Authors: Dr. Abbie Maroño
Published: February 12, 2024
After spending a long day engulfed by the hustle and bustle of the city, you get home to your apartment, take your shoes off, and slump on the sofa. Other than the soft hum of the air conditioning turning on, you are surrounded by silence. Pause for a second and take in this moment. How do you feel?
For some, in the silence, they find peace and quiet, a restoring sense of calm. For others, the emptiness echoes with a longing for connection. Indeed, there is a big difference between being alone and being lonely. So, I want you to ask yourself again, how do you feel when there is no one else around?
Loneliness Vs Being Alone
Loneliness is not a momentary feeling, it is not felt one moment and then shrugged off the next. True loneliness is carried like a weight throughout the day, regardless of how many others we interact with. Loneliness can be as isolating in a crowded room as it is in an empty one. It’s a universal human experience, yet each person’s encounter with it is deeply personal and unique. Hence, it is essential to distinguish between being alone, a physical state, and loneliness, an emotional one.
Being alone can be a choice and a source of strength, an opportunity for introspection and personal growth. In fact, regular time spent alone is rejuvenating and can contribute to improved well-being. I am sure that any new parent could describe to you their longing for a moment alone to breathe. Loneliness, however, is the painful feeling of being disconnected or isolated. In contrast to the rejuvenating effects of alone time, research indicates that chronic loneliness can lead to increased risks of depression, anxiety, and even cardiovascular diseases.
But why is loneliness so detrimental?
A Social Species
Human beings are inherently social creatures, a truth that is deeply rooted in our evolutionary makeup, and thus our biology and psychology. Empirical research, particularly in the fields of neuroscience and social psychology, has consistently shown that social interactions are not just a peripheral aspect of our existence, but a core feature of our health and happiness. Meaningful connections, where we feel understood, valued, and supported, contribute significantly to our sense of happiness and fulfillment. Thus, it is probably no surprise that loneliness can significantly impact both mental and physical health. However, the sheer degree to which loneliness can have detrimental effects might come as a shock.
Indeed, insufficient social connection is as detrimental to our health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. Just think about the reality of that for a second.
Moreover, studies have shown that prolonged loneliness can lead to an increased risk of depression, anxiety, and other mental health disorders. It can also exacerbate stress and lead to sleep disturbances, impacting overall well-being. What’s more, chronic loneliness has been linked to physical health risks, including hypertension, heart disease, and weakened immune function.
Breaking The Cycle
In the case of chronic loneliness, individuals may not immediately recognize or acknowledge their own feelings of loneliness, adapting to it as a normal state of being. This adaptation can lead to a kind of emotional numbness, where the sense of isolation is no longer consciously felt, creating a barrier to seeking or recognizing the need for social connections. What’s more, loneliness becomes so familiar that it feels comfortable, and well-intentioned attempts by others to show love are perceived as intrusions. However, this mindset isn’t conducive to a healthy lifestyle. It’s important to strike a balance between enjoying solitude and engaging in meaningful interactions with close friends or family.
Professional intervention, community support, and personal acknowledgment are crucial in breaking this cycle of loneliness. It’s important to understand that reaching out for help and rebuilding social ties are not just steps towards alleviating loneliness, but essential actions for overall mental well-being and health. Recognizing and addressing loneliness is a critical step in nurturing our intrinsic need for meaningful human connections and improving our quality of life.
But most importantly, please remember that while loneliness can make us feel uniquely isolated, as though no one else could possibly understand our experience, it is, in fact, a near-universally shared feeling. You are not alone in this.