February 2016

Are You Lonely, Too?

Author: Becca Edwards

Just as there are varying degrees of love (like eros, philos and agape), there are varying degrees of loneliness. I’m sure at some point you have felt some form of loneliness. I know I have. Whether it was that exhilarating, yet disturbingly ultra-quiet morning I woke up to my first place without a roommate, or traveling alone in a foreign country for two months, or being on bed rest for five months, or simply working from home with all the children at school and a blank computer screen yelling, “Write!” at me, I am pretty sure loneliness and I have been acquainted.

There is something that happens to us when we feel lonely that is physical, mental and even spiritual. At first, our bellies feel empty—and not in a good way but in an insatiate, uncomfortable way. And then our minds wander. We think about people that should or would have been there. We think about scenarios. And depending on the severity of the loneliness, and what induced it, we think about what it would take to feel less lonely. For me, loneliness has often seemed intimidating but doable, because there has always been a light at the end of each of my lonely tunnels.

But lonely tunnels can and do seem infinitely long with little hint of light for some of us. And the health risks associated with a lonely heart can weigh heavy—so heavy that loneliness is now being labeled as an “epidemic” and “as big a killer as obesity and “as dangerous as heavy smoking.” Newsweek reported that, “Social isolation in all adults has been linked to a raft of physical and mental ailments, including sleep disorders, high blood pressure, and an increased risk of depression and suicide.”

The National Science Foundation reported in its General Social Survey that unprecedented numbers of Americans are lonely. According to The American Spectator, “Published in the American Sociological Review and authored by Miller McPhearson, Lynn Smith-Lovin, and Matthew Brashears, sociologists at Duke and the University of Arizona, the study featured 1,500 face-to-face interviews where more than a quarter of the respondents—one in four—said that they have no one with whom they can talk about their personal troubles or triumphs.”

Up to 30 percent of 21- to-50-year-olds say they are lonely sometimes or often. For 15 -to-20-year-olds, it is as high as 71 percent.

Oddly enough, with FaceTime, Facebook, free wifi, current phone plans and the like, it is now easier now than ever to connect. As my husband so succinctly put it, “It used to be the quickest way to send a message was a man on a horse. Now we can instantly send messages.” Though I feel a gravitational pull away from Facebook, I logged in the other day to find I had over 1,200 “friends.” This to me was interesting, because in truth I cannot name more than 20 or 30 people I actually know, have something in common with, and/or rely on—and that includes flaky family members that are more situational than constant.

Erin Wagner, the founder of an upcoming social app called Kolud shared, “The average Baby Boomer has 120 Facebook friends. The average Millennial has 319. More than 40 percent of Americans use Facebook daily. But online relationships do not have the same quality-of-life benefits as relationships that develop face-to-face. For example, physical touch has been shown to reduce blood pressure.”

Kolud intends to connect people by having a person input their friend contacts and then list easy bucket list items they want to do and then cross pollinate the two in hopes that we are able to not only accomplish things like trying the new Mexican restaurant downtown but actually doing this with friends and being more social. From what I can see, this app seems well thought out and well-designed. But the bigger question is, do we need an app for this? Why do we need an app for this? Why can’t compassion, companionship and our innate need to socialize salve the apparent wound left by loneliness without the aid of technology? Are we de-evolving from interfacing?

“No, we are not de-evolving, but we are interacting differently,” said Dr. Debi Lynes, LPC, CEDS, who first attributed this to a more transient existence and then to social media. “Social media provides us with a one-sided conversation that tends to portray specific information. You usually post when you have good news or wishing someone happy birthday.” Though Lynes admits that this borage of happy information can be overwhelming for some because it can make them compare themselves to others and challenge their happiness, she said, “I am a proponent of social media because it has the potential to remind us to be thoughtful and to say happy birthday or catch up with an old friend.” Lynes went on to discuss the difference between being stressed and being busy and pointed out, “There are many days I am too busy but not too stressed to connect with other people.” She said, too, that there is a social deceleration between the ages of 25-45 due to factors such as family, work and daily duties.

Interestingly enough, however, when we let ourselves become too busy to connect, we then experience stress related to loneliness, which becomes a vicious cycle as our stress mounts and we become more antisocial—especially for men.

But many women can stop this cycle. In her book The Hormone Cure Dr. Sara Gottfried writes, “The original data on stress response was gathered from men by Walter Cannon, the doctor who coined the term fight or flight. The assumption was that it would apply equally to women. Newer data shows that stress elicits a different reaction in women—what Professor Shelley Taylor of the University of California at Los Angeles calls tend and befriend.” Gottfried then explained that when women interact with other women, they produce oxytocin (the “love hormone”), which lowers cortisol. This is one reason experts believe women live longer than men.

Whether male or female, introverted or extroverted, as humans we need to connect with each other. “We do not need to necessarily feel loved, but we do need to feel like we are part of something bigger,” Lynes said. “A big key to the human species is our frontal lobe and executive function. Animals instinctively need to feel part of a pack or herd, but we choose to feel connected. It is part of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.”

And though these needs have not waned evolutionarily, it could be argued that our awareness of these needs has, and more often, we are neglecting them. While researching for this article, I felt compelled to call—not text or Facebook—a few people and see how they were doing. Most of my friends said something like, “Becca, I haven’t talked to you in forever! Where has the time gone?”—to which I replied, “I know. Let’s fix that.” 

Becca Edwards is a wellness professional, freelance writer and owner of b.e.WELL+b.e.CREATIVE (bewellbecreative.com).

Effects of Loneliness on Mental and Physical Health
• Distrust of others
• Low self-worth
• Anxiety
• Depression
• Earlier-onset dementia
• Struggle with positive thinking
• Cognitive decline
• Poor attention and focus
• Focus on external factors over personal action
• Fatigue
• Pain
• Poor sleep
• Increased cortisol upon waking
• Unhealthy eating habits
• Poorer general health
• Impaired cellular immunity
• Increased doctor and hospital visits
• Increased likelihood of nursing home stay

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