Loneliness – Causes, symptoms and effects

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Loneliness is the discrepancy between the desired and actual levels of social interactions. Human beings are social animals and loneliness, though a state of mind can have harmful physical and psychological effects if ignored.

Loneliness – Causes, symptoms and effectsLoneliness is different from solitude which is the state of being alone but happy in your own company.

In today’s ultra-modern world where we have laptops, tablets, mobile phones and other gizmos, people are lonelier than ever before. This is because although we are virtually `connected’ all the time, we yearn for a good conversation, eye to eye contact and a meaningful touch that are impossible in the virtual realm.

Causes of loneliness

  • Loss of a loved one, especially a spouse can result in loneliness, depression and withdrawal from social situations. Divorce can also result in feelings of loneliness as marriage per se according to studies, results in the least feelings of loneliness.
  • Change of place due to work or changing cities or countries may result in feelings of being different from the rest and surburban areas which have low population density can result in lack of social functions and not enough people to mingle with, causing loneliness.
  • Loneliness can be transient or chronic. Transient loneliness lasts for a short span of time for e.g., when a person is unwell he is confined to the house but when better can resume his normal social life. Chronic loneliness is a long-term disorder for e.g., when an elderly person loses his life partner and has no family close by, it may result in chronic loneliness.
  • Loneliness can also be described as social or emotional loneliness. Social loneliness occurs when a person does not have friends or colleagues to mix with which can result in low self esteem and further staying away from social situations.
  • Emotional loneliness is more deep seated and has a genetic basis coupled with emotional factors. A person who has had an unstable upbringing or has been sexually abused as a child may find it difficult to make friends and hence may be a loner. Such a person may be lonely even when in a room full of people.

Symptoms of loneliness

The person may not say outright that he is lonely; he may describe it in sentences like – I feel empty and hollow inside or I don’t have anyone to fall back on or depend on when I’m down or things aren’t going well. They may complain of feeling like crying all the time and may get too emotional when trying to analyse or reason out something.

Loneliness could be a symptom of chronic depression and hence needs to be addressed before it goes out of control.

One of the first experiences of loneliness is as infants, when we are left alone temporarily and no one heard our cries. If a child is different from others, he may feel isolated in school or college and may shy away from contact with peers. These events when repeated time and again cause the person to remain introverted, shy, withdrawn and ultimately lonely.

Effects of loneliness

  • Loneliness decreases a person’s immunity due to the negative feelings harboured within and also due to irregular exercising.
  • Loneliness increases heart attacks and strokes, increases stress, and is associated with depression and suicide.
  • Loneliness leads to anti-social behaviour and may coexist with schizoid personality.
  • Loneliness increases the incidence of alcoholism, causes altered brain function, decreases learning and memory power and results in poor decision making abilities.
  • Loneliness may lead to progress in conditions like Alzheimer’s disease.
  • Loneliness may actually be contagious, that is you might sense it if you are around people who perceive they are lonely.

Tips to tackle loneliness

  • Join a community service or volunteer for an activity that you like for e.g., teaching impoverished children or spending time at an old age facility.
  • Do some physical activity that you like – go for walks or take up a sport as exercise that releases endorphins (feel good chemicals) in the body and improves self image.
  • Do not shy away from social situations and make a conscious effort to meet and connect with people.
  • The most important way to deal with loneliness is to begin therapy with an experienced counsellor. Individual or group therapy is recommended based on an individual case. Short term therapy lasting from ten to twenty weeks is recommended. Therapy is required to stop the negative train of thought. An attempt to change the individual’s behaviour to be friendly and extroverted and putting an end to the vicious cycle is important. It is also important to diagnose co-existing conditions like depression, alcoholism and suicidal tendencies and treat them promptly.

Photograph via sxc.hu

Written by Dr Nisreen Nakhoda, General Physician 

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