely. Not just lonely for an hour or two or a day or two; no, I’m talking about those for whom lonely became a way of life.
For the past 10 years, I’ve communicated with other counselors, therapists, and other keen observers of the human condition (mostly nurses and care aides) and they confirmed my observations. So, then I went looking for research and studies concerning stress, depression, and anxiety and found what appeared to be a direct link between those conditions and loneliness. Addictions also seem to have a strong connection to loneliness.
I have come to believe that loneliness creates a deep psychological wound, one that distorts our perceptions and scrambles our thinking. It makes us believe that those around us care much less than they actually do. It make us really afraid to reach out, because why set yourself up for rejection and heartache when your heart is already aching more than you can stand?
For many years I dwelled deep in the basement of the house of loneliness, and when I finally moved into a new home, a home of “let’s-go-out-and-see-the world”, the few friends I had managed to retain were shocked when I revealed to them what I had NOT being doing. You see, they only really knew me as the busy, busy counselor, coach, and workshop presenter who spent all day every day with people. But it wasn’t about the day time, it was what I did when I beat a retreat to my abode; NOTHING!
That’s right – I did sweet tweet, nada, zilch, zip. Nothing. As in nothing.
So, although I was in the grips of real loneliness back then, I was surrounded by people all day, so it never occurred to me that anything was wrong. I just wrote it off to my introverted nature and… being tired all the time. Because I also had some actual health issues it was easy for me to not connect the dots. Until, that is, I became curious about my clients who so obviously – obvious because they identified loneliness as one of their major problems – suffered long-term loneliness.
But loneliness is a subjective topic that depends on how you describe it and what connections you make to other mental and physical health issues, and whether you feel emotionally or socially disconnected from those around you. Now that I look back on it, I had more physical pain, was depressed, and had a hate on for a world that didn’t “understand” me. As for emotional and social connections… well, there were none.
Loneliness has also been described as social pain.
There is a lot of research on loneliness and, for the most part, it scares the beejeebers out of me. Loneliness creates misery, and mental and physical pain. In fact, loneliness can kill you.
Researchers from the University of Chicago have demonstrated that extreme loneliness and feelings of isolation can be twice as unhealthy as obesity for older people. The scientists tracked more than 2,000 people aged 50 and over for more than six years. Compared with the average person in the study, those who reported being lonely had a 14 percent greater risk of dying. Poverty increased the risk of an early death by 19 percent.
Loneliness is on the rise…
Life expectancy has risen and people increasingly live alone or far from their families, and this isolation is having a serious effect on both mental and physical health. At any given time, between 20 and 40 percent of older adults feel lonely, particularly during retirement. There was a noted difference in the rate of decline in physical and mental health as people aged, and these differences seemed to be linked to the number of satisfying relationships they maintained.
Retirees who move to a warm “retirement climate” only to live among strangers often become disconnected from the people who mean the most to them whereas people who stay close to colleagues after retirement and maintain close friendships seem to be less lonely.
Loneliness is characterized by a motivational impulse to connect with others but also a fear of negative evaluation, rejection, and disappointment. Those fears create imagined threats to one’s sense of safety and security with others and are the toxic components of loneliness that may contribute to alterations in physiological functioning.
Loneliness causes high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and suppresses the functioning of your immune system, making you vulnerable to all kinds of illnesses and diseases, including increases in blood pressure. Long-term loneliness poses as significant a risk for your long-term health and longevity as cigarette smoking… without the warning banners.
And that’s why it’s so important that we prioritize our psychological health, that we practice emotional hygiene. Loneliness distorts our perceptions and misleads us – and you can’t treat a psychological wound if you don’t even know you’re injured.
We now have a good understanding of loneliness and know that, because it’s mostly a cognitive issue, it can be overcome. This means that stopping or preventing loneliness isn’t merely a matter of providing more people to interact with. Teaching lonely people how to break cycles of negative thoughts about self-worth and how people perceive them is very effective.
In our Dynamic Discovery program we help our clients who feel lonely change how they perceive and think about themselves and how they think about and act toward other people and the world in general.
Change your thinking and change your life. We can show you how to do that.