It’s difficult to admit to feeling lonely. In our society, it’s still seen as very taboo, and typically something only associated with old people or even social recluses. But the truth of it is that loneliness is now more likely to affect young people than older age groups. A recent ONS study of more than 10,000 people found that almost 10% of people aged 16 to 24 were ‘always or often’ lonely – more than three times higher than for people aged 65 and over.
When we are lonely and stressed, our nervous system goes into fight or flight and cortisol levels increase.
Most of us will associate loneliness as something you feel when you’re alone – when you have no evening plans and no one to invite to your birthday. But actually loneliness doesn’t have anything to do with being surrounded by people or not; it’s about how connected you feel. It’s why people like me can feel lonely even when their phone doesn’t stop buzzing and they’re turning down plans. It’s not about the quantity of your connections, it’s about the quality.
“We live in a world where we are connected in an instant to millions of people, yet we feel an incredible sense of loneliness and lack of connection,” explains Dr Amy Sullivan, a psychologist at the Cleveland Clinic. She explains that when you feel connected, the dopamine levels in your body increase – and without dopamine, we have a difficult time becoming motivated and lack drive and desire. When we are lonely and stressed, our nervous system goes into fight or flight and cortisol levels increase.
“This produces a number of harsh events on our body, from increased heart rate and blood pressure, increases in inflammation and difficulty fighting infection, stress, anxiety and depression,” she explains.
It can have serious impact on our health. According to researchers at Brigham Young University who reviewed data from studies that included 3.4 million people, loneliness can increase the risk of death by at least 30%, which makes it as dangerous as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. When it comes to good health in 2018, we tend to prioritise our diet, exercise and sleep, but forget just how important it is to work on our real human connections.
Social media is part of the curse. It can be easy to try and distract yourself from loneliness by turning to Instagram memes and WhatsApp conversations – but that can make it even worse: social media usage has been linked to an increase in negative wellbeing. Dr Sullivan says often people compare lives and become envious instead of being grateful for their own lives. A new study published in the Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology found that those who limited their use of social media to 30 minutes a day “showed significant decreases in anxiety” than the baseline group.
Dr Sullivan says the antidote to loneliness is two-fold. “The first thing is to reach out and establish those meaningful relationships,” she says, from making real friends at work to having a tribe you can turn to in stress. Ironically, studies by Professors John and Stephanie Cacioppo, who research loneliness, suggest that loneliness makes us feel less open to socialising and more likely to push people away, so it takes real effort to do this.
But she also says it’s important to practise gratitude regularly. “Rarely is the grass greener on the other side. Look at your own life and count your blessings daily. Your life is full of them, so name them.”
It's why I've started cutting down on engagements and thinking about what friendships really do bring meaning to my life. Naturally it has led to me seeing some friends less, but it also means telling a couple of new friends just how much I value them and want to spend more time with them. Result? I'm slowly on my way to building up that real tribe of people I can turn to for true connection.
How to tackle loneliness:
Call it out. By naming the feeling, you take back a bit of control.
Limit social media to 30 minutes per day.
Nurture a small group of meaningful friends.
Keep a gratitude diary.
Remember now you can sync up with your moods and cycle, improve your down days and power up your best by downloading the Moody Month app.