A recent study conducted by the health insurance company Cigna raises serious concerns about our feeling of loneliness. According to the survey that sampled 20,000 people 18-24 years old, young people are suffering from feelings of extreme loneliness and isolation. The top three responses in the survey suggest that:
- 47 % young people feel left out
- 46 % report sometimes or always feeling alone
- 43 % feel their relationships aren’t meaningful.
No matter how connected with others we might think we are, in truth, we are ultimately alone. We are surrounded by friends and family, loved and supported, and yet we feel so lonely. Where does this feeling come from?
How can Loneliness Lead to Physical Illness?
Loneliness isn’t technically a classified mental health disorder in the Diagnostic Statistics Manual but it is a common personal phenomenon that can resemble some forms of anxiety, but most often depression. A lack of social connection with others, purpose or meaning in life, a sense of boredom, a lack or decrease of energy to go and do, a felt sense of helplessness, a general flat affect or expression observable by others.
Loneliness, sometimes looking like a form of depression, can lead to both mental and physical illness. We have known for some time that loneliness leads to mental health problems such as anxiety, depression, and low self-esteem. Leading to questions within ourselves like:
Can I live in the world the way it is? If I can’t, why not? Do I want to live this way? If not, why not? May I live this way? Is it right? Should I live this way? What is missing, what would I need?
However, there is a growing evidence that loneliness and isolation lead to increased risk of physical health as well.
One of the leading chemicals related to depression is cortisol. This steroid hormone is produced when we are stressed, and it has a huge effect on our brain and body. However, there is a difference between acute stress, which is the body’s immediate response to threat, and chronic stress as activation of the stress mechanisms over a long period.
Chronic stress occurs when we cannot escape being exposed to stressors either because we don’t recognize them, cannot control them, or simply don’t respond to them. A normal reaction to stress is the flight-fight-or-freeze response. Nevertheless, chronically triggered stress response that doesn’t resolve the stressful situation produces harm to our body (Maté, 2003). Which brings us back to the above questions. What question is being asked of us in life?
Research has shown that the brain of people who are struggling with depression shows higher releases of cortisol. Over time, the increased level of this brain chemical can cause serious illnesses such as cancer, diabetes, and other health conditions.
People with chronic illness usually have uncertainty, the lack of information, and the loss of control present in the lives. These three are the factors that research literature has identified as universal causes of stress. Many people live in the illusion that they have control over their life. It is usually their disease, however, that reveals the truth about the unknown forces that were driving these people’s decisions and behaviors for years, and that their sense of control was nothing more but the illusion (Maté, 2003)
The Link between Social Media and Extreme Loneliness
Has Loneliness Increased from previous Generations due to the false impression of connection that we get from social media and technology?
This is the age of social media, filtered lives, and profound alienation. We seem to forget how to be with ourselves and one another. The draw of being able to more easily keep in touch and be a witness to others’ lives around the world is quite convenient. Even in that though, the process of writing a letter requires a level of thoughtfulness that is more than often not present in social media interactions.
We eagerly share some of the most intimate moments of our lives with millions of digital people, yet struggle when it comes to sharing our feelings with a close friend, or even our therapist. There is a constant pressure to filter every aspect of our life and show nothing but perfect to the outside world.
Busy with putting façade on our imperfect lives to make them glossier and more polished for the audience, we are failing to recall how to be real. Social media is submerged in the photos of happy, well-groomed people going places, driving expensive cars, owning the fairytale houses, eating fabulous meals, and living happily ever after. Our lives seem so imperfect, insignificant, and small compared to all those wonderful destinies. Consequently, we feel extremely lonely, isolated, and depressed.
These behaviors aren’t signs of pathology, though. Most of the new generation hasn’t known another way like others. Days where we hung out with our neighbors or had community social events. We live in the era where people need help in recognizing and acknowledging their feelings. And this involves the whole creative process between two people – a face to face contact, active listening, and the ability to understand ourselves and others.
Another reason, less talked about, is that we have simply forgotten to have a meaningful conversation with another person. This again is so subjective, because we are all in different places in life, what is deemed meaningful for one will be different for another.
What is a Meaningful Conversation?
We have cheapened words, and don’t take the time to understand their context in a meaningful way. Words such as love, freedom, truth, integrity, spirit, or self. What do we really mean when we use these words? Can we put aside what these words mean within the dictionary and have a conversation about what it means to me, in a personal sense?
We talk about what we do have language for; the weather, our local sports team, our work. As a visual artist or poet struggles and labors over the keyboard, pen, or brush to produce something that speaks to what we know but didn’t have words for, so we must work together to find words for that which doesn’t have words within us.
Questions such as, “What is real for me? What am I sensing in my body?” can be a good start in getting to know ourselves, acknowledge our loneliness, and start building more meaningful relationships with ourselves and others.
Expectations, social pressures, fear of missing out (FOMO), and comparing ourselves to others in different aspects of our life make our experiences isolating and seemingly bland. It is important to allow young people to talk and understand what is real to them, and what matters to them at this very moment of their lives. Meaningful conversation is the best way to help young people recognize their feelings and understand that they are not alone.
How does Seattle’s “Seattle Freeze” Reputation Contribute?
Seattle holds a “reputation” for being the loneliest city in the country. “Seattle Freeze”, a social phenomenon recognized in Seattle, Washington, refers to a belief that it is difficult to make connections and new friends in this city. Many newcomers from other cities find Seattleites unfriendly, cold, and snobby, with the forced “friendly” exterior and fake politeness. This view of the city and its residents inevitably leads to feelings of isolation and loneliness.
Most people, as I’ve experienced in my practice are craving for real conversations about personal issues. It is so easy to talk about politics, religion, culture, or race, but we talk about them as if they are far outside of us instead of close to us.
What is my personal narrative of being white (race)? What are my personal relationships with religion and spirituality? What are my joys, fears, experiences, or thoughts on romantic relationships?
Though I don’t know this for sure, it’s just a theory, but have definitely experienced being flaked on with others in Seattle. And not a week goes by in my practice with others where I hear a client was stood up on a date or someone didn’t get back to them about plans; what happens on a personal level with the anticipation or presence of an interaction with another.
Have I put parts of myself aside because they are too uncomfortable to be with? This could be any number of things; our feelings of anger, our cynicism, our deepest desires and our interpersonal needs, our need to be seen, or our discomfort about our physical image, to name a few.
What is being brought up in me, what part of me, as I sit with another who is excited or longing to get together or be with me? What is that like? What is it like for me to be with myself with another?
There is an important difference between the time spent alone and feeling lonely. There are people who can be alone but completely content with it. We are the ones who know ourselves the best, so our relationships with our self and with others are essential to our loneliness – if I am in touch with myself and all that involves, then being with another is quite bearable and life is substantially more exciting.
Thus, our loneliness boils down to an essential question, “Can I be with myself?”
Parting of Oneself
Intrapersonal Isolation is separating from our true self by either denying or suppressing our true feelings and deepest desires for the sake of social acceptance and conventionality. From early childhood, we internalize the rules from our parents, school, religion, and society. We learn to disregard our desires and needs thus becoming isolated from an important part of ourselves. (Yalom, 1980).
We often have to make a choice between honesty and acceptability, and, understandably, mostly choose the second one. We end up in relationships with certain people who don’t truly understand and accept us. Once we accept our loneliness and the fact that people around us won’t ever fully understand us, we release the pressure on the other and begin to be with and accept ourselves. In time we can become creative, free, and able to accept ourselves as we truly are.
Existential Isolation and Death
“Can I come to terms with what is inevitable? How can I cope with the awareness of my own inescapable death and death of the people I care about?”
Existential isolation refers to our profound separation from any other human being, and essentially, to our separation from the world (Yalom, 1980).
Irving Yalom in his book Existential Psychology says that “the most obvious, the most easily apprehended ultimate concern is death. We exist now, but one day we shall cease to be. Death will come, and there is no escape from it. It is a terrible truth, and we respond to it with mortal terror… a core existential conflict is a tension between the awareness of the inevitability of death and the wish to continue to be” (Yalom, 1980, p.8).
Now I can imagine what you’re probably thinking, “Really, it comes down to this?” You gotta admit, on some level, we know it’s true. Even as I’m writing this I have some plans of what I am going to do next, but I really don’t know what will happen. All I have is this moment. It is easy to be here physically in the present moment, but our mind is often somewhere else. Some can’t stand the present moment because of fear of what might happen next, or it is more nostalgia where they enhance the present moment with what once was.
The consciousness of death teaches us that we are all inescapably alone. It deepens our sense of how futile our relationships and everything else that we strive to be are, and increases our loneliness. I suggest you think often of death, because it jolts you into thinking about your life and the one that you feel you need to live. I’ll remind you of some of the questions from above:
May I live this way? Is it right? Should I live this way? What is missing, what would I need?
How Can We Recognize Signs in Young People?
Before I get too far in this, the word adolescent doesn’t just refer to the developmental time period before college. Though it is an unwritten or unspoken awareness within mental health folks, we know that adolescence doesn’t end at college for some folks, it can go on for decades. It may be masked by a job, family, and a mortgage and car, but we all know those friends who are living the same way or are the same person they were when they were in high school.
Loneliness in young people usually comes out in different ways. Children and teenagers tend to show their feelings indirectly. They haven’t yet learned to communicate what is within them. For example, their need for attention and affection may be expressed through acting out behaviors while depression in adolescence may be communicated through aggressive outbursts.
On the other hand, some adolescents rather stay quiet about their internal life, silently bottling their depression up inside. This type of behavior is particularly dangerous because adults around these kids may believe they are simply quiet in nature, and fail to recognize depression early enough. It is important, therefore, to recognize these altered ways of expression and offer support, care, and understanding.
How Can We Help Others
People need others to hear their feelings, desires, and experience of life. We long to be accepted and understood. Using the active listening skills to hear the other person’s story is a good way of letting people know that we care.
The components of good listening skills include reflecting, asking questions, and acknowledging your own feelings while listening to the other person’s story, and what can you mirror back to that person, so they know you hear them and understand them.
Listening and accepting our deepest thoughts, feelings, and fantasies can help us understand ourselves and our connections with other people. Take the risk or leaning into having a real meaningful conversation with someone you feel some trust with. We are relational beings. If you are afraid of opening up or oversharing, take note of what you’d like to say and ask yourself, “could I begin with just one of these things? What would that be like? Could I live with that sharing? If it was ok, could I say the next piece?”
One thing that I’ve learned about working with folks with depression, or humanity in general, is that we can wage war against ourselves with the most violent and destructive thoughts and judgments against ourselves. In one particular case, and most on some level, it is primarily unconscious. We tune out or become numb to the yelling accusatory voice within us. Yet, it is still there. Kindness is something that comes from within. It certainly helps when others are kind to us.
Listening to ourselves is a good start to understanding the roots of our loneliness, but know that this is part of life, part of who we are as social relational beings. We all experience loneliness and isolation at some points in our lives. Once we accept that loneliness is a natural feeling and nothing to feel ashamed of, we will feel empowered to engage in activities that promote healthy relationships and happiness.
Maté, G. (2003). When the body says no: The cost of hidden stress. Toronto: A.A. Knopf Canada.
May, R. (2009). Mans search for himself. New York, NY: Norton.
Yalom, I. (1980). Existential psychotherapy. New York, NY: Basic Books.