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Are You Lonesome Tonight?

Jul 092013

So here we are in the depths of winter, and as the nights draw in, the streets, shops, restaurants and bars become quieter, and we retreat into our homes, hermit-like in our hibernation, it’s important to remember not to become too reclusive at this time. Reading a recent review of research into loneliness, I was struck, not only by how common it is to feel chronically lonely and isolated, but also by the dramatic effects of loneliness on both our mental and physical health.
By loneliness, I don’t necessarily mean that fleeting feeling where a head cold forces you to spend Friday night at home while your friends are all out on the town, or that forlorn tinge when you put that microwaveable meal for one in your shopping basket at the supermarket. Real, long-term loneliness is a sustained lack of closeness with others, a lack of emotional intimacy and a continued feeling of sorrow, worthlessness and despair – and it’s affecting more and more of us.
There’s a difference between loneliness and aloneness, too. It’s possible to be alone and yet not lonely. Loneliness is about an absence of love, not just of people – so even people in relationships can feel lonely. At its core, loneliness is a feeling of being unlovable, and science is discovering that a continued sense of isolation and a lack of closeness can play havoc on our hormones and exacerbate diseases as far-ranging as Alzheimer’s, obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease and even some forms of cancers.
There’s much proof to back this up, including a study done on the tens of thousands of Romanian orphans born during the reign of Communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, who banned birth control. The many children who suffered as a result often grew up in Dickensian-like orphanages, and upon scanning their brains, it was found that these children developed substantially less ‘gray matter’ (the neurons that hard-wire the brain), and also less ‘white matter’, which helps send signals from one part of the brain to another. This meant that the areas of the brain responsible for memory, emotions, decision-making and social interaction just weren’t connecting, leading to all kinds of developmental, educational, emotional and physical disorders in later life.
There’s also a real stigma attached to feelings of loneliness. Being lonely can be perceived as a decidedly unattractive trait. It’s as if there’s something about loneliness to be ashamed of, and solitary souls can feel ‘less’ than those with seemingly more successful social lives. And when there’s so much pressure on finding ‘the one’, and enjoying a relationship that can fulfill of our emotional needs, those without one can even be seen as needy or desperate in their desire to have that special someone.
So what’s the solution? Well, first of all, it’s important to realise that we thrive best with different kinds of love. We don’t have to put all our eggs in one basket and expect one person to provide everything for our happiness. We need to nurture ALL our relationships, investing in our communication and opening up to our friends, neighbours and work colleagues, so we can take greater care of each other during tough times.
It doesn’t only ‘take a village to raise a child’ – it also takes a village to provide the emotional advancement we need as adults. That means checking in with each other and letting others know we’re there for them, offering a little extra emotional investment and reaching out to both friends and strangers to tell them we care.
As the poet W.H Auden summed it up “We must love one another or die.” In recognising that we all have the capacity to feel lonely at certain times in our lives, we can realise that we’re not on our own – and we can develop greater empathy and awareness when we see its effect on others.
Together, we’re stronger – so when we reach out ourselves, and when we support those who need more love and intimacy in their lives, we can all start to experience loneliness a little bit less, and love, care and belonging a little bit more.
In love and light,

  One Response to “Are You Lonesome Tonight?”

  1. Great blog this week, thank you!

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