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Are you Lonesome Tonight?

We have a question on our mental weight report that asks about loneliness. Many clients are surprised that they score so lowly on this variable (in other words, that the are suffering from loneliness), but it’s way more common that you may think. The reason why it’s relevant to the work we do at Motivation is that it is sometimes the reason why we overeat, or turn to unhealthy habits, such as drinking too much alcohol or indulging in too much screen time (which can affect our sleep) as we struggle to diminish the low feeling that’s associated with loneliness.

A Hidden Condition

Loneliness a topic that’s often not discussed (often due to shame or embarrassment), yet apparently a good deal of us feel lonely at times – some experts believe that as many as one in four of us feel lonely at any one time. I particularly felt it when I was at home with a new baby, but can still feel it from time to time if I don’t reach out and connect with family and friends.

And it’s not just those who have grey hairs that feel it; apparently loneliness is most prevalent among millennials. Some experts put this down to social media and the emptiness or lack of depth involved in the ‘relationships’ or ‘friends’ that an individual has online. Of course, it’s common sense that nothing can replace face-to-face contact for the feeling (and non-verbal cues) of being understood and of connection. Also, by spending so much time online, this subtracts time that could be spent on other enjoyable social activities and on developing real, offline friendship.

The Other Side to Online

But the internet is not ‘all bad’ – sometimes people find ‘their people’ online and are able to be very open and honest about how they feel (see Johnny Sun’s Ted Talk link at bottom of this blog). I’ve heard of new mothers, who are at home and feeling very isolated, who reached out to online groups nearby; in other words, people in the very same situation. They often still meet up for coffee with their children, years later, demonstrating that it is, indeed, possible to make forge real relationships with a person we initially meet online. But it’s important that we use technology wisely – taking the good and leaving the bad, particularly when it comes to loneliness (for instance, if you’re addicted to your What’s App messages, that’s a sure sign that you need to get out for more face-to-face contact as you’re more than likely craving company).

It’s a Subjective Experience

Some people can feel lonely in a packed room. Someone who has plenty of friends and a close family can still feel lonely; it’s all subjective and based on the person’s felt experience. The definition of loneliness is: “…distress because of a discrepancy between actual social relationships and desired social relationships.” In other words, there’s a discrepancy between what I want (or need) and what I have.

The solution?

To start to forge social connection in whatever way possible. Although it’s hard at first, over time, the research shows that this works. Merely trying to suppress symptoms, as we’ve seen before with other difficult emotions, rarely works. The only way out of this is to connect.

Why It’s Bad for Health

We know that loneliness can increase the risk of death by as much as 26 per cent (according to a study published in the journal Perspectives on Psychological Science) and there is research showing that loneliness actually increases levels of the hunger hormone called ghrelin, meaning a current weight problem can worsen, or somebody who does not usually carry extra weight ends up gaining weight as a result of loneliness.

According to researchers, people suffering from loneliness also tend to have more depression, anxiety and stress in their lives – and all of those conditions are associated with a tendency to want to ‘numb’ the pain with food, drugs or alcohol, which have their own health consequences.

A Self-Perpetuating Problem

The more isolated we feel, the more we retreat so, inevitably, loneliness usually worsens over time, due to its very nature. This is beautifully described by Olivia Laing, in The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone: “Loneliness grows around them, like mould or fur, a prophylactic that inhibits contact, no matter how badly contact is desired.”

Lonely people can withdraw further into themselves and may even act hostile to others, which further severs social ties. But avoiding social contact is probably the worst thing to do. It’s pointless in denying the simple fact that humans depend on each other. No matter who we are, we need and crave connection; it’s as important as food or water, some argue. And, if we neglect that, we seriously neglect our mental – and even our physical – health.

Watch: The Ted Talk, You are Not Alone in your Loneliness on YouTube by Johnny Sun.

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