Why we experience loneliness

Why we experience loneliness

“Loneliness is common in our society because we are increasingly cut off from real connection and human interaction,” says Mark Flanagan, LMSW, MPH, MA, a social worker at Cancer Wellness at Piedmont.

Loneliness can impact your:

  • Mental health. Loneliness can increase your risk of anxiety and depression. It can also affect your sense of gratitude, contentment and self-worth.

  • Physical health. Research suggests loneliness can increase the risk of high blood pressure, obesity, heart disease, a weakened immune system, Alzheimer’s disease and cognitive decline.

  • Relationships. When you feel lonely, you may withdraw from family and friends or try to find solace in unhealthy relationships.

What causes loneliness?

Loneliness isn’t necessarily caused by being alone. Flanagan says he thinks of loneliness as alienation from oneself and others.

“I think you can be lonely even if you’re in a crowd of people,” he explains.

Flanagan says loneliness can stem from challenges in life that make you desire a sense of comfort. It can also be triggered by traditional media and social media exposure.

“We are bombarded with images of happy families and ideal situations with tons of people involved,” he says.

But most of our lives don’t look like the images presented on television or Instagram.

“Social media can exacerbate loneliness because it feeds into the narrative that we should always be happy on the outside and if we’re not, something is wrong with us,” he says. “We are comparing our inner experiences with other people’s outward presentations of themselves.”

Flanagan says it’s important to know that everyone is going through their own battles, no matter what you see on the outside.

Finding the source of loneliness

Flanagan recommends inquiring into the source of your feelings with the help of a counselor, sitting meditation, yoga or journaling.

“These activities can reduce restlessness and help you determine what’s behind your loneliness,” he explains.

Avoid trying to get rid of or cover up uncomfortable feelings. Ask yourself what you truly want. Do you want to be around other people? Or is there some other value you are seeking?

Forming genuine connections

Humans are social creatures, so it’s important to have social connections, but that doesn’t mean having more friends on Facebook. It means cultivating better friendships with perhaps fewer people.

“Loneliness can occur when you aren’t connected to yourself, other people or the community,” says Flanagan. “When we find genuine connections with others who share our values and interests, we can effectively reduce loneliness.”

Seek out others in your community who share your values. Consider joining an exercise group, religious organization, book club, music group or another activity that allows you to see likeminded people regularly. 

Social media: Friend or foe?

Social media is a tool; it’s not good or bad, Flanagan explains. Sometimes it can increase your feelings of loneliness and low self-worth, or you can use it to connect with friends and family in a meaningful way.

“But because of the culture and how social media platforms are set up, they lend themselves to superficial interaction,” he says. “The more genuine interaction we can have, the better off we will be.”

If you are experiencing loneliness accompanied by sleeplessness, racing thoughts, the inability to concentrate or extreme agitation, you should see your primary care provider or a counselor to be assessed for other mental health issues.

Learn more about support during the cancer journey.

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