Only the lonely know the way I feel'
Feeling lonely is tough. We all know it. In fact, loneliness can sometimes sneak up on you even when you are surrounded by people. It’s a silent epidemic, which is threatening to blow up into a major health crisis in the near future, across the world.
Now, the World Health Organisation (WHO) has pressed the panic button and has come out with some startling facts. It has declared loneliness a “pressing health threat,” with risks as deadly as smoking up to 15 cigarettes a day!
Being Lonely and Being Alone: What’s the difference?
Loneliness is a subjective emotional state where a person feels disconnected or isolated from others. “Characterised by a sense of emptiness, sadness, or longing for social connection, the connotation is usually that of low spirits and mood. You can feel lonely even in a crowded room if you lack meaningful connections or a sense of belonging,” says Dr. Era Dutta, consultant psychiatrist, TEDx speaker and founder, Mind Wellness.
Being alone refers to physical isolation or solitude. “It doesn’t necessarily have to have a negative connotation or signal a negative emotional state. Many people enjoy and actively seek out moments of solitude for relaxation, introspection, or engaging in activities they enjoy without external distractions. Being alone doesn’t inherently cause loneliness,” adds Dr. Era.
Evolutionary mechanisms for loneliness
As cavemen, we lived in “tribes.” The idea behind tribes was that everyone had assigned roles; some stayed back to take care of the family while others went out to hunt.
“Hence, being a part of a group significantly increased your chances of survival. Then comes reproductive success. Social connections ensure reproductive success in the tribes, where individuals formed partnerships and even shared caregiving responsibilities for children,” explains Dr. Era.
Social isolation triggers psychological tension and suffering, which, like physical pain, serves as a warning indicator. A sense of connection, an embrace, and tender love and care are what will ease the pain. “As a result, humans developed an increased sensitivity to social cues, instilling a deep fear of isolation,” says Dr. Dutta adding, “encouraging behaviours that promote social bonding and discouraging behaviours that could lead to social exclusion became ways to increase survival.”
Social media – A life more disconnected
According to Dr. Dutta, who believes we live in a hyperconnected world, our lives online are focused on validation through ‘likes’, encouraging superficial relationships and shallow ties. “Many of your digital connections may not necessarily translate to genuine connections,” she warns.
WHO: Loneliness is a global public health concern
WHO claims one in four older people suffer social isolation, while 5-15% of adolescents experience loneliness. This perception is based on a new study by the University of Glasgow in Scotland that found that not socializing with friends or family may increase the risk of dying early by 39%.
Inability to communicate
“We are social beings,” says Dr. Jyoti Kapoor, senior psychiatrist and founder of Manasthali, “since we have an innate need to share our experiences with others.”
“When we are unable to communicate or share our thoughts, feelings and emotions, we feel lonely. When we are distracted by too many things, we are unable to develop the skill of understanding our own selves; we expect others to respond while we are unable to communicate our ideas,” the psychiatrist adds.
Families are unable to focus on each other since they are preoccupied with other matters though physically together. “Most social media platforms allow us to project only a portion of ourselves, not the entire self. This leads to misinterpretation and misunderstandings. As a result, social media interactions do not satisfy the basic urge to belong,” says Dr. Kapoor. Because tolerance levels are low, people are unable to devote the time and effort required to develop a connection, the psychiatrist explains. “Due to overexposure to negative information and feedback, the trust factor is deteriorating. All of this is isolating our society, making it lonelier than ever.”
How to cope with loneliness
Balancing online interactions with offline relationships and ensuring that digital communication supplements rather than replaces face-to-face engagement is critical for preserving true ties, to the key to combat loneliness in today’s environment. Communities can be built to grow and evolve together, experts say, adding that pursuing something you care about, whether it’s a hobby, a passion or a purpose, will help a lot.