Attention — 21 November 2004
How to deal with loneliness

Loneliness is probably one of the most painful emotions we can feel. It creates emotional and even physical symptoms when it is experienced for a prolonged time. The misery of lonely people is often described as intolerable. Those who feel this pain are often at a loss at remediating their condition.

The reason that loneliness is so devastating is because the need for connection with others is primary for our physical and emotional well-being.

As social animals we are programmed to stay in groups, since people in groups have always survived better than individuals alone. Cavemen who lived in clans were able to share the kill of other men when they had a poor hunting day. Women shared the gathering of edible plants and caring for the young. Being members of a community secured their lives.

An interesting analysis of 45 of the 85 survivors of the Donner Party, the group unable too cross the Sierra Nevada before winter, found that with the limited food and supplies, people in families lived longer and were more likely to survive than were the young single men. The sense of connectedness and responsibility may have helped defy even youth and vigor.

Emotionally, we rely on others for self-validation and affirmation to maintain our sense of well-being. When we are lonely we lose perspective of our worth and lovability. We need to feel that we matter to others in order to affirm our right to exist. If we feel that our presence in this world matters to no one, we may become depressed and even lose the will to live.

Loneliness is not synonymous with being alone. It is the feeling of involuntarily being devoid of sufficient human contact. Being lonely is a passive state of powerlessness. The lonely individual often feels impotent in changing his or her state of being. Often many explanations are given that ascribe blame to others.

The pain of loneliness is a call to action. It alerts the lonely person to propel him or her from a passive state into an active one. Just as physical pain demands attention to the body, so does emotional pain serve as a warning of the need to alleviate discomfort.

Loneliness often occurs when there is a major change in life’s circumstances. For example, young people speak of the difficulty of finding a social circle when they move from their hometown to a big city. Families who get transferred often by the military or by job demands may also struggle to establish new connections to avoid loneliness. People who have been divorced or widowed may suddenly find themselves in the “single” category and feel lonely. Their former friends, who are still coupled, gradually reduce the frequency of calling as they continue to live in the “coupled” world. Elderly people who move to live closer to their children for family and medical reasons, may find re-establishing a new circle of friends a great challenge.

Since a prolonged state of loneliness may produce depression, it may produce apathy and lack of energy to act toward changing this painful state. People passively wish for friends and attention from others, but are not proactive in initiating new connections.

With the sadness of loneliness come false beliefs about one’s desirability. The longer people are lonely, the less secure they are about their appeal to others. This may create self-doubt about one’s capacity to enter a relationship and further withdrawal may occur.

For some people loneliness is a source of anger. They hold other people responsible for their painful position. It may be the divorcing partner, the children who insisted they relocate, or even the deceased spouse. Anger places the responsibility for the pain upon someone else, who is at fault. This may temporarily absolve the lonely person from being accountable for his or her inaction. Anger, ultimately does not relieve the loneliness it only further compromises the lonely person’s wellness.

Loneliness is also unhealthy. Dr. Rabin, a professor of Pathology and Psychiatry at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine reported, “Loneliness is associated with decreased immune system function and negative sequelae for health”. He also reported that both college students and elderly people who have a social support system were less likely to experience a reduction in their immune system and stay healthy during stressful times than those who did not have a social support system.

Other research studies associate stress, anger, and depression (possible by-products of loneliness) with heart conditions, more frequent heart attacks, and other serious ailments.

If you are feeling lonely, please consider the following:

•Loneliness is hazardous to your health and well-being.
•The pain of loneliness is a call for action.
•Abstain from blaming yourself, others, getting angry, feeling victimized, getting depressed or losing hope.

•You can change your situation by becoming proactive rather than passive.
•Get involved with church, volunteer work, recreational groups, senior center, or whatever group may hold your interest.
•Help others. By giving of yourself you increase your self-esteem, energy, and sense of worth, and possibly find new friends.
•Explore your untapped talents in art, writing, sailing, golf, dancing, or any other creative venture, which may be satisfying to you. You are likely to meet people who share the same interest, which may be a first step to new connections.
•View your loneliness as a temporary state. YOU have the power to change it.

•Above all, initiate a connection with a new person by listening, affirming and showing interest. Be the first one to suggest meeting again. Every person is flattered and often receptive to gestures of interest from another.
•Loneliness is a changeable state. Deal with it as you would any other obstacle to your happiness: devise a plan, stick with it and be patient and consistent.
•Once you begin to develop new friends, loneliness becomes a forgotten emotion replaced by companionship, joy and health.

November 21, 2004

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About Author

Offra Gerstein, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in clinical practice in Santa Cruz, California for over 25 years, and specializes in relationship issues for couples and individuals for improved quality of life. Her work includes: mate selection, marriage, long term relationships, gay and lesbian couples, work relationships, parenting issues, family interactions, friendships, and conflict resolutions. Offra has lectured extensively to various groups, conducted support groups for several organizations, and has been writing a weekly column "Relationship Matters" for the Santa Cruz Sentinel since 2001.

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