Have you ever been to an event, around friends, or with family members, and still felt alone? If we don’t feel known, loved, or accepted, we can also end up feeling lonely. Studies have demonstrated that an increasing percentage of the population is experiencing perceived social isolation (in other words, loneliness). So, how do we explain this growing trend, and what can we do about it?
First off, there’s a reason why loneliness is so alarming. According to the Campaign to End Loneliness, loneliness is associated with increased risk of cardiovascular disease, cancer, and stroke. The negative health impacts of loneliness are equal to smoking as many as 15 cigarettes a day.
Neurologically and biologically, humans naturally seek connection with others. When we feel isolated, our brain emits neurochemicals that engage our fight-or-flight response. This reaction is part of our body’s survival instinct. Fight-or-flight is helpful for short periods of time, but over long periods of time, it is harmful to the body. Stress responses, like fight-or-flight, cause inflammation and can compromise immune system function over time.
Is social media to blame?
Some research demonstrates that there is a link between social media use and loneliness. Research from Bryan Primack, who is the director of the of the Center for Research on Media, Technology, and Health at the University of Pittsburg, demonstrated that young adults with higher rates of social media use also had increased probability of reporting perceived social isolation. Although research supports a link, it is yet to be determined whether social media use is the cause or result of loneliness.
The stories we tell ourselves
Consider this: our sense of loneliness is influenced by the stories we tell ourselves about how connected or unconnected we are. Our “stories” are those little, almost automatic, thoughts that run through our mind. Sometimes they are doubts or worries. Sometimes they look like internal debates. Most of us don’t verbalize these thoughts. Sometimes we don’t even realize we’re thinking them, but they’re powerful.
Our stories are crafted by the millions of experiences collected throughout our lifetime. Our interactions with others and comparisons to others can impact our stories. The messages we receive from our culture also affects our stories. Sometimes we reinforce stories that don’t even actually happen (for example, “If I try to interact with those people, they’ll just make fun of me”). Over time, the stories we tell ourselves most frequently get stronger and more believable. Even if the stories aren’t actually true.
So, what can we do about changing our stories to help us cope with loneliness? Check back in for part 2 of this blog for thoughts on what we can do to rewrite our stories and move through feelings of loneliness.
For more information, check out these links referenced in the article.