Loneliness; A Clear and Present Danger of Our Times

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Much has been written and broadcast about the devastating Opioid Epidemic facing us.  The most recent data and statistics report increasing tens of thousands of individuals and families have suffered enormous losses.  But we are just beginning to understand that there is an underlying cause of this terrible crisis.

Extreme loneliness just might be the powerful primary feeling fueling opioid, alcohol and other drug addiction. The sweeping problem is being called “The Loneliness Contagion” because it actually seems to be contagious.  John Cacioppo, PhD from the University of Chicago believes it is spreading from person to person like a disease. Though experienced inordinately among millennials, it is increasing across the generations.

Where Is This Loneliness Coming From?

Dr. Shannon Monnat says that we live in an era of individualism, disinvestment in social safety nets, declines in social cohesion, and increased loneliness.  Could it be that this is coming from a new kind of isolation due to social media?

Isolation due to lots of time spent on social media sites while glued to cellphones is one of the reasons for decreasing real life interactions and what is being called Fear of Missing Out (FOMO).  Though there are multiple chatting contacts, swapping of photos and other kinds of interaction, people are feeling lonelier than ever.  This is strikingly similar to the social isolation commonly known as an experience affecting the elderly due to decreased mobility and loss of friends and partners. Despite the fact that younger people have massive quantities of friends online, this increasing loneliness stems from a decreasing quality of relationships.  In other words, a person may have a lot of friends but still find that their needs for social contact are not met.

I remember playing a mean trick on a rather needy friend in college.  She couldn’t stand missing out on our group adventures.  One day we posted a sign outside of her dorm room saying; “We are out having fun without you.” All of us hid behind her door waiting for her arrival.  We heard her shuffling down the hall.  She stopped, read the note and brokenheartedly sighed. “Oh, No!”  Even though we burst through the door merrily giggling, she had a really hard time recovering from our prank. I’m not sure she ever really forgave us.

We have a fundamental need to belong.  This is what gives life meaning.  In order to feel a sense of belonging there must be the presence of real (skin-to-skin as opposed to virtual) relationships.  They must be based on mutual caring responses in which we feel loved and valued.  It is also necessary to have frequent interactions with other people.  Loneliness diminishes or disappears when we feel like we matter.

One of my most profound memories of loneliness is of a time shortly after divorce.  I had moved back to Fort Lauderdale in hopes of re-centering my life.  A friend helped me find good digs in a little house to rent and a job to keep me busy.  For the first time in several weeks there seemed to be a light in the darkness.  I pulled into the driveway after a rather successful day at work, opened the door and shouted “I’m Home!” as was my custom when living with my ex-wife and kids.  Only emptiness replied.  I was alone…really alone…and the feeling of loneliness overwhelmed me.  My response was to pour myself into a bottle of bourbon.  And I kept pouring for a long time.

The Extreme State; Loneliness and Repetitious Behavior

“I am not a mechanism, an assembly of various sections.
and it is not because the mechanism is working wrongly, that I am ill.
I am ill because of wounds to the soul, to the deep emotional self,
and the wounds to the soul take a long, long time,
only time can help and patience, and a certain difficult repentance
long difficult repentance, a realization of life’s mistake,
and the freeing oneself from the endless repetition of the mistake
which mankind at large has chosen to sanctify.” ~ D.H. Lawrence

Dr. Corinne Gerwe, PhD has done extensive research on what she calls the Extreme State.  Her research shows that loneliness can be a predominant feeling which is responsible for igniting addiction and chronic relapse.

Her book, The Orchestration of Joy and Suffering: Understanding Chronic Addiction (Algora Publishing 2001), explores the relationship between childhood experiences resulting in extreme feelings and subsequent behaviors that relieve or diminish the intensity of the feelings.  She demonstrates that the behavior patterns, including addiction can persist throughout a lifetime.  She also outlines unique treatment methods.

I worked with Dr. Gerwe for several years.  We found that when loneliness is experienced in the extreme (or for long durations) that the brain begins to search for relief found in behaviors.  Neuronal pathways provide quick solutions to resolve or lessen the intensity of the feeling.  Even behaviors which have proven to be destructive such as drug and alcohol abuse are repeated and repeated (as D. H. Lawrence explains in his poem).

It is a cycle that feeds on itself.  For example, one set of behaviors that results from loneliness is isolating oneself.  It would seem counterintuitive yet is one of the most common responses.  As a person withdraws from the world, isolates and avoids, they become even lonelier and more likely to use opioids and other drugs/alcohol.  Is it any wonder that powerful opioids, which practically eliminate physical/emotional pain and suffering are being used to combat chronic loneliness?  Is it any wonder why that might be contagious?

Health Issues Result from Loneliness

Loneliness is killing us…and not only through an opioid epidemic. It has been reported by Richard Lang, MD of Cleveland Clinic that loneliness affects 60 million Americans and that chronic loneliness poses a serious health risk. New research suggests that loneliness and social isolation are as much a threat to your health as obesity and smoking cigarettes. It can impair cognitive performance, compromise the immune system, and increase the risk for vascular, inflammatory, and heart disease.  A recent study also indicates that loneliness makes people more likely to develop Type 2 diabetes.

Loneliness is one of the feelings most associated with suicide.  Being socially isolated from society can take a toll on mental health and lead a person to become depressed and consider suicide. Socializing and interacting with other people is a basic human need. If social needs are not met, a person can start to feel lonely which leads to depression and possibly suicidal thoughts.

Finally, studies show that loneliness increases the risk for early death by 45 percent and the chance of developing dementia in later life by 64 percent. On the other hand, people who have strong ties to family and friends are as much as 50 percent less at risk of dying over any given period of time than those with fewer social connections.

There seems to be no doubt that loneliness is an epidemic, a contagion and one of the most serious health risks facing us today.  So, what can we do as Chaplains, pastors, social workers, healthcare providers, friends and family to help turn the tide?

How Relationships Defeat Loneliness

 “Keep in mind that to avoid loneliness, many people need both a social circle and an intimate attachment. Having just one of two may still leave you feeling lonely.” ~ Gretchen Rubin

 There are two basic remedies for loneliness:

  1. We must have and develop strong skin-to-skin relationships. It’s not about the number of ‘friends’ we have on Face Book.  We can be surrounded by people and still be lonely. There is undeniable benefit to real time interaction, play, work and social gatherings with people we care about.
  2. We need to belong. Our special communities such as religious organizations, 12 Step Groups, hobby circles, fraternal societies and other intimate gatherings are like a transfusion for loneliness.  This is not about activities.  We can go from event to event or meeting to meeting and still be lonely. A sense of belonging, really being an integral part of something, is what’s critical.

I counseled a young man who was suffering from intense loneliness.  He had just started his freshman year at a local college and had changed from a happy, confident, outgoing high schooler to an isolated, self-conscious, anxiety ridden guy.  All of his friends had gone away to other schools and he was the only one left behind.  There were no more service clubs or sports teams in his life.  His studies were going nowhere.  Jeff was considering suicide.  It was not that he was alone.  He had a roommate, lived in a busy dorm, had joined an intermural football squad and was attending church on campus. He was a busy as he could be. But there were no real quality personal or community relationships.  He might as well have been a hermit for the overwhelming loneliness he was experiencing.

Jeff’s situation is not uncommon. Senior citizens who retire from their life’s work know well what he was going through. Folks who relocate to another part of the country for great work opportunities understand it. Suddenly, what I call a ‘peopled life’ becomes vacant. The answer cannot be found by busying oneself.  For Jeff, and all the lonely people, the solution lies in connecting and creating personal relationships through belonging to meaningful community.  A feeling of being understood and valued creates a closeness that is being craved in loneliness.

This closeness doesn’t have to be something that happens randomly or by accident.  For Jeff, we connected with a religious fraternal campus organization.  He joined and was embraced by the members.  He had a new family of friends.  He also began attending AA meetings at a nearby community center.  There he found other people who were struggling just like him.  The members met for coffee and had frequent social events.  His loneliness faded into oblivion.  It was as simple as that.  Community is within our control to create.

This contagion or epidemic of loneliness can practically be eliminated. Parents can be alert to the fact that filling our kids’ lives with activities is not always the answer.  Quality play time with a friend or friends (yes…unsupervised by adults) is what is needed.  Chaplains can spot the isolated LEO and help direct him or her to the right organizations.  It might be a great idea to establish support groups right in the workplace as well. We have the power to help others find the way out of loneliness…and we all have the power to stop feeling lonely. That power is found in real relationships.

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Robert Kenneth Jones is an innovator in the treatment of addiction and childhood abuse.

In a career spanning over four decades, his work helping people recover from childhood abuse and addiction has earned him the respect of his peers.

His blog, An Elephant for Breakfast, testifies to the power of the human spirit to overcome the worst of life’s difficulties. We encourage you to visit and share this rich source of healing, inspiration and meditation.

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Bob Jones’ blog An Elephant for Breakfast


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