Your Isolation might be killing you.

Everyone feels lonely once in a while. It’s a normal human condition — our brain’s way of telling us that living our lives either physically or emotionally disconnected from others does not increase our chances of survival. A little loneliness is normal and fairly healthy, but when loneliness becomes a constant, everyday feeling, it could be a serious problem.

There is a difference between being alone and being lonely. Loneliness is an exclusively subjective condition, which means that if you feel like you are lonely, you are. Social isolation means living with very few social relationships or none at all. In some people, it’s a mentally and physically comfortable way of life while in others, it leads to discomfort and loneliness. A person can, however, be lonely without being socially isolated.

Feeling lonely can, as counterproductive as it sounds, often lead people to isolate themselves. This is because loneliness increases stress levels, causing the hormone cortisol to be released, which activates the “fight-or-flight” response. In the case of loneliness, an individual usually employs “flight.” When a person has been chronically lonely for an extended period of time, they become more sensitive to communicative cues but tend to misread them. They begin to read neutral expressions or actions as hostile and withdraw even further into themselves. In this way, being chronically lonely is like being on a downward slope — it is much easier to fall to the bottom than to climb to the top.

But what exactly does the feeling of loneliness entail?

The Definition Of Loneliness

Britannica defines it as a “distressing experience that occurs when a person’s social relationships are perceived by that person to be less in quantity, and especially in quality, than desired,” implying that social relationships do not necessarily have to be completely absent for a person to be lonely.

The psychologist Rober S. Weiss noted 6 key aspects of social interactions which include:

Reassurance of worth
Sense of reliable alliance
Guidance in stressful situations

The absence of any of the above aspects is what usually results in the feelings of loneliness.

How Loneliness Kills

The Centre for Disease Control and Prevention categorizes loneliness as a serious public health risk. Interestingly, though social isolation and loneliness aren’t the same, they have similar negative effects.

In terms of physical health, research has shown that social isolation and/or loneliness increases a person’s risk of developing heart disease by 29%, and the risk of a stroke by 32%. It makes you age quickly and makes cancer deadlier. It also cuts short a person’s lifespan, leading directly or indirectly to the death of a good number of people. The death rates rival other health risks such as obesity, physical inactivity, and chainsmoking.

It can also increase the risk of dementia by up to 50%, especially in the elderly, and it significantly increases the risk of depression, anxiety, and suicide. It sometimes causes mild to moderate cognitive impairment.

Why we are getting lonelier as a society, and how we can prevent it.

Statistically, the rates of loneliness are skyrocketing. Research shows that the average number of close friends in friend groups in America has shrunk from three friends in 1985 to two in 2011. Though loneliness is only an epidemic in Western countries right now, the steady westernization of the world means it is gradually working its way to becoming a pandemic.

The steady rise in the rates of loneliness in the western world (and consequently in developing countries as well, as a result of globalization) began when individualism and capitalism became more mainstream than collectivism and rural life. People were now encouraged to find their unique way, and families and friends groups begin breaking apart as the individual benefit championed over the collective benefit. The advent of technology also played a role in the rise of loneliness, making it easier for individuals to isolate themselves while still remaining functional in society. However, collectivist philosophy such as the Ubuntu philosophy is still very much alive in certain parts of Africa.

To fight loneliness, we have to understand that it is a deeply human condition. Feeling like an outcast because you are lonely will only intensify feelings of loneliness. Remember that you are not alone in your loneliness and try as much as possible not to deliberately avoid social situations. Social connections on the internet often don’t significantly reverse feelings of loneliness, so as much as you can, swap out internet connections with physical ones with friends and family.

While it’s important to embrace who we are and discover ourselves through solitude, it is worth remembering that we are gregarious beings by nature. We should choose to strengthen the connection we share by virtue of our human experience, despite how much modernity tries to convince us otherwise.

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