“I’m just so lonely,” the woman sighed in my office. “I feel as if no one cares.”
Loneliness is the perceived absence of close friends or the lack of a social network that allows us to feel connected to others in our world.
Sometimes we are physically isolated and literally have no one to relate to. Most times, though, we’re emotionally lonesome even though we’re surrounded by scores of fellow humans. For example, a college freshman may miss his high school girlfriend and refuse to interact with fellow students in his dorm.
Of course, loneliness can be measured in degrees. All of us have felt lonely when we moved to a new area, started at a different school or ended a long-term relationship. Most likely our sadness abated in a matter of weeks and we were on our way to fitting in.
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But chronic loneliness is a more serious matter. According to psychologist John Cacioppo of the University of Chicago, living alone increases the risk of suicide in all age groups.
Lonely people experience higher levels of stress than their non-lonely counterparts, even when they are exposed to the exact same stressors. Loneliness raises blood pressure as well as the levels of stress hormones. It also negatively impacts sleep, making it less physically and emotionally restorative.
Even physicians are affected by their patients’ lack of support systems. Doctors acknowledged in a survey conducted by Cacioppo that they provide better and more complete medical care to people who have caring, available families than those who are handling their illness on their own.
The causes of loneliness are complex. Some forms can be traced to psychological problems. Disorders such as depression, social phobia or avoidant personality disorder may severely interfere with a person’s ability to form and sustain interpersonal relationships. We can also catch loneliness from fellow isolates.
Because lonely people view their surroundings with distrust and negativity, Cacioppo says they spread that suspicion to others they interact with. It all happens below their psychic radar. But every frown or derogatory comment makes someone else feel vulnerable, too. As folks turn cold shoulders toward their neighbors or shun personal contact with a vengeance, the contagion continues unabated. And everyone suffers as a result.
Want to overcome your loneliness? Follow these steps:
• Go outside. Lonely people separate themselves from others. They tend to hang out behind closed doors. Step outside. Walk around the block. Watch people at the park. The simple act of opening your front door increases the likelihood you’ll meet someone else.
• Get involved. Join a book group. Volunteer for a project at work. Work for a political cause you believe in. Take a meal to a neighbor who’s recovering from surgery. You’ll be in contact with other people and you’ll have something to talk about.
• Watch your negativity. Your emotional glass is probably half empty. You’re quick to point out what you don’t like. Catch yourself in the naysaying act. No one wants to hear you complaining. And it only reinforces isolating thoughts.
• Pursue a passion. Explore what excites you. Then make that dream come true. You’ll meet others who share your same interest. You’ll feel better about yourself. • Limit your cyberspace time. Computers are terrific tools. But they’re an easy escape for those who shun personal contact. Find things to do beside sit in front of a screen, especially activities that involve other people.
• Be a good listener. A great way to build friendships is to show interest in what people say and do. Don’t interrupt. Be careful about offering opinions. Your goal is for people to like you, not prove that you are right.
• Invite someone to join you. Ask a co-worker to attend an upcoming car show. Or invite a Zumba classmate to join you for tea. The small effort expresses your interest and sets the stage for a potential friendship.
• Behave in a way that says, “I’m worthwhile.” Often we shun social settings because we think we’re losers. “No one likes me,” we repeat over in our heads. To change that mantra, act as if you were different. Wear something stylish and new. Go to places where winners hang out. It may feel foreign or even phony. Don’t worry. You deserve to be there, too.