Mental health problems such as depression and anxiety disorders, among others, are frequently accompanied by feelings of loneliness.
Being alone is often emphasised as an essential human state, meant for reflection, connecting with oneself and being comfortable with the fact of merely one's own presence. Many great thinkers, poets, philosophers struck gold in being alone, quiet, and contemplative. Our day-to-day lives are packed with humdrum activities that give us little time to stop and stare and really soak in the good and bad experiences from living the lives we do.
Here, taking time out for oneself, even if it is only a few minutes, can help us feel more connected with our lives, and our selves. It can clear the muddled hustle-bustle in our busy working days. It can also help us better relate with those around us by spending time, appreciating the presence of others in our lives, beyond merely responding to their presence and interactions with us.
However, there is a semantic difference between ‘alone’ and ‘lonely’. Alone refers to the fact of being by oneself. Lonely refers to a complex and usually unpleasant emotional state that arises not only from being by oneself, but more specifically from not being connected with other people, a sense of perceived social isolation, as opposed to objective social isolation.
Several people live rather solitary lives, but do not feel lonely, and there are some ostensibly rich social individuals who never quite feel connected with others and feel lonely. A lonely individual's social needs are not met quantitatively, and also qualitatively; they desire more, and a certain type of social interaction. The cliché, man is a social animal, implies an inherent need in us to be with and feel connected with people. The social history of mankind can be summarised as our attempts at establishing social systems that maintain connectedness and interdependence, arising from our natural proclivities.
Let us examine the human need for social systems from certain scientific perspectives. Normal development in a child is characterised by social eye contact, and responsiveness, through smiling or babbling, from as early as a few months of age. Social stimulation plays a crucial transactional role in all spheres of development in a child.
In fact, social neglect and under-stimulation are frequent culprits in clinical presentations of young children with developmental delays, especially in speech and social responsiveness. The presence of people and reciprocal connections with them are biologically needed for optimal development. Our brains are designed to, and quite adept at, establishing patterns of recognition and response.
Consistent social interactions over time get hard-wired as the expected norm, and we preferentially respond to social elements, vis-à-vis the non-social/the inanimate. Robert Dunbar’s social brain hypothesis gives this developmental framework another dimension. Dunbar argues that the development of human intelligence is not merely to solve ecological problems, but is profoundly influenced by and essential for our fate of living in large, complex, social groups. Thus, from a biological and developmental perspective, social living is imperative for our psychological health.
What is the predicament of an individual who reports loneliness? The aspect to focus here is that an individual reports loneliness, which implies an underlying sense of discomfort with it. The individual is bothered by it, and may seek help for it. It is very different from the poet/philosopher, who chooses to be alone and is comfortable in that zone. It is not the fact of being alone, but the distress that comes from loneliness that is the cause for concern.
Mental health problems such as depression and anxiety disorders, among others, are frequently accompanied by feelings of loneliness. People can feel lonely in the absence of mental health problems, too. Social isolation, in a culture that is biologically reliant on reaffirming social relationships, can be associated with feelings of insecurity, unpredictability and helplessness.
In this state, an individual is predisposed to negative biases, may see the world as a more threatening place, further exacerbating the sense of social isolation. This sets up a vicious cycle that traps the individual till he/she finds a channel of expression for the suffering.
Stress and anguish arising from loneliness can trigger biological chain reactions in our bodies that predispose us not only to psychological ill health, but also to several chronic medical illnesses.
Social expectations help regulate a lot of our social, professional, self-care, and health behaviors. In the absence of a sense of meaningful connection with others, these regulatory systems take a dip.
So, is there a magic pill for loneliness? Interventions rest upon providing social support, increasing an individual's social repertoire, improving their abilities to interact, and initiate and maintain relationships. Key components for intervention include erroneous styles in thinking, especially perceptions about social interaction, feelings of insecurity, and enhancing a sense of self-sufficiency and self-worth.
(The author is Assistant Professor of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, National Institute of Mental Health and Neuro Sciences, Bengaluru)