You can be lonely on a crowded dancefloor, and yet, feel completely connected to all beings in an open field.
We all suffer from loneliness at different times in our lives. Few of us admit to this publicly because of the stigma associated with loneliness. There is a lot of shame associated with feeling lonely. “I’m not good enough to find someone to connect with”; “I must have something wrong with me to be so alone”, and many other disparaging thoughts founded without any real evidence, which often come tagged together with the feeling of loneliness. But, it’s not uncommon at all; quite the opposite. An Australian study [i]of 1,200 adults published in the Journal of Clinical Nursing found that nearly a third of respondents reported being lonely. So, let’s imagine that’s like the results we would get if we did a survey throughout the world. One-third of the world population is 2 billion people. That would be 2 billion lonely hearts. This is an epidemic because we are not designed for loneliness. Scientists believe that since the origin of mankind, we were nothing more than tribes of hunters and gatherers, and it was belonging to the tribe, which increased an individual’s chances of survival[ii]. Those who found themselves alone, generally perished.
Ironically, it makes it harder to reach out to others when we feel isolated because psychologist Guy Winch says: “Lonely people often develop defensive coping mechanisms that make it difficult for them to create new connections with others or deepen existing ones. It is natural for those who suffer loneliness to become self-protective and make efforts to avoid any situations that could expose them to further rejection.”[iii] But we must make a concerted effort to get ourselves to stop feeling lonely whenever it descends because loneliness is dangerous.
Winch also says loneliness predisposes us to depression, increases our risk of Alzheimer’s disease, suppresses our immune system functioning; it stresses our cardiovascular systems, and when chronic, it affects our longevity.[iv]
Loneliness also has some other startling effects on our behaviour. Studies have found that loneliness can predispose us to substance abuse and sexually-transmitted infections too.
Loneliness can change the very chemistry of our brains in such a way that we have less control over our emotions and behave far more impulsively than we normally would.[vii] It also changes how our hormones behave and can have a significant impact on our willpower and decision-making abilities.
In a cross-sectional study using data from a survey of young people in Skåne, Sweden, the risk to engage in sexual risk-taking behaviour gradually increased with how lonely the respondents felt.[viii] Compared to those not feeling lonely at all, the risk to engage in a sexual risk-taking behaviour when feeling a little bit lonely increased more than three times for the males that participated.
And in a study conducted to determine the connection between HIV and loneliness[ix] it was discovered that lonely men who have sex with men (MSM), were 10% less likely to use condoms than the men who did not feel that way.
So, here’s what to do about it:
Quick fixes include trying to be with people that you care about and avoiding drugs, alcohol and casual sex as coping mechanisms. Although these appear to provide temporary relief from feelings of isolation, they can aggravate and even worsen the situation. Clinical Professional Counselor, Kate Evans, says that she has not yet had one lonely person who has had a one night stand or has a habitual non-romantic sexual partner answers yes to the following question, “So did you feel better, satisfied, or happier after that sexual encounter?”[x]
Long-term solutions to loneliness include taking actions that involve emotional risks, which for lonely people is a scary proposition. You must stick your neck out time and again and risk getting hurt, to break through the loneliness barrier. It’s an unavoidable task if you want any type of intimacy with other people. You’re not supposed to go it alone. Reach out to friends and family or get professional help if you need to. Sometimes all you must do is talk to someone in a real and open way.
Here are some websites to peruse or numbers that you can call for more help if you need it:
Lifeline National Counselling Line
0861 322 322
Out: Psychosocial Support Services (Counselling)
You can access the helpline Monday – Friday during office hours (08h30 – 16h30) by dialling 0860 OUT OUT (0860 688 688). Reverse charge calls are accepted.
South African Depression and Anxiety Group (SADAG)
011 234 4837
0800 21 22 23