Loneliness affects 46% of Americans. Are you experiencing it? Let’s explore what the experts say about these feelings of isolation and what you can do to beat it.
Cigna asked 20,000 Americans over the age of 18 to fill out a survey. The results were astounding. Almost half of them reported that they experience feelings of loneliness. Respectively, 43% said they felt isolated from others and (another 43%) believe their relationships are not meaningful. These numbers are double what they were 20 years ago. (7)
Loneliness is an emotion we all feel at one time or another. It is normal to feel anxiety over being alone. We are social creatures who require human contact just as much as we need food, water, and shelter.
Without it, our health declines and mortality rates rise. Loneliness is our body’s way of warning us that something is wrong. We need to find our people and spend time with them.
But even when we are around people, we may still feel alone. Objective isolation and our perception of alienation can both produce equally lonely feelings.
The Origin of Loneliness
The leading voice in psychology concerning loneliness is John Cacioppo, co-founder of the field of social neuroscience and founder of the University of Chicago Center for Cognitive and Social Neuroscience and the Director of the Arete Initiative. A rare form of cancer ended his life prematurely in 2018. He spent decades conducting groundbreaking research that will continue through his colleagues for years to come.
Cacioppo’s book Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection is a must-read for anyone experiencing loneliness. In it, he explains that feeling lonely is completely natural; it is our body’s way of urging us to do what is best for our health. Humans, as social creatures require interaction with each other to maintain mental, emotional, and physical wellness.
The painful emotions some individuals experience during isolation is attached to evolutionary history. It brings us back to the carnal instincts required for survival and reproduction purposes. Just as physical discomfort warns us of dangers, the emotional discomfort we experience when alone causes us to want to find security in companionship.
When the need for company is not filled, or meaningful social interaction does not offer contentment, the emotion becomes an unhealthy obstacle. If these negative feelings persist for long periods of time, the state of loneliness becomes a condition much like anxiety or depression.
The Biology of a Lonely Person
“Loneliness not only alters behavior but shows up in measurements of stress hormones, immune function, and cardiovascular function. Over time, these changes in physiology are compounded in ways that may be hastening millions of people to an early grave.” - John Cacioppo; Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection
If these emotions are not addressed, depression and physical health complications will develop. As we succumb to loneliness, our attention shifts to self-sustaining survival.
Sleep patterns are interrupted because we sleep lighter; our body anticipates dangers one might experience in the wild when alone.
Paranoia begins to settle in, and bonds with other people become unwanted and difficult to manage. Trust leaves us vulnerable; therefore, we become suspicious of others. The lonely person becomes egocentric and socially awkward.
Even though we no longer face imminent danger in modern society, our body reacts as if we are.
Of course, we are not in the jungles, forests, and deserts of the world, fighting for our life. But our physiology doesn’t know that. Now that you are on your own, your body will work harder and faster to keep you safe. As a direct result, our immune system and cardiovascular system is compromised.
Additionally, there is significant evidence that it can be passed down to your offspring. Cacioppo linked the trait of loneliness to an increase in stress-induced salivary cortisol (Cacioppo et al., 2000). He and his team discovered that there was a chain reaction. The cortisol triggered by social loneliness causes catecholamines and glucocorticoids to release. These, in turn, activate genes that contain glucocorticoid response elements (GREs). Epigenetic studies are continuing to piece together the evidence. One thing is certain: Those who suffer from chronic loneliness have GREs present in their DNA sequence (Cole, Hawkley, Arevalo & Cacioppo, 2011; Cole et al., 2007).
Now that we know why loneliness happens and what it does to our body, it’s time to look in the mirror. How lonely are you?
Assessing Your Loneliness
When considering the severity of your loneliness, there are a few factors to consider.
1. To what extent is the emotion felt?
Intense feelings which hold us back from performing our daily routine are considered beyond normal. This is a concerning symptom that requires intervention. If your emotions are preventing you from living your everyday life, please talk to a mental health professional.
Your loneliness is considered average if you:
feel lonely intermittently
enjoy the company of others
do not experience a change in your ability to perform tasks.
With a few changes to your lifestyle and perspective, you can find relief.
2. Are there logical contributors (ie: loss, injury, or separation)?
When someone has experienced a traumatic or dramatic change in their life, adjusting takes time. Loneliness is a natural result.
No matter what causes your emotional pain, it should never be ignored. Find support from friends, family, or a licensed professional.
Warm lines (not hot lines) are also an excellent option for non emergency situations. Most states have their own number, providing support from trained counselors. It is not a substitute for conventional therapy, but it is a free option available to the public. Just type “warm line” and the name of your state into a search engine to find your local helpline.
3. How long has the loneliness lasted without pause?
A few hours of loneliness is common. Everyone experiences the feeling at some point in their life.
If the emotion continues for weeks, months, or years, even when in the company of close friends or family, it’s time to be concerned.
4. Have you been experiencing depression?
Chronic loneliness may increase the chance of depression over time. If you are depressed, it may have been triggered by long term isolation or alienation.
Loneliness alone is a distinctive characteristic of being human. The two psychological states have a strong connection, but they are distinctively different.
In 1980, a definitive line between the two was confirmed with this structural analysis. Up until then, many experts believed that those who exhibited signs of loneliness were suffering from depression.
Genetics and a high requirement for meaningful, social interaction contributes to the complex, emotional state known as loneliness. It is a characteristic attribute to social animals.
Although people who suffer from depression often feel lonely, every individual who feels the pain of isolation is not necessarily depressed.
Daniel Russel Ph.D. developed the renowned UCLA Loneliness Scale. This is a standard test utilized by researchers as well as medical health professionals. If you are concerned about your level of loneliness, you can take a very similar test to assess yourself.
4 Ways to Combat Loneliness
John Cacioppo developed a system he called EASE. It is an acronym to recall four steps. When used together, they have been found to reduce or eliminate loneliness over time. In order to be highly effective, these new habits and perspectives need to be adopted as a lifestyle choice. You cannot mix and match one or two, nor can you expect results after a few weeks and then revert to your old ways.
E : Extend Yourself
Be involved in daily positive interactions with others (in person). Positive is the keyword here. If the experience itself isn’t gratifying, it won’t be beneficial. Cacioppo suggests volunteering to find more gracious people and create emotional connections.
Make progress slowly; take baby steps and “ease” yourself into the process.
A : Action Plan
The plan is to act, but it is still in the planning stage. The hardest part of taking action is realizing that you can. Motivate yourself to make the first move.
You have the power to make decisions that will change your current life situation. This thought alone can begin to transform your perspective.
Another part of the planning process is predicting potential negative outcomes. Come to terms with the fact that most people will not like you. They do not have to. This is the human condition. It has nothing to do with a personal judgment against you.
Plan to ask questions and be receptive. Everyone enjoys speaking about themselves when someone is actively listening. Pay attention to what is said.
Choose activities that you want to be a part of. This can be a group activity, such as a local library meetup or a class.
The idea is to find people who are interested in the same things that you are.
Expect the Best
Your expectations will color your perspective. A positive outlook will render a more positive outcome. Being cynical about an experience before it happens will reduce its potential benefit.
You do not have to be unrealistically optimistic to expect a good outcome. Speaking or thinking affirmations about your plans for the day can offer an emotional boost that continues throughout the activities.
Use sentences that begin with "I" and describe positive emotional responses. Instead of “this is going to be fun” choose “I will enjoy myself.”
If you choose to make the best of every situation, every situation will be brighter. This can be the game-changing pep talk you need to bring meaningful interactions into reality.
We are not meant to go through our lives alone, but many of us lack the morale boost we need from friends or family. It’s human to look to others for support, guidance, and advice. We are social creatures who crave this interaction. If you are looking for a reliable and compassionate confidant to share your victories and disappointments with, check out Carla’s affordable services and see if one is right for you. Finding the motivation to gain higher ground can be a struggle, but you don’t have to do it alone. We are here to help.
Cacioppo, Ernst, Burleson, et al., Lonely traits and concomitant physiological processes: the MacArthur social neuroscience studies. Int J Psychophysiol 2000, 35:143-154.
Cacioppo, John T., and William Patrick. Loneliness Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection. Norton, 2009.
Canli, Turhan. “How Loneliness Can Make You Sick.” American Psychological Association, American Psychological Association, Sept. 2017, www.apa.org/science/about/psa/2017/09/loneliness-sick
Cole, Steven W., et al. “Transcript Origin Analysis Identifies Antigen-Presenting Cells as Primary Targets of Socially Regulated Gene Expression in Leukocytes.” PNAS, National Academy of Sciences, 15 Feb. 2011, www.pnas.org/content/108/7/3080.
Cole, S.W. & Hawkley, Louise & Arevalo, J.M.G. & Sung, C.Y. & Rose, R.M. & Cacioppo, John. (2007). Social regulation of gene expression in humans: Glucocorticoid resistance in the leukocyte transcriptome. Genome Biol. 8.
Khazan, Olga. “How Loneliness Makes You Worse at Social Interaction.” The Atlantic, Atlantic Media Company, 7 Apr. 2017, www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2017/04/how-loneliness-begets-loneliness/521841/.
Polack, Ellie. “New Cigna Study Reveals Loneliness at Epidemic Levels in America.” Cigna, a Global Health Insurance and Health Service Company, 1 May 2018, www.cigna.com/newsroom/news-releases/2018/new-cigna-study-reveals-loneliness-at-epidemic-levels-in-america.