The longing for attachment is a basic aspect of human existence. Be it with fellow humans, pets, plants or even inanimate objects, the sense of belonging and need to belong add to our identity, giving our psyche the sense of completion and purpose. It can range from the proximity of siblings or parent-child dyad to the companionship of your pet or bond of a writer with his diary or that of the painter with the canvas. Various psychological theories mention the basic need of belonging to your loved ones, which if deprived can lead to adverse emotional consequences like loneliness.
All of us have felt lonely at some point or the other in our lives and we know that it is not a pleasant feeling. Varying mood states, social circumstances or environmental situations can affect our proximity and interactions with our loved ones, leading us to feel left out or lonely. If this state is constant or pervasive, neglected and not attended to, it gives rise to serious mental health consequences. Ironically enough, in today’s technologically blessed world of the new normal, face-to-face contact gets reduced, leading to decreased expression of emotions and adding to virtual relationships that increases the inner loneliness that we feel. But irrespective of the background noise or the number of people around you, one can still feel silently lonely and empty.
Causes and effects: Loneliness stems from continuous physical, social or emotional detachment of an individual from his/her surroundings and intimate bonds. Unfortunately, in our busy lives, we often neglect our loneliness and the offshoots of it. We try compensating for it by virtual connections, addiction, overworking or other maladaptive practices. If consistent, this state can lead to negative patterns of thinking like hopelessness (feeling that nothing is going to change), worthlessness (feeling that one is not worthy enough to live) and finally helplessness (feeling that no help can be sought for their situation), which can create negatively biased views about one’s self, environment and the future, with the mental state spiralling into depression and anxiety.
Stress builds up and soon the alienated person considers himself/herself as unwanted, unloved and unproductive, further decreasing interaction and shying away from the relations, thus eventually being lonelier. This vicious cycle is tough to break.A study done at the University of Surrey, England, in 2009 states that screen time (total time devoted to any form of visual and digital media) is inversely proportional to self-satisfaction and quality of life. This is further aided by research done by Briggs and his team in 2012 where they studied adolescents and young adults in Melbourne, concluding that the degree of perceived loneliness is directly related to lack of effective friendships and close contacts, decreased face-to-face contact, substance abuse, difficult parenting, bullying and increased internet use.
The prevalence of loneliness is on the rise. Factor analysis of the National Mental Health Survey (NMHS) 2015-16 records shows that 30% of the Indian population feels lonely most days of the week at some point or the other, whereas 65% of them suffer from at least one mental disorder or substance abuse problem. The World Health Organization (WHO) identifies loneliness as one of the common and preventable risk factors for depression. Decades of research in mood disorders have suggested loneliness as a potent risk factor for suicide, especially in younger adults.
Research clearly states that depression and loneliness are intricately linked. It can also increase the risk for generalised anxiety disorder, panic attacks and schizophrenia, as well as pregnancy-related and post-partum mental health complications. In children, it can lead to problems in learning, school refusal, inattention, speech issues and conduct disorders with decreased academic and social performance. In adolescents, it’s a common trigger for violence, aggression, substance use problems and antisocial traits. Loneliness has been a common gateway factor for highly addictive substances like alcohol, cocaine and heroin. People also tend to retire to the digital world, increasing the risk of mobile overuse, online gaming and technology addiction. The International Alzheimer’s Society recognises long-term loneliness as a major factor contributing to a lack of stimulation, increasing the risk of dementia (memory disorders that happen with age).
Feeling lonely leads to emotional numbness that, if persisting for a long time, can cause the stress-handling organs of the body (adrenal glands, hypothalamus) to release excessive cortisol (stress hormone) that gets dysregulated, causing persistent anxiety, hair fall, digestive and heart disorders, gastritis, high cholesterol and uric acid, as well as increased risk for diabetes and vulnerability to infections due to compromised immunity. Lack of sleep is another important consequence.The emerging epidemic and steps ahead: It is vital to understand that loneliness is not an illness but a state of mind. However, it is often neglected until it is too late, directly affecting mental health. This important risk factor for adverse mental health is emerging as a silent epidemic and will only rise in proportion in the years to come. But it can be prevented and dealt with aptly.
Certain measures suggested are lifestyle modifications (daily scheduling, yoga and exercise, physical activity, personal hobbies and activity involvement), indulging in spiritual or humanitarian activities, group or community work, pets, reminiscence of older memories and music. Also, loneliness mostly overlaps with depression and anxiety and thus, professional psychotherapy (counselling) helps.A vital step in fighting loneliness is receiving regular peer support and enjoying enough personal time. In the pursuit of materialistic pleasures, we chase apparent happiness, the quicksand of which quickly immerses us in habit-bound duties and responsibilities, thus isolating us from our true selves, hobbies and fantasies. It is important to cherish our activities, no matter how simple; we need to have time to enjoy them. Identifying another lonely peer or colleague and enabling him/her to seek timely help is a challenge.
Finally, a major component of loneliness arises due to the fear of socialising and hence, adequate social skills and adaptive behaviour training have been scientifically proven to help healthy thinking and social behaviour. In this digitally driven society, human touch and interaction still has no replacement. Sharing a smile, a friendly handshake or a gentle encouraging pat on the back goes a long way in making your day better. The concerning cloud of loneliness can only be cleared by a collective effort of awareness, understanding and seeking help. In the words of Mother Teresa, “The human bond, in its true sense, has the capacity for miracles.”
Dr Debanjan Banerjee
Psychiatrist, NIMHANS, Bengaluru
(Views are personal)