How loneliness eats us up from the inside – and what we can do to overcome it

A sad face emoji
Loneliness can eat us up from the inside. Photo credit: Getty Images

You might not think of loneliness as a health issue; maybe more of a difficult emotion that we all feel sometimes.

But social isolation can have a dramatic and damaging effect on us – not just mentally or emotionally, but physically. In fact, if we're lonely for long enough, we're more likely to get sick, to experience depression and anxiety, and even to die younger.

So what's going on when we feel lonely? What causes loneliness, how does it affect us, and how can we avoid it? These are the questions posed in the latest episode of Are You Mental?, the mental health podcast by Auckland therapist Mick Andrews, released on Sunday.

Where does loneliness come from?

Auckland psychologist Nettie Cullen told Are You Mental? loneliness is the feeling of a deficiency or loss of meaningful connection and companionship.

"It's thought of in terms of the discrepancy between what you are experiencing in your social life, compared to what you desire or perhaps even need," she explained. "So we feel that lack when there's a mismatch between what we crave, and what we're actually getting in our social connections."

Cullen says our need for connection is arguably as fundamental as our need for food.

"If you're really hungry and you see an image of a burger, your mouth will start watering – you will have a physical reaction. And so the interesting thing about loneliness is it's not just an emotional experience, it's a bodily felt experience as well.

"So it's no accident, really, that the language that we use around loneliness is about craving and longing, which reflects that very primitive, primal need."

For many people, our level of social connectedness is shaped by experiences during childhood, Cullen says.

If those experiences are of feeling connected physically, emotionally and psychologically, then they are woven into your psyche and sense of self, which you then carry into your future.

But if your experience tells you that relationships can be dangerous and harmful and risky, that can set up some complications about how you go into future connections.

Social isolation can be triggering.
Social isolation can be triggering. Photo credit: Getty Images

Even still, there are clearly people who grow up in large, happy families that struggle with loneliness in later life. So what's going on there?

"Busyness and large groups of people does not mean that each of those people are tuning into the other," explains Cullen.

"It's such a common story. People will often say, 'I had a happy upbringing and a really wonderful, active, busy family, but I never felt like anybody really knew me. I never felt like I was completely visible.'

"Even in a family, it takes a deliberate, conscious effort to tune into another person, to pay attention, to be curious, to wonder. And it's much easier to just be occupied with the latest, most urgent demand. We have to choose to slow down and connect and listen – it takes time."

She says it underlines the importance of making deliberate efforts to consciously connect in families and relationships and social groups.

"We don't like the idea of scheduling intimacy and going deeper and connecting emotionally because we have these romantic notions that somehow it just happens and that we just get each other without ever having a try. But we actually have to try."

Woman solo on couch on phone.
Isolation, like any unwanted situation, triggers stress hormones that cause our heart rate to go up. Photo credit: Getty Images

What does loneliness do to us?

When we feel the pang of loneliness, it can be painful in an emotional and psychological sense, but also in a physical one.

Isolation, like any unwanted situation, triggers stress hormones that cause our heart rate to go up, our blood pressure to increase, and our immune function to be compromised.

"Our ability to relax and restore physically is impacted because we are pushed into some degree of that 'fight or flight' threat response," Cullen says. "Social isolation is possibly the most threatening thing for a human being – to be separated and disconnected is a real threat to our survival."

But is loneliness really a threat to our survival in the same way it was when we were cavemen? In the modern era, couldn't we just hide ourselves away and happily survive on Uber Eats for the rest of our lives?

Cullen says in theory we could, but the isolation would ultimately cause us to become sick and depressed.

"The release of stress hormones has a wide-ranging effect on our physical bodies. We don't fight disease as efficiently or as readily as we might otherwise, we don't recover, we succumb more to viruses.

"That stress response is all good and well in short bursts, but when it is prolonged or repeated, that's when you start seeing some of those longer term effects. So we see higher rates of heart disease and blood pressure problems and cancer for people who have higher rates of social disconnection.

"Connection builds resilience – physical and emotional and psychological. It's really powerful. It's really, really bad for us to be alone."

How to overcome social isolation

So we know loneliness is bad for us. But no one chooses to be lonely, it just sort of happens. So how do we get the better of it?

The first step is admitting you're lonely in the first place, which can be difficult and embarrassing for many. Cullen says that's because we often attribute our loneliness to some sort of personal deficiency.

"We think there's something wrong with us. Loneliness may or may not be due to rejection, but we certainly feel it as a rejection. And if I'm being rejected, there's something to be ashamed of, there's something that I should hide.

"My loneliness is somehow my fault, and it indicates that I'm not good enough."

The tricky part of moving beyond this mindset and past our social isolation is that it's not something we can do on our own. It's reliant on the input of other people – and we can't control how those respond to our need for connection.

"All we can do is choose how we are going to be, how we're going to engage and interact with our people, how we're going to create a space that's conducive to connection," says Cullen.

One piece of powerful advice is to focus your attention on the needs of others, as this tends to cause our own negative, internal, emotional burdens to recede.

"Take your preoccupation, your anxiety about yourself, and put that aside. Give your attention to the other person, be to them what it is that every human being needs, because that has a big impact on how we then feel internally ourselves," says Cullen.

"Be a friend. Volunteer. Give."

The latest episode of Are You Mental? is available to listen to on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts.

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