I’ve had moments in my life when I’ve felt lonely, even when I’ve been in a room full of people. I’ve also had moments when I was alone, but didn’t feel lonely in the slightest. Apparently, those two contradictory states of mind are perfectly normal. But, what is loneliness?
I firmly believe that a feeling of loneliness is a natural occurring emotion in all life forms and Dr. John Cacioppo explains it as:
“Feeling lonely at any particular moment simply means that you are human. In fact, a sizeable portion of this book is devoted to demonstrating that the need for meaningful social connection, and the pain we feel without it, are defining characteristics of our species.”
When we feel lonely, it’s often times a mild form of melancholia — feeling a bit down and isolated, but not quite sure why an not certain how to alleviate the feeling.
When we have bouts of loneliness, we often long for more friends and social activity, believing that being surrounded by people will alleviate our loneliness. But will it? When we feel the most lonely, we sometimes consciously avoid social contact, which seems contradictory. Why would that be?
We may finally have an answer. John and Stephanie Cacioppo, psychologists at the University of Chicago and noted authorities on the psychology and science of loneliness, show that this may be because our brains operate differently when we’re feeling lonely.
The Cacioppo’s research found that when we’re lonely, the electrical activity in our brains intensifies faster than that of ‘non-lonely people’ and they conclude that lonely people are constantly and subconsciously guarding against social threats. In other words, people who are lonely may be more hyper-defensive and thus, will retreat rather than engage, in order to protect themselves (e.g. they’re feeling vulnerable as it is, so why expose themselves to situations that could cause them stress).
Have you ever experienced feeling lonely, but also apprehensive about being around people, even if you’re normally an outgoing person?
The Cacioppo’s conclude that we must fight the urge to isolate when we already feel lonely.
We need to bear in mind that being alone and feeling lonely aren’t the same. We can be alone and be very contented and happy, but loneliness is when we feel socially isolated (not just alone…but alone and feeling isolated) — this is when there is a disconnect between our desire to have meaningful social relationships and our ability to make them a reality.
The research shows us that it’s vital to be self-aware about what loneliness does to our brain—that it primes it to be hyper-vigilant to threats and to go into ‘self-preservation mode.’ As Dr. Cacioppo points out:
“Feeling lonely might mean you need to reinterpret your view of your social interactions. For example, if you feel a friend has slighted you, ask yourself if you were actually hostile and in an isolation mode first and your friend is reacting to your behavior. You need to understand that you may be responsible.”
As quoted from an article in The Cognitive Neuroscience Society:
Dr. Cacioppos’s evolutionary model of loneliness suggests that loneliness is associated with an implicit hyper-attention to negative social stimuli as they are perceived as potential social threats. According to this evolutionary model of loneliness, feeling socially isolated (or on the social perimeter) leads to increased surveillance of the social world and an unwitting focus on self-preservation. Paradoxically, feeling lonely not only increases the explicit desire to connect or re-connect with others, but it also produces an implicit hyper vigilance for social threats. In other words, feeling socially isolated from significant others is not only sad, it feels dangerous. Our work tested the hypothesis that loneliness affects early attentional processes to negative social stimuli (e.g., social threats).
This is called social cognitive retraining and Dr. Cacioppo suggests four steps to combat loneliness, which he describes with acronym EASE:
Extend Yourself. “You cannot connect if you isolate yourself—or if you only connect online where many people present a non-authentic self,” Dr. Cacioppo says. Accept social invitations, even if you don’t feel like going out.
Action Plan. Detail how you can change your thoughts, expectations, and behaviors toward others. Knowing you can do something different is empowering. Get your calendar out and map out your social life. Choose people who will make your world a more positive place and spend time with them. According to the article, one of the best ways to overcome loneliness is to have “an openness to engagement combined with realistic expectations, accurate perception of social cues…and realism about the type and number of commitments to take on.”
Selection. The antidote to loneliness is high quality relationships. You may have few or many relationships, but it’s quality not quantity that matters. Choose where to invest your social energy. Identify how many relationships you want to invest in and where you want to meet people and share good times with people who have similar interests.
Expect the best. When you feel lonely, you may read other people’s actions wrong. Did your friend really blow you off, or was he just really busy and sincerely couldn’t ball you back? “Give the other person the benefit of the doubt,” Dr. Cacioppo says: “Friends don’t mean their actions as negative as they sometimes appear.” Expecting the best in new situations and with new people can only help you to open up a bit more, have new encounters, and hopefully, conquer your loneliness.
It saddens me to think anyone ever feels lonely, so I hope the research by Dr. Cacioppo helps in some way. And remember, no matter how lonely we may feel, we are loved — there is always someone who loves and cares about us and if you’re a person of faith like me, we know that God always loves us no matter what!