NYT: If Loneliness Is an Epidemic, How Do We Treat It?

The more connected I am with other people, the better I feel. Almost all of my good memories are with other people. When I walk with other people, the miles fly by. When I walk alone, they don’t fly by. I have often avoided negotiating relationships, so I walked alone more than I should.

I’ve found that when I get isolated, I act increasingly weird, perhaps to get attention. This tends to compound my loneliness. When I get connected, however, my need for attention diminishes and I act more appropriately.

People who know me well remark on my lack of social flexibility. I really like things my way. Perhaps that is why I do so much blogging and vlogging? I can have interactions on my terms.

I think 12-step programs and psycho-therapy have helped me grow up.

I rarely feel lonely these days, but when I do, it’s an important signal that’s something not right with my choices.

Everything in the following article rings true to me.

From the New York Times June 14:

* Neuroscientists have found that brain signals that should trigger someone to seek social connection are the same ones that, under different circumstances, can turn people defensive and vigilant — more apt to hunker down instead of reach out. Under this rubric, loneliness isn’t simply a symptom of societal failure to foster deep relationships but rather a wariness that takes root, steadily snowballs and reshapes the brain.

* Social isolation is an objective state: Are you interacting regularly with other people or not? Loneliness, by contrast, is a paradoxical puzzle — an entirely subjective experience of distress at one’s perceived lack of social connection. That can be true whether you’re alone most of the time or at the center of a dance floor.

* Many lonely people not only feel sad; they also feel endangered. Social situations are perceived as a threat, not an invitation. Over the past decade, those who study loneliness have begun to better understand why. Although loneliness is usually understood as an experience of mental anguish, in reality it is “a whole-body affliction,” as the historian Fay Bound Alberti writes in “A Biography of Loneliness.” Research suggests chronic loneliness is related to a range of physical and neurological problems, including increased susceptibility to infections and cognitive decline.

In other words, loneliness is more than just a mental struggle. Dr. Cacioppo explains it as a “biological signal that tells us that there is something wrong in our social environment.” Compounded over months and years, loneliness can gradually become a self-fulfilling prophecy. And when the emergency sirens are already blaring, it can be difficult to make the changes necessary for a more fulfilling life.

* Dr. Cacioppo found that lonely people detect negative or threatening pictures and words in under 400 milliseconds. This might explain not only the sadness that accompanies loneliness but also the palpable sense of danger.

Such changes in the brain may help to explain why lonely individuals perceive their social environment as threatening. “We cannot perceive the world for what it is,” Dr. Bzdok says.

Depression, grief, social anxiety — a full-body cascade of what might be termed symptoms of a lonely life — can follow. Dr. Alberti calls loneliness an “emotion ‘cluster,’” in which feelings ranging from “anger, resentment and sorrow to jealousy, shame and self-pity” can take hold. For some people, loneliness becomes a self-perpetuating feedback loop and turns chronic. The neuroplastic nature of the brain, its ability to create different structural pathways, can reinforce these changes. But what’s important to know is that the brain can also snap back.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see Amazon.com). My work has been covered in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and on 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (Alexander90210.com).
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