mental health

Loneliness And Depression: Decoding the Epidemic

What Causes Loneliness?

Loneliness is a universal human emotion but is unique to everyone. It is explained simplistically through the bio-psycho-social model that entails a multi-factorial role of biological (genetic), psychological (emotional state and thinking patterns) and social factors (environmental stresses). There are various examples of such psychosocial factors:

  1. Significant change/ life event that brings about unfamiliarity
  2. Feeling different/ out of place from the people around
  3. Having no intimate partner
  4. Not having someone to share with (even pets)
  5. Not enough ME time (solitude)
  6. Frequent heartbreaks/ betrayals
  7. Not having someone to share a living space with (albeit quietly)

It typically brings anxiety about feeling unloved, unwanted and being unproductive not just in the present, but often extends into anxiety about the future. Not surprisingly, research has shown that one could feel just as lonely when surrounded by people, as much as when living in isolation. This tells us that it is more of a state of mind than external separation. For example, it has been seen in people in marriages, relationships, families and even those with successful careers over the years.

Loneliness causes people to crave human contact, but their state of mind makes it more difficult to form connections with other people.

To be happy, we need intimate bonds; we need to be able to confide, we need to feel like we belong, we need to be able to get and give support. Healthy relationships are key — perhaps the key — to a happy life.

Of course, being alone and being lonely aren’t the same. Loneliness feels draining, distracting, and upsetting; but desired solitude feels peaceful, creative, and restorative. While loneliness exhibited a discrepancy between one’s perceived need for an achieved level of social interaction, solitude is merely a brief and voluntary absence of social contact. In the words of Nikola Tesla, being alone—that is the secret of the invention, the cradle of creativity.

On a spiritual front, the existentialist school of thought views loneliness as an essence of being human. It advocates that all humans are born alone and ultimately die alone, and coping with this realization, accepting it and learning to direct one’s own life with grace and satisfaction is the human condition.

Loneliness and Depression

Mental health perspective states that Depression is intricately linked with feeling lonely. It marks a red flag for the suicidal tendency, with an unwillingness to live for others. It can also precipitate substance use disorders due to poor sleep quality, exhaustion or mere means of seeking socialization. At times, schizoid patterns of thought are linked with loneliness, by an autistic regression into a world of their own and evolving into a personality that prefers social alienation over interaction. Loneliness in younger age groups can potentiate destructive behaviors towards self or others and even affect memory and learning adversely, further leading to emotional issues.

When loneliness is chronic (lasting for years) it is linked to increases in cortisol levels (stress hormone) causing anxiety, depression, digestive problems, heart disease, sleep problems, and weight gain, further creating an increased risk of stroke and cardiovascular diseases, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and obesity. It impairs the body’s immune responses, thus increasing susceptibility to illnesses.

What Happens When We are Isolated?

When we feel socially isolated, our nervous systems automatically switch into ‘self-preservation mode,’ which makes us more abrasive and defensive – even if there’s no threat. Loneliness makes the brain more alert to threats and the possible danger of strangers, as they remain more active in social situations. This hyper-vigilance to respond to social threats could be rooted in the subconscious, thus attracting more negative experiences.

Treatment for Loneliness

Because it has no single common cause, the prevention and treatment of this potentially damaging state of mind can vary dramatically. How do we combat this disease?  Most doctors would recommend therapy, to understand the cause of the problem, reversing the negative thoughts, feelings, and attitudes resulting from the problem, and exploring ways to help the person feel connected. Alternative approaches include various lifestyle modifications, pet therapy, reminiscence of good old days and indulging in religious/ spiritual activities that encourage socializing and alleviate symptoms of depression.

Be More Social

An essential step towards dealing with loneliness due to lack of socializing is learning social cognitive skills along with social skills training. Results of meta-analyses suggest that correcting maladaptive social cognition offers the best chance of reducing loneliness.

Prevent Loneliness

Like for all disorders, preventing loneliness is better than curing it. While curing loneliness requires one to make a conscious change in life, prevention helps to create positive avenues for bringing about the difference quickly. Education about loneliness, community activities, finding like-minded people, sharing values and ideas with people we meet, having affirmative beginnings to the days, and reinforcing positive attitudes towards relationships are some ways to prevent loneliness from creeping in into our lives.

Make Time for Yourself

Without great solitude no serious work is possible. – PABLO PICASSO

Steal away opportunities for some time to be with yourself. A significant part of this is turning off the technology. The goal is not to be in solitude all the time either. There is value in interaction and collaboration, but there must be BALANCE. Right now, it seems like we’ve gotten away from this balance and we’re a little too connected.

Caution for Social Media Exposure

A University of Michigan study found that we’re more likely to use social media when we’re feeling lonely. Although it doesn’t necessarily make us feel lonelier, watching people’s lives go by on our newsfeeds can lead to feelings of unhappiness. So instead of logging into Facebook next time you’re feeling lonely, try face-to-face interaction and make a phone call to someone you love. Loneliness is subjective and is not to do with your number of likes!


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