What is Loneliness?
The definition of loneliness is the feeling of “sadness because one has no friends or company,” according to the dictionary. Many people feel lonely from time to time. Most often people are lonely because their friends are not available at the time or that they don’t have any friends at all. People crave friendship and time with friends, but when being alone for a certain amount of time, people can feel lonely, (Marano, Hara).
Furthermore, there are two type of loneliness:. sState loneliness and trait loneliness. “State loneliness usually occurs when a person move to a new place, like the person might move to a new city to work or to study,” (When Trait and State Loneliness Come Together). On the other hand, “In trait loneliness, the inherent traits of the person make him/her feel lonely,” (When Trait and State Loneliness Come Together).
In other words, state loneliness is temporary, while trait loneliness is built-into a person and lasts a long time. State loneliness also largely depends on the situation a person is in. For example, a person could experience state loneliness when they move to a new school, as everything will be unfamiliar to them.
However, trait loneliness has nothing to do with the situation a person is in. This is because their built-in traits and personality cause them to constantly feel lonely.CausesThere are quite a few reasons as to why someone might feel lonely. Gary J. Kennedy states that a person can feel lonely “due to death, geographic changes, or ‘lost contact.'” For instance, examples of death may be the death of a loved one, and having feelings of loss and grief for a period of time.
Additionally, an example of a geographic change might be moving to a new state or country. People may also feel lonely because “they simply don’t see or talk to anyone very often” or “even though they are surrounded by people, they don’t feel understood or cared for,” (How to Cope With Loneliness). Furthermore, people who have friends may also feel lonely.
The article “How to Cope With Loneliness” states, “You might feel that you have plenty of connections, but what is actually wrong is that you don’t feel close to them, or they don’t give you the care and attention you need.” All in all, there are many different ways a person could feel lonely. Physical EffectsFor starters, loneliness has physical effects on the human body. According to Gary Kennedy, loneliness can cause changes in the cardiovascular, hormonal, immune systems.
For instance, people could experience heart damage, bone/muscle loss, higher infection risk, and frailty. In addition, the elderly have a higher chance of experiencing any of these risks. Furthermore, loneliness encourages artery erosion, high blood pressure, blood vessel damage, and deficient sleep. Turhan Canli, a professor of psychology and psychiatry, claims that “other illnesses and disorders are exacerbated in the presence of subjected social isolation.”
In other words, loneliness has the capability of worsening previously owned illnesses and disorders. To illustrate, people who have Dementia could experience worsened symptoms if they are isolated for too long. The effects can be seen throughout the elder as feeling loneliness raises the risk of Dementia by 64%. Furthermore, there is also an increased risk of heart disease. Short term inflammation is crucial for the body to fight off infections, but when one is isolated for too long the inflammation turns chronic.
Damaging the bodies tissues and blood vessels making them vulnerable to strokes heart attacks and other heart complications.(Biswas, 2015)Social EffectsAs most people already know, loneliness is a huge social problem. In fact, “According to researcher John Cacioppo at the University of Chicago, 20 percent of all people are unhappy because of social isolation at any given moment,” (Edmonds, Molly). Another statistic says that 1 in 5 Americans often experience loneliness.
According to Hara Marano, psychologists have found that people have a “fundamental need for inclusion in group life and for close relationships.” That means that us humans need to have relationships in order to even survive. When we fulfill our social needs, it’s noticeably easier to motivate ourselves and overcome challenges.When a person experiences excessive loneliness during childhood, they are more likely to be antisocial their entire life.
As a matter of fact, most school dropouts happen because students failed to be social as children. “It sets in motion a course on which children spin their way to outcast status and develop delinquency and other forms of antisocial behavior,” (Marano, Hara).Mental EffectsAlong with having physical effects, loneliness can also affect a person mentally. To start off, there is a great correlation between loneliness and stress, as loneliness often leads to higher stress levels.
In more intense conditions, loneliness can cause depression. This includes feelings of hopelessness, increased disability, weight fluctuations, bad sleep, suicidal thoughts, and more. The increase of stress levels causes excess stress hormones to be released, which can have a negative effect on the mind.
For example, stress hormones can rewire the brain’s hippocampus, the region of the brain mostly used for memory, emotions, navigation, etc. These hormones can affect a person’s perception, Carol Schaeffer claims. She says that “The ‘internal GPS’ of the brain is disturbed, depth perception is altered and where the body lies in relation to other objects in space in uncalibrated” (Schaeffer, Carol). In simpler terms, the release of excess stress hormones (due to loneliness) can change the perception of surroundings and sense of direction.
Extreme loneliness can also cause hallucinations, especially in those who have experienced physical isolation for an extended amount of time. One extreme case of hallucination was the incident in 1895, where Joshua Slocum was circumnavigating the globe and said that he encountered Christopher Columbus’ ship “The Pinta”.
Where he claimed he spoke to the pilot of the ship, and that he also navigated his ship through heavy weather while he lay ill. Another extreme case was in 1933 when Frank Smythe attempted to climb Mount Everest. Where he became so convinced that someone was traveling alongside him that he even offered a piece of cake. (PsyPost, 2016)
Despite the effects that feelings of loneliness can have on people, physical isolation has effects on people as well. One common example of pure isolation is solitary confinement, where prisoners are left in their prison cells for about 23 hours per day. According to Stuart Grassian, about one third of solitary inmates were “actively psychotic and/or suicidal.”
Solitary confinement can cause panic attacks, cognitive difficulties, aggressive thoughts and fantasies, paranoia, loss of self control, oversensitivity, and hallucinations.One particular inmate that he interviewed said that he developed a strong obsession with the inability to feel his bladder was fully empty, he would stand hours on hours trying to pee.
The obsessions they develop was a way for them to cope and maintain some sort of alertness.(PsyPost, 2016)Overall, the effects of physical and mental isolation are at a higher intensity than mental isolation alone because of the lack of social stimuli.Neurological Many changes occur in the brains of lonely people. For instance, studies have shown that loneliness was associated with higher levels of cortisol, often called a “stress hormone.” “Cortisol can help control blood sugar levels, regulate metabolism, help reduce inflammation, and assist with memory formulation,” (What is Cortisol?).
This is because loneliness causes stress, which then causes cortisol to be released. High levels of cortisol can lead to Cushing’s syndrome, a syndrome that causes extreme weight gain in the face and torso.Experiments have shown that loneliness correlates with the amount of activity in the ventral striatum, a region of the brain that is linked to reward processing and plays a role in learning.
For example, a study done by the University of Chicago found that when viewing pictures of people in pleasant settings, people who were deemed as “lonely” showed less activity in the ventral striatum than people who were deemed as “not lonely.” That concludes that lonely people have a weaker reward system than non lonely people.
Other experiments have shown that loneliness during childhood can cause lifelong abnormalities and cognitive problems in the brain. A professor of neurology and otolaryngology named Gabriel Corfas performed an experiment on mice to figure out the relationship between brain abnormalities and cognitive problems that were caused by loneliness.
To start off, he took baby mice from their mothers when they were 21 days old. Then he put some mice in groups of 4 in a regular lab environment, some mice in a rich environment with lots of other mice, and some mice in complete isolation. After 50 days, the mice were tested on their social and memory skills.
The mice from the regular and rich environments performed well, but the isolated mice struggled with both skills.Corfas then examined the mice’s brains and found that the mice from the regular and rich environments had no abnormalities. On the other hand, the isolated mice had stumpy oligodendrocytes.
Oligodendrocytes, which are cells in the brain that support and insulate axons (axons are the long and skinny parts of a neuron that transmit information to other neurons) help speed up communication between neurons by creating supportive blankets made of myelin and wrapping them around axons.
Normally, oligodendrocytes have long, complex projections, but in this case, the isolated mice had oligodendrocytes with short and simple projections. Because the mice had stumpy oligodendrocytes, the blankets of myelin that were to be wrapped around their axons were thinner, so communication between neurons in their brain was slowed.
A similar experiment was done by a professor of neurology named Dr. Michael J. Zigmond. He put a group of mice in an environment where there was lots of space, interaction with other mice, and exercise opportunities. This was supposed to represent a general prison environment. On the contrary, he put another group of mice in their own separated shoeboxes with very limited space and no exercise opportunities. “The way the housing is set up is very much like many solitary housing arrangements,” (Zigmond, Michael).
In other words, this was supposed to represent solitary confinement. Overall, Zigmond noticed that the isolated mice had simpler, less complex neurons in their brains, few connections, and communication between neurons.A study conducted on the 1950s by the University of Wisconsin psychologist Harry Harlow placed rhesus monkeys in a custom isolation chamber in the shape of an inverted pyramid. The chamber nicknamed “the pit of despair.”
Had sides that were made very slippery making it impossible to get out. The after a day or two of research, Harlow already started seeing a change in monkeys behavior. Harlow reported that the subjects were hunched over in a corner rocking back and forth for long periods of time, circling the cage and mutilating themselves.
Those who were kept in for short periods of time were able to adjust easily as opposed to those who were kept in for twelve months. Those “Twelve months of isolation almost obliterated the animals socially,” Harlow stated.(PBS, 2014)In addition a test conducted with 38 lonely people and 32 people non-lonely people were given words and instructed to tag them as ‘social/positive’, ‘social/negative’, ‘nonsocial/positive’ and ‘nonsocial/negative’ to see the different ways they responded.’
Subjects were attached to electrodes to read their brain waves. Lonely subjects became more attentive when were regarded as socially negative and also picked out socially threatening words more quickly. This suggesting that lonely people are subconsciously looking out for negativity. Non-lonely responded the same to both social and socially negative.(Richards, 2015)
Human experiments are rare but a research conducted in 1951, researcher paid a group of male graduates to stay in small chamber for six weeks. The subjects were left in the chambers with goggles, earphones, and gloves limiting their sight, hearing, and touch. The only time they were allowed was when they had to go to the bathroom. CopingSome ways to prevent loneliness is to “Recognize that loneliness is a sign that something has to change.”
Despite the fact that loneliness is a problem that can affect us negatively, there are many ways to cope with loneliness. What Can You Do To Help Someone Wh