Cue the music and start singing to yourself Lonely… I’m so lonely… (either the version by Bobby Vinton or Alvin & The Chipmunks will do depending on your generation). The lyrics to this song might as well be the anthem of 2020.
Loneliness is a real phenomenon, both psychologically and emotionally speaking. It is defined as a natural emotional response that results from perceived isolation—or simply how we feel when our basic needs for social connection are not being met.
The key here is in the definition, loneliness results primarily from our perception. For example, we can be surrounded by people and still feel lonely or isolated. So feeling lonely does not necessarily mean you are alone on a mountain separated from the rest of society. Feelings of loneliness can arise by simply feeling misunderstood or unheard.
By taking the time to understand loneliness we can shift our state of mind when a wave takes over, and we feel overrun by the isolation we all may feel from time to time as a natural result of our biology which developed over thousands of years, and our current situation which heightens this evolutionary programming.
The History Behind the Epidemic of Loneliness
There are hundreds of scientific reports studying loneliness among human beings, a species that thrives in community. For thousands of years humans flourished as a tribal species.
However, in the last century the recent adoption of the nuclear family, where two parents with children lived apart from their extended family, began a slow evolving epidemic of loneliness that has skyrocketed in the past ten months. Initially, the shift from larger interconnected families that lived in close proximity provided both parents and children with extra support for the natural difficulties that arise in life, along with a sense of community.
The metamorphosis towards detached nuclear families led to an increase in feelings of loneliness among both those who had left, as well as those who were left behind. Highlighting the fact that we are programmed to be a social species.
The Science of Loneliness
Our DNA is hardwired to keep us together, this was most likely to ensure our survival back in the day when we had to worry about predators attacking us (lions, tigers, bears, oh my!). And more so, community allowed us to grow individually through our interactions with others.
As a result of this genetic programming, when we perceive ourselves to be isolated our bodies react—a natural rise in cortisol occurs. Cortisol is a stress hormone released by the body to create a heightened state of awareness to help us combat any perceived risk of threat.
In the moment, a little cortisol is a good thing, like when you are walking down the streets alone at night. But over time, if you feel socially isolated for days, and weeks or months, this heightened level of cortisol floating through the body can lead to increased levels of restlessness, anxiety, and depression since the stress hormone is not necessarily helping us ward off any physical attacks.
Chronic social isolation can impact health over time due to these heightened levels of cortisol on the body. A study on social isolation published in 2016 found that people who have a network of people around them may be more encouraged to practice healthy behaviors when they are influenced by others, such as healthy eating, exercise, sleep hygiene, and more. (Though that’s not to say that you cannot do these things on your own, it may be just a little easier with support nearby).
A 1973 study on loneliness found that feelings of perceived social isolation can increase due to a variety of factors, including marriage, having children, a large number of siblings, or higher education levels.
So a variety of factors can impact feelings and create a perceived notion of loneliness. The best way to combat this is to notice when these feelings arise and find a way to calm yourself so your body can slow down its production of cortisol. This is of course easier said than done, since you’re working against thousands of years of evolution. But it is not impossible.
Daily meditation, regular exercise, avoiding caffeine, and eating healthy can combat a rise in cortisol.
When Loneliness Becomes Cyclical
So here is the bad news: over time loneliness becomes a cycle, and cycles are often hard to break.
As science states, chronic loneliness makes us anxious and depressed. These conditions eventually impact the body and may lead to a lack of energy, feelings of tiredness, body aches, and unhealthy sleep patterns.
Think back to the last time you felt truly anxious or depressed. The last thing you probably wanted to do was reach out to someone—or even get out of bed due to that list of symptoms above.
So loneliness creates anxiety and depression, anxiety and depression create feelings of apathy and a lack of desire to reach out to others, which in turn further increases feelings of loneliness.
See the problem? Feeling lonely makes us more likely to stay lonely.
So what can you do to break the cycle? Come up with a plan to combat loneliness and reach out to someone (even if you don’t feel like it), so you can break the cycle before it starts.
In the scientific studies mentioned throughout this article, loneliness is often called “perceived social isolation.” Perceived being the keyword. For example, we can be in an apartment building surrounded by people, but still perceive ourselves to be lonely.
In today’s reality we are more isolated than ever before with lockdowns, social distancing measures, curfews, the inability to visit our loved ones, and more. So perhaps, the word perceived social isolation does not make as much sense, because our perceptions are a clear reflection of the happenings in the world. But, what if we could reframe our perception of loneliness.
Yes, we are more isolated than ever as we stay in our homes. But we are also more connected technologically than we have ever been.
Yes, we are feeling the impact of loneliness in our bodies and minds. But for the first time, the entire globe can relate, and strangers in both Hemispheres are experiencing a very similar world they can both connect over and speak about.
And yes, we all may feel lonely, and even afraid, but we are in this together.
So reframing loneliness is somewhere to start. This can be done through daily affirmations, like these:
– Everyone feels lonely from time to time, but I am not alone.
– Loneliness is a natural human emotion, and by feeling lonely I am connecting with others who have felt lonely in the past and feel lonely now.
– Though I feel alone right now, I know I am loved by others and I love others.
– We are all experiencing this together.
A final note on loneliness
Don’t be too hard on yourself when loneliness feels overwhelming. With a sense of mindfulness, simply notice when feelings of loneliness arise and label them. You can start by saying, “loneliness is here” rather than “I am lonely.” This shifts the perception of loneliness to an external rather than internal condition. You are not defined by loneliness, instead loneliness becomes a passing situation, like a rainy day. Thinking of loneliness as a temporary phenomenon can help prevent feelings of chronic social isolation.
Then start small, by calling a friend or family member. Or simply take time to journal about your feelings. Even if you don’t feel like reaching out to others, sometimes a FaceTime call can shift your experience in the moment, allowing the tide of loneliness to begin to subside.