Mother Theresa once said “The biggest disease today is not leprosy or cancer or tuberculosis, but rather the feeling of being unwanted, uncared for and deserted by everybody.” That loneliness is devastating is not new information; everyone who has felt alone understands how painful it can be. For the lucky many, loneliness is a fleeting feeling but for those who cannot find the escape hatch, loneliness can be a terrible, and fatal, trap.
Can Loneliness Really Kill You?
Research is reported to show that people who have no social supports and who feel alone have as greater increased risk of early death as alcoholic, while succeeding in making friends can be as good for our health as giving up smoking. Spending too much time alone, particularly if that time is not filled with rewarding distractions, often leads to fatalistic thinking and philosophizing that, in turn, lead to damaging thought patterns. In addition to this, a lack of accountability to people who care about you and your welfare can mean that self destructive urges that are usually curbed by fear of worrying or upsetting loved ones can get completely out of control.
According to a study by Brigham Young University, the subjective feeling of loneliness – that is to say feeling alone whether or not you are, in fact, alone – can increase the chance of death by 26%. It is not just being alone that is a significant risk to ongoing good health; just feeling uncared for, unheard and unsupported can be almost as dangerous as actually being isolated.
Loneliness and Mental Health
Loneliness is a key theme on our forums – people who feel alone find it harder to combat suicidal urges and deal with mental illness. The mental health charity Mind report that being lonely can add to mental health issues such as depression, loneliness and anxiety. It also suggests that loneliness can contribute to rarer mental health conditions such as schizophrenia.
Loneliness can have a significant impact on our mental health – The University Herald reported that a study by the University of Chicago found loneliness to be linked to disrupted sleep, increases in the stress hormone cortisol and an overall perceived lowering in general well-being. That loneliness can contribute to poor mental health is well documented, but it is important not to ignore the other side of the coin: that poor mental health can be the cause of increased loneliness and isolation, both subjectively and actually.
One of the key symptoms of clinical depression is a feeling of loneliness and sadness. Often this feeling is not objectively true, but depression does not often care for the facts. On top of this already heightened sense of isolation, depression also has the effect of reducing our interest in socializing and participating in activities we once found enjoyable. By withdrawing from these activities, spending less time in social situations, people suffering from mental health conditions often isolate themselves.
As depression, anxiety and eventually suicidal thoughts and impulses take hold of our life, we find it harder to talk to people and engage in negative thought patterns such as:
- My mental health is my problem; people shouldn’t have to deal with my ‘craziness’
- People don’t like me anyway; I should stay on my own so I am not rejected.
- I hurt everyone who cares about me; it is better for everyone if I am alone.
- Even if I go out and socialize I won’t have fun; there isn’t any point in trying.
If any of these thoughts sound familiar – it is likely that your mental health problems are making your feeling of loneliness worse. Tempting as it is to isolate ourselves, telling ourselves that it is saving us from pain in the long run, the truth is that we are creating our own pain through our actions. Knowing this is the first step to fighting this life threatening problem.
Practical Steps for Easing Loneliness
Loneliness, left alone, will only ever get worse. It is not something that will fix itself and not something that gets better without attention and effort. Unfortunately, new friends are unlikely to simply knock on the door.
There are lots of ways that people will suggest you ‘find new friends’ – most of them involve joining a club or group to find like-minded people. This is an excellent idea but the simple fact is that if you were in a place where you felt able to go and join a group of strangers, the chances are that you would not have stopped seeing your own friends and family in the first place. Sites like Meetup.com are an excellent resource for finding friendship and getting out of the house, but they are not necessarily the best ‘first step’ on the road to re-socializing.
The UK National Health Service recommends that people suffering from loneliness ‘learn to love computers’. It is indisputable that the internet makes connecting with people easier and less stressful for many people with social anxiety issues and who need to be able to speak to people on their own terms. Online communities can be an excellent place to start to build up broken down social confidence – on forums and in chat rooms, talking to people without normal social pressures. It is, however, important to remember that these communities are not a replacement for ‘real life’ social interaction. As a starting place they are excellent, but they should be a supplement to other social interaction.
Once your confidence has been rebuilt to some level you can try:
- Finding clubs and groups online – sites like Meetup offer groups with no obligation.
- Joining a church, if you are religiously inclined
- Taking a night class or day college course – most colleges offer short courses that can last as little as one day in all sorts of areas.
- Re-connect with old friends – often a simple apology for having dropped off the face of the planet for a while and an invitation to coffee is enough to start to rebuild a friendship.
- Volunteer for a charity or non-profit – having structure and a shared goal/purpose makes it easier to build friendships and eases social pressure.
Everything Starts with Starting
Making a beginning is the hardest part – but it is also the most important. Nothing changes unless something changes. Doing the brave thing today can make all the difference to your tomorrows. Here at SF we understand the difficulties that loneliness brings and we understand how hard it can be to start.