The Health Hazard of Feeling Lonely
Do you want to feel more connected with others, yet are unsure how to penetrate a cloud of loneliness?
Your relationship warning light is blaring bright, but trapped in feelings of loneliness. Research psychologist, John Cacioppo, has found that “prolonged loneliness can be as harmful to your health as smoking or obesity.”
In his book, Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection, Dr. Cacioppo and William Patrick, share his (social neuroscience) research with personal stories and easy to understand language. He stresses the importance of making personal connections with others for our health and well-being.
“Chronic feelings of isolation can drive a cascade of physiological events that accelerates the aging process.” ~ John Cacioppo
So, if prolonged loneliness makes us more at risk for poor health and untimely aging, then how do we stop the cascading avalanche before it covers us up completely? It is possible to free yourself from the trap of loneliness, whether occasional or prolonged.
What is Loneliness?
Loneliness is not being alone. It is the perception of isolation from others. For instance, even in a long term relationship or surrounded by people, you may still feel like no one really knows you. This is loneliness.
Dr. Cacioppo stresses that it is not how many contacts you have, it’s how meaningful and satisfying the contact is to you. If you are already stuck in the loneliness trap, you may be thinking that no one wants to make time for you or listen to you. This is how the loneliness trap gets it’s cascading claws on you.
Getting Caught in the Anxious Loneliness Trap
We all feel lonely sometimes. It’s a cue that we need to reach out to someone. It only becomes a problem when you get stuck in the loneliness trap, and don’t make personal contact with others.
“Loneliness becomes an issue of serious concern only when it settles in long enough to create a persistent, self-reinforcing loop of negative thoughts, sensations, and behaviors.” ~ John Cacioppo
Staying walled off from others or coming across as desperate are some of the behaviors that keep people more isolated. These actions attempt to prevent rejection, yet instead prevent personal connection. You end up creating what you fear, and reinforcing your assumptions.
“Whenever we feel like we might fail at an important task, this bias can cause us to handicap ourselves, producing insurmountable obstacles to our own success.” ~ John Cacioppo
5 Ways to Free Yourself from Loneliness
Don’t settle in the loneliness trap. Know you can free yourself. You can break down your own barriers again and again. In Dr. Cacioppo’s book, he presents 4 steps to “EASE into social connection.”
E = Extend Yourself – Experiment with getting “small doses of positive sensations that come from social interactions.” Pick safe places to experiment, such as in public, with strangers, or volunteering. Make contact with others without expecting anything in return.
A = Action Plan – Detail how you can change your thoughts, expectations, and behaviors toward others. Knowing you can do something different is empowering.
S = Selection – Choose where to invest your social energy. Identify how many relationships you want to invest in and where you want to meet people.
E = Expect the Best – If making contact doesn’t work out each time, don’t overanalyze it. Expect the best will develop over time. Don’t get hung up on one encounter.
I’m adding #5: Interrupt Worry – When you manage your worry better, you will be more open to making meaningful contact with others, both selected and unexpected. Clear out the negative, so you can give and receive.
“The soothing power of social connection depends on having a clear channel to receive it.” ~John Cacioppo
How do you successfully respond to your signals of loneliness?
For more information: Listen to John Cacioppo’s video on loneliness
Photo Credit: “The Lonely Path” by Paree Erica