Anyone can feel lonely. We tend to think loneliness is associated with the elderly. And it often is, but not exclusively. We might think that loneliness is only for people who live alone or who experience social isolation. Again, it can be. But it isn’t the only factor. A study by The Co-op and the British Red Cross reveals that over 9 million people in the UK across all adult ages – more than the population of London – are either always or often lonely.
What are the triggers?
Loneliness can be triggered by many life events and situations. Let me explain why. If you have had to undergo any form of treatment you will know that it’s usually afterwards, when you are feeling better and your visitors or carers have left, that you start to feel lonely. People tend to rally round you when you are not well or during treatment but post treatment, often, no one is there for you. Loneliness can also be triggered by some life events too, such as when you have a baby or if you suffer a bereavement, if you are unhappily married, are being bullied or end up going into space!
How does loneliness feel?
Loneliness is an internal feeling of not belonging or of feeling alienated. It is possibly one of the most toxic, awful feelings to have. Imagine being in a car. You are the driver and you have five passengers who are helping to guide you and give you directions to your destination. One by one, and as you progress on your journey, your passengers leave the car. When the last person leaves you, you stop the car and get out. The car continues its journey and you are now completely on your own. And you feel utterly lost. This is how loneliness can feel.
How does trauma affect loneliness?
Trauma is another trigger for loneliness. When you are affected by trauma you can often find that you are not the same person as you were before. Your friends, family, neighbours, all expect you to be the same as before, but you are not – no one can experience what you experience or perceive what you perceive. You have had a unique experience that no one else can truly understand. And you feel different. So, on top of feeling lost, you can also feel different. This just compounds the feeling of loneliness.
Are we predisposed to loneliness?
Loneliness can also be described as a feeling of being unconnected. How well we connect and feel connected is often linked to our childhood experiences and whether, for example, we have suffered abuse or neglect. It is also linked to our emotions when we feel shame or fear – feelings that we may have inherited from our ancestors. So, it is perfectly possible to be predisposed to being lonely.
The health implications of loneliness
It is important to understand and acknowledge when you feel lonely as this can directly affect your health. Alienation and the feeling of not belonging is a source of stress. As you feel stress, the body moves into ‘threat mode’ and our need to feel accepted and to belong becomes as important to our health as our need and desire for water, oxygen, and love. Additionally, research in the US has found that feeling lonely is associated with systemic inflammation, a possible cause of unexplained chronic pain.
It’s okay to feel different – just accept it
If you are a person who has a predisposition to loneliness and who experiences a trigger for loneliness you may feel very lonely indeed. On top of feeling lonely, if you have suffered a trauma, you can also feel different and unconnected. So, what’s the answer? What can we do to feel less lonely? My response would be to acknoweledge and accept it and then take positive action. In a practical sense, what does this mean? Well, a good starting point would be to reconnect with the world around you. So, pick up the phone, talk to friends, mix with other community groups, take up a new hobby and get on with life. And, allow me to let you in to a little secret – feeling different is okay!
Loneliness and health: potential mechanisms.
Loneliness in middle age and biomarkers of systemic inflammation: Findings from Midlife in the United States