The Psychology of Loneliness

Worth Living Ambassador Frankie Samah

Hi I’m Frankie and I’m from Wales, UK. I am a psychology teacher and postgraduate education psychologist. I am a women’s right activist, working with women’s aid to raising awareness and to break the silence. I am a mental health advocate and writer. I believe in counteracting the stigma around mental health and we should begin with the ideology. Instagram- Frankie Samah

The Psychology of Loneliness

As I approach being middle-aged and working far too many hours with little contentment, I ask myself what is it that makes me sad? It isn’t smoking or drinking too many gin and tonics, my grey hairs that now looks like a badger stripe down the middle of my head or even the whiskers that seem to have appeared on my chin but probably more the loneliness or the lack of genuine connections I have and how I have tended to let my friendships lapse.

Now if I quickly take a stock look at my life, I’ll try to prove to myself that in fact, it was just life that got in the way. During the week, my life seems to revolve around work and children, driving to work, driving home from work, remembering which after-school club my daughter has to be at that evening, making dinner, cleaning, washing, etc. But this seems to be a familiar story and in recent reports, health practitioners believe that it is not cancer or heart disease that is the epidemic for this country but in fact loneliness. The late Mother Theresa described loneliness and the feeling of being unwanted as the most terrible poverty.

As we know, I have a slight love for old literature, so it seems like a poignant part to mention the psychology of loneliness in Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights. The protagonist’s need for love is expressed not through loving but rather through the anguish of loneliness. Brontë uses a Freudian approach to explain loneliness, exploiting the conscious misery of loneliness trying to prove love in impossible with the characters learning in their childhood to fear rejection and love eventually leads to rejection, so they keep themselves isolated, highlighting the dark side of love. Satisfaction must be bought about by bringing the unconscious alive and arousing their fantasies. But we know this is just a story and keeping yourself alone eventually only hurts ourselves.

Times have changed, we live in a time where we can connect with anyone at any time from any place in the world so why is there this epidemic of loneliness?

Despite our societal advancements and even though communication may be easy, it is finding connections with people that is the tricky part. Social media allows us to stay in touch with people and keep up to date with their news without having to connect with them.

Humans are hyper-social beings; social situations influence our emotions. As a society we tend to organise ourselves into little communities, we all like to feel we belong. But as we hit being middle aged, we don’t short change our children; we short change our social life. So those connections are put to one side and we continue with our responsibilities.

Loneliness is not just a source of inspiration for the arts; it is a biological mechanism. Our brains yearn for interaction because our prehistoric ancestors desperately required company to survive; being surrounded by other humans ensured protection and children. Our brains still tell us we should surround ourselves by others to thrive.
Loneliness is a different feeling than being alone and loneliness in all accounts is
a natural feeling that everyone can experience at some point in their life. But if that feeling of loneliness continues, it can become a concern as chronic or long-term sense of social isolation is linked to depression, anxiety and PTSD.

When we were younger, I remember being in the car with my two brothers and two sisters and Mum refused to let us listen to the radio as she wanted quiet for five minutes. I thought Mum was such a fun spoiler and it’s only now I realise how important this quiet time was. It helps us to reflect on our day, on experiences, to shed the expectations and judgement of society and this is good for our self-care and mental health.

But being alone and lonely are not the same thing. Loneliness is a feeling that we are socially isolated but we don’t wish to be. People might surround us, but if those connections aren’t meaningful to us and make the soul feel alive, we might as well be the only person on the planet.

Neuroscience and psychology provide insight that the pain associated with loneliness is real, it is a psychological feeling of being more fearful, more anxious, and more depressed, but additionally physically making us more susceptible to disease with raised levels of stress hormones and a decreased immune response.

Loneliness is not just a physical malady but an emotional one too.

Research shows that social isolation affects the activation of dopaminergic and serotonergic neurons which are vital to our emotional well-being. The dopaminergic neurons in a brain region called the dorsal raphe nucleus were activated in response to acute social isolation and triggered the subject to become more motivated to search for and re-engage in social interactions.

This suggests the brain controls loneliness; we must learn to recognise the traits we have when we feel loneliness taking its toll. Our brains tell us when we have physical pain, with psychological distress; this is our brain telling us there is something wrong. Next time you have these feelings think of the neurons in your brain; they are trying to help you out, seek contact and social interactions and give them a break.

As mentioned earlier social media helps us keep up to date with people but doesn’t necessarily mean we are connecting with others. But it can be used for a positive tool, it’s a platform to connect with anyone and there are plenty of bloggers who are open and talk positively about how social media has helped their feelings of loneliness by building connections with people. Don’t be afraid to reach out to others and join groups. My dear friend sadly lost her husband a few years ago and after hearing my stories about travelling around in my camper, she decided to buy one. She joined some Facebook groups and now goes all over the country with the dogs meeting up with like-minded people. If you are feeling low or have feelings of loneliness speak to your general practitioner who can give you advice. Don’t let the fear hold you back and remember we all have a life worth living.

“We’re born alone, we live alone, we die alone. Only through our love and friendship can we create the illusion for the moment that we’re not alone.”
— Orson Welles

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