PARTY OF ONE
In Gail Honeyman’s popular novel, Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, the protagonist describes loneliness as the new cancer, “A shameful, embarrassing thing, brought upon yourself in some obscure way. A fearful, incurable thing, so horrifying that you dare not mention it.” We don’t talk about it, and yet one in four adults is lonely, according to the Australian Loneliness Report. I’d describe my own loneliness as somewhere between sadness and a deep ache. Although the circumstances that brought it on – stepping out of an incredibly social career, moving to a new neighbourhood and having two babies in quick succession – mean I’m exposed to many risk factors for loneliness, it still took me by surprise. I love my own company, crave alone time and have happily lived by myself in the past.
But, finding myself longing for support and connection – and not being able to get it – led me to a frustrating place where I was left asking: what is this feeling? Is it an emotion? A life state? And why does it feel so awful?
“I think loneliness is an innate signal that a need is not being met, similar to hunger or thirst,” says Dr Michelle Lim, chair of the Australian Coalition to End Loneliness and a senior lecturer in clinical psychology. “From an evolutionary point of view, we are designed to be social, to thrive in groups and develop meaningful connections. The way we’re living now, many of our social needs are not being met, which triggers a stress response.”
Yep, experts reckon contemporary life is fuelling loneliness, to the extent that it’s set to be the next public health crisis. To blame are various factors, from an increase in screen time and fewer face-to-face interactions, to a decline in memberships of community based organisations such as churches and sports clubs, not to mention a higher number of us living solo. Lim also names things such as long commutes, which take away from time with our loved ones.
It’s true that we often connect with mates via wifi more than IRL, but the true picture of loneliness is a bit more complex. Research published in the journal International Psychogeriatrics found that loneliness peaks at three key times in life – your late 20s, mid-50s and late 80s – and these spikes coincide with particular challenges and stresses.
“The late 20s is often a period of major decision-making, which can be stressful because you can end up feeling that your peers made better decisions than you did, and there’s a lot of guilt about why you did this or did that,” says Dilip Jeste, a geriatric neuropsychiatrist, who specialises in successful ageing. Other risk factors include situational triggers, such as moving jobs or interstate, being bullied, a divorce and, as in my case, new motherhood. For Nancy, 35, it was sparked by moving back to her home town after four years living overseas.
“My social circle had completely changed,” she says. “Friends [had] children or [had] moved away. I’m also single, and on weekends when loneliness really hits me, I have an overwhelming feeling of sadness. I feel lost.”
Julianne Holt-Lunstad, a professor of Psychology and Neuroscience at Brigham Young University, says that loneliness is “the discrepancy between one’s desired level of connection and one’s actual level of connection. For our health, we need to take our relationships as seriously as we do other factors.”
She’s not wrong. Lacking social connections can be as lethal as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, according to research in the Indian Journal of Psychiatry. The L word has also been linked to high blood pressure, cognitive decline and a weakened immune system. “Chronic loneliness is associated with increased risk of premature death,” warns Holt-Lunstad. “It exceeds the risk of alcohol consumption, of physical inactivity, obesity and of air pollution.” Kinda shocking, right?
Before you start mainlining Radiohead albums, there can be an upside.
“Loneliness is a very normal signal that indicates you need to do something different,” says Lim, who suggests viewing it as a tool for self development. If your loneliness is affecting your mental health, or you’re shutting down connections with other people, talking to a professional can be a good idea. Holt Lunstad suggests trying cognitive behavioural therapy, both to ease social anxiety and help you approach social sitches more positively. But, if you’re lonely because you don’t have enough opportunity to engage socially, there are things you can try. With this in mind, I tested out some science-approved, expert-backed strategies to combat my own loneliness. Here’s what I discovered.
1. LEARN TO SIT WITH THE DISCOMFORT
“I think the first stage is accepting that you are lonely,” says Michelle Kennedy, cofounder of Peanut, a social networking app connecting mums. “Only then can you move forward.” It’s not an easy thing to do. Nancy admits, “I don’t tell anybody I feel lonely, because I just think, ‘Well, why? Why am I lonely? Am I a loser? What’s wrong with me?’” My own negative self-talk amps up when I have my lonely moments, which often strike on weekday mornings when I want to get out of the house and see people but can’t – thanks to my kids’ sleep schedules. But, with Kennedy’s words in mind next time it happens, instead of allowing my self-pity to spiral, I try to catch my thoughts and breathe through it. The moment does pass, and I remind myself this is a temporary state and everyone feels it at some point in their lives.
2. INCREASE YOUR POSITIVE EFFECT
Lim suggests I offer more eye contact, open my shoulders and smile more in my interactions. “When you’re lonely, your body language gives people unconscious signals not to connect, even though you want to,” she reveals. It dawns on me that, since becoming a parent and leaving an office job to work solo as a freelance writer, I’ve definitely lost some of my social ease. So I’m now making an effort to be more smiley and lighthearted (even when talking about my loneliness!) in the relationships I already have, to ensure I don’t drain them. Otherwise, I realise, loneliness can become self perpetuating, by turning people off wanting to spend time with you.
3. SCALE BACK DIGI TIME
There’s nothing more mood plummeting than scrolling through someone’s group trip to Bali on Instagram when you’re feeling isolated. Research, including a study from the University of Pittsburgh and West Virginia University, links social media use – or at least negative experiences on socials – to more feelings of social isolation. “It definitely makes me feel like I’m not living my best life,” says Nancy. I’ve now implemented a rule of no social media on weekends; so I delete all the apps off my phone on a Friday and reinstall them on Monday. And you know what? I actually really look forward to the time off. It’s a chance to fill my head with something much more positive (such as the coffee I’m enjoying in the garden) than images of other people’s (supposedly) more exciting lives.
4. TALK TO A STRANGER DAILY
It can help foster magic moments of connection. Despite the aforementioned digital pitfalls, one great way to do this is online. “Technology is changing the way we build and maintain our relationships,” says Kennedy. “We’re used to doing everything on a screen so it feels natural to look for friendship and support there as well. Just make sure you go beyond an online connection and meet up in real life, too.” After downloading the Peanut app, I’ve started talking to other mums, and although the chance to chat with a stranger IRL didn’t present itself every day while I was writing this story, when it did it gave me a real buzz. I had a D&M with a woman at JustCuts when I went in for a trim, and I complimented a couple in a cafe on their dog. A tradie chatted with me when we were buying kombucha on tap at my local organic store, and I even remembered to smile and hold more eye contact with him. Check me out. I might just keep this one up.
WHAT MY ROAD-TEST REVEALED
Writing this story has made me realise just how hard it feels to be in a lonely patch of your life. But I now know what I can do daily to help myself. From the outside, it’s easy to think the answer to loneliness is simply to go out and make more friends, but that’s like telling someone who is depressed to just cheer up – not helpful. What a lonely person needs is self-care (in any form that works: therapy, self-compassion, long showers), to understand that you aren’t to blame for being lonely, and to tackle it seriously as a health concern. Only then will you feel ready to invite more connection with others into your life.
SIGNS OF LONELINESS
You shop a lot
A University of Chicago study of more than 2500 consumers over a period of six years found that loneliness was linked to materialism, to “fill a void”. Watch those Stylerunner binges.
You take heaps of baths and long showers
Serious bathroom time can be both a sign and a temporary cure for loneliness. A series of studies published in the journal Emotion found that people who felt lonely subconsciously tried to replicate feelings of social warmth with physical sensations of warmth. And it worked. Which is kinda cute.
You feel isolated
As though nobody really knows you, you have nobody to turn to and/or you don’t feel part of a group of friends. These are all statements used to measure loneliness on the UCLA Loneliness Scale.
If you or someone you know needs support with mental health, call Lifeline on 13 11 14 or Beyond Blue on 1300 224 636.
All photography via Getty Images.