An Insight into Loneliness
To some people being alone, well for a short while in any case, is like living in heaven – away from the constant demands of the kids, away from a thoughtless or nagging partner, away from the hustle and bustle of work or city life. Sooner or later though reality kicks in and ironically they pine for the company and closeness of another human being.
Loneliness on the other hand, when prolonged, can be like a lingering canker, slowly eating away at your mind and your life – leaving nothing but a sad and empty shell of a person with little to live for save an existence with little meaning or purpose. Loneliness may be chosen, but usually occurs to people unwittingly or because of unfortunate circumstances. The loss or death of a spouse or a child can lead to terrible loneliness. People can still live with other people in a house, be married and yet in their mind be totally isolated and feeling lonely or alone. They may have nothing in common with a person they live with, or they may be caring for an elderly partner who is sick, with a stroke for example, and who is unable to speak or respond.
Humans are social beings and rely on each other not just for survival but for enjoyment and pleasure in life. Abraham Maslow (1987) developed in the 1950’s what is now well known as the ‘Hierarchy of Human Needs’ model. This model identified the most basic needs of people (such as food, clothing shelter, water) at the bottom of a triangle graduating upwards in the triangle with more emotional and cognitive needs leading to the highest level or apex of individual human satisfaction called ‘Self Actualisation’.
Of course other critical social, feminist and postmodernist theorists and researchers have identified broader aspects of human experience since that time; however Maslow’s model does serve to demonstrate how individual human needs require education, social support and networks. For example, an infant would simply be unable to survive without a more mature human or humans (like parents) to care and nurture it. Humans have a sophisticated language in order to communicate, and rely on one another throughout the lifespan for intimacy, support, knowledge, understanding and guidance.
Loneliness, when extreme, can lead to depression and suicide if help is not provided. Loneliness is to some extent part of being a normal human being. For example at times loneliness may be necessary for reflecting on life and aiding emotional healing in the grieving process. Many spiritual leaders have experienced intense loneliness (not just being alone) as part of growing stronger emotionally and spiritually.
So loneliness is not always negative and pathological. Loneliness is not specific to any age group or gender, so anyone in the right (or wrong) circumstances can be affected. Loneliness can be short in nature or linger on for many years. Loneliness can be bureaucratised and many lonely elder people live out their lives almost alone with no-one to talk to each and every day in some aged care facilities. Many older people also live very lonely lives living alone in populated suburbs and sparse rural and remote communities or farms.
Loneliness can still occur for a person surrounded by many other people in their lives. People can still feel isolated and lonely despite being socially active in sport, music, business and so on. Loneliness is a state of mind, not necessarily being isolated from other people. A person may have much more in common with some people than other people and if there is a mismatch of interests, culture, language, intelligence, social skills or abilities then that person could feel detached, alienated or marginalised and become lonely and depressed if the situation is prolonged.
Severe loneliness and depression often seem to be fateful partners. Research findings indicate that social conditions can lead to people feeling lonely and depressed (Herzog & Markus, 1991). Factors that can lead to this state include: unemployment; financial hardship; rural droughts, bushfires or floods that devastate peoples’ lives and livelihoods and isolate communities; loss of partner or loved one; lack of self-esteem – unable or scared to make relationships with others; physical illness (e.g., HIV AIDS, arthritis or back pain) or incapacitation or debilitation; problems of ageing (strokes, dementia); mental illnesses (especially suffering from phobias, anxiety and panic attacks) or disabilities in which sufferers are discriminated against; new mothers or parents trying to cope with a demanding new baby; people who are highly stressed or who move regularly from place to place without making friends; etc.
Theory and Facts
According to Michael Flood’s report (2005) titled ‘Loneliness in Australia’, the following facts are relevant about loneliness: Men of all ages are more likely to suffer from loneliness; among men between the ages of 25-44 and who live alone, they report significantly lower levels of support and friendship than men who live with others. Interestingly the same is not the case for women; men rely on their wives or partners for social and emotional needs. Women generally have a broader social network to draw upon to meet their needs.
Single mothers with children report the highest levels of loneliness among women respondents; divorced or separated men experience the same levels of loneliness as other men who live alone; divorced or separated women particularly by one year afterwards, indicate the same levels of loneliness as other women who have not been through separation or divorce. Women have greater social and emotional networks and contacts than men.
Men rely much more on paid employment as a source to provide personal support and friendship. As paid employment increases for men, so does personal support and friendships; women who live alone do find increased support and friendship through work regardless of the amount of hours worked; both men and women, single or otherwise, experience increased loneliness during financial hardship and if they lose their paid employment.
About one third of men living alone stated that they ‘often feel very lonely’; about one quarter of lone fathers with children stated they ‘often feel very lonely’; 13% of men in childless couple families also stated they ‘often feel very lonely’; this pattern of ‘often feeling very lonely’ is also similar in women. Men who live alone are often confronted by unsociable neighbourhoods (low level of neighbourhood cooperation and interaction) and they have poorer physical, emotional and mental health.
Below are some of the risk factors and protective factors that are related to loneliness and depression as identified in the literature.
Risk factors (environmental and social):
- Social disadvantage (poverty, unemployment, member of marginalised group (e.g., gay and lesbian communities; single parents)
- Family discord (relationship break-up, conflict, poor parenting practices)
- Parental mental illness
- Child abuse (physical/sexual, neglect)
- Exposure to adverse life events (bereavements, family separation, trauma, family illness)
- Caring for someone with a chronic physical or mental disorder
- For older adults, being in residential care
Protective factors (environmental and social):
- Good interpersonal relationships (supportive relationship with at least one person/parent, perceived social support)
- Community tolerance of difference and diversity
- Family cohesion (positive parent-child relations
- Social connectedness
- Academic/sporting achievements
Risk factors (biological and psychological):
- Parental mental disorder and family history of depression
- Being a female adolescent (more recently a male)
- High trait anxiety and pre-existing anxiety disorders, substance abuse, conduct disorder
- Temperament – reacting negatively to stressors, and personality trait of neuroticism
- Negative thought patterns (pessimism, learned helplessness)
- Avoidant coping style
Protective factors (biological and psychological):
- Easy-going temperament
- Optimistic thought patterns
- Effective coping skills repertoire (social skills, problem-solving skills)
Loneliness, depression and suicide are often associated with one another. The statistics in Australia and elsewhere are interesting as there appears to be a degree of ambiguity between data for depression and data for suicides. It is interesting to note that women over 18 years report symptoms of depression far more than men. Yet episodes of suicide in all age groups from early adolescence are far higher in men than in women.
Why is this so? It is suggested that men do not seek medical help nearly as much as women do and therefore episodes of men who may well be depressed but not seeking help is not reported. This is especially the case in rural and remote communities where men typically avoid seeking health care interventions. It may well be that men do suffer depression as much or maybe more than women but all we can do at this stage is speculate.
For most people wanting to know more about the general symptoms of loneliness and depression the following is important information. Loneliness symptoms according to Michael Flood 2005 citing his Report on Loneliness in Australia may include:
- Feelings of loss and despair
- Feelings of helplessness (e.g., with single male parents ‘There is no-one to help me when I need support and friendship’ or ‘...to cheer me up when I’m down’)
- Feelings of isolation and alienation or marginalisation from other people.
Many men and women, especially from poor socio-economic backgrounds, those who are single parents and under financial strain or hardship suffer loneliness and have symptoms typical of depression. So it is worth exploring depression in more detail.
According to ‘Spot, Seek, Solve – Depression’ (a mental health promotion initiative of Hunter New England Area Health Services, 2001-2006), symptoms of depression (which may directly relate to loneliness) may include feeling: down; worthless; hopeless; angry; tired and irritable; suicidal.
And/or finding it hard to: sleep (not enough sleep, sleeping too much and/or waking up early in the morning); concentrate; control your moods; enjoy the things you usually like; eat regularly.
Other symptoms may include: having aches and pains for no apparent reason; being overly pessimistic; losing interest in other people and not caring what happens; having a sense of failure or guilt; loss of outward affection and going off sex.
Characteristics of Negative Thoughts
- AUTOMATIC: They seem to happen without any effort on your part – they come ‘out of the blue’.
- UNHELPFUL: They keep you depressed, make it difficult to change and stop you getting what you want out of life.
- PLAUSIBLE: You accept them as facts and it does not occur to you to question them.
- INVOLUNTARY: You do not choose to have them and they can be very difficult to switch off.
- DISTORTED: They do not fit with the facts.
It is worth noting that these negative thoughts are most probably incorrect and illogical. A negative thought, according to The Clinical Psychology Service of Northampton Healthcare Community (NHS) Trust, 2003, Coping With Depression, Booklets 3 (Negative Thoughts), revised 09/12/03, pp.5-6, has two main elements: 1/ A sad mood immediately – it makes you feel worse; 2/ Less likelihood of taking positive action in the future – you just ‘give up’ before you try anything to put the situation right.
The Clinical Psychology Service of Northampton Healthcare Community (NHS) Trust, 2003, Coping with Depression, Booklets 3 (Negative Thoughts), revised 09/12/03, p.5, outlines another very interesting table titled Types of Thinking Errors in Depression and it is recited in full here as follows:
Types of Thinking Error in Depression
Jumping to a conclusion without any real evidence: You ring a friend. They are abrupt. You assume they no longer like you. Could be they have a headache or are watching TV.
Focusing on a detail taken out of context: Someone at work finds a minor mistake in your work. You think ‘I made a total mess of that’.
Overgeneralising: A long relationship ends. You overgeneralise ‘I will never find anyone else’.
Placing events in one of two ‘black and white’ categories with nothing in between: People are either totally for me or totally against me.
Imagining catastrophes: You look at some peeling wallpaper in your house. ‘The place is falling apart. I can’t stay here’.
Ignoring the good aspects of situations: Your children complain that their mash potato is lumpy. You think ‘I can’t even cook simple meals now’ ignoring that they said everything else was fine.
Loneliness can be debilitating and can lead to problems such as depression, anxiety and even suicide. Indeed loneliness, depression and anxiety often go hand in hand. It is important to recognise one’s strengths and resources such as friends, relatives, skills, knowledge and so on so that they can be harnessed to overcome feelings of self-doubt and negativity about oneself.
Further information on Loneliness: Click here to download our Life Effectiveness Guide “Coping with Loneliness”. The guide includes case examples along with exercises, strategies and skills to address loneliness and prevent depression.
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