What You Need To Know About the Loneliness Epidemic

According to new research from the Australian Psychological Society and Swinburne University loneliness is on the rise in Australia. It found one in four Australian adults is lonely.

Identifying a ‘lonely’ individual is not straight forward. For example, it would be wrong to assume that someone who is physically isolated or chooses to be alone is lonely.

Rather, loneliness is a painful awareness that you are not feeling connected to others. It reflects a deficiency in an individual’s social relationships and it feels draining, distracting and upsetting.

Dr Michelle Lim of Swinburne University and scientific chair of the Australian Coalition to End Loneliness says,

“The term ‘lonely’ is used to explain feeling disconnected from others, and refers to a negative perception of one’s relationships.”

Loneliness is also subjective and does not reflect the size of one’s social network or their number of associates. Loneliness is related more to the quality of the relationships than to the quantity. Being part of a crowd of people doesn’t guarantee feelings of belonging.

Researchers and social analysts have identified loneliness as the next public health epidemic of the 21st century.

All human beings are vulnerable to experiencing loneliness but not everyone knows how to manage these feelings or what to do about it. As Dr Lim says,

“At present, it is unclear why some individuals experience loneliness as a transient feeling while others are trapped into a chronic cycle.”

The findings of The Australian Loneliness Report are concerning from a health perspective. People with higher loneliness levels report more physical health symptoms, including sleeping difficulties, headaches, stomach complaints, nausea, colds and infections. Loneliness also lowers the level of psychological health, with sufferers reporting higher levels of depression, anxiety, social difficulties and loss of confidence.

Dr Lim says the findings are important as they show that loneliness is a serious public health issue. To further illustrate this point she says,

“Loneliness triggers similar neural pathways to physical pain. We should think about loneliness as a social pain, the sense that people don’t understand us and we might not be supported.”

Although loneliness affects everyone in the community, studies have noted that young adults (18-29), together with older adults (65-79), are the most vulnerable.

It is easier to understand why older adults experience loneliness. Their risk factors for isolation are predictable. These include

• lack of accessible and affordable transportation
• health issues such as untreated hearing loss dementia, lack of mobility and frailty, which interfere with social connectedness
• life transitions, such as retirement, becoming a caregiver or losing a spouse or friends
• diminishing opportunities to contribute to one’s community

Feelings of social isolation and loneliness among older adults increase the risk of depression, substance abuse and suicide.

But knowing why adolescents and young adults experience loneliness is less obvious. It is assumed they have well established social networks.

Social relationships are a fundamental component of human life.

For a young person a network of positive social relationships provides a source of support, meaning and guidance. Conversely, the experience of loneliness is a subjective feeling of distress, arising when social connections are perceived to be inadequate or unfulfilling.

Some of the common causes of loneliness among young people are

• feeling you have little importance or value in other people’s lives
• when the people you are with see things differently from you.
• perceived social inadequacy
• finding it hard to talk to others because of shyness or social anxiety
• constant exposure to bullying or intimidation
• feeling like you’re the only person going through some stressful event

Loneliness is a strong risk factor for depression. Lonely individuals are inclined to be less trusting, to be more anxious and pessimistic, to perceive others around them more negatively and to approach social interactions in a defensive, hostile manner.

Young people have become reliant on social media to maintain their relationships. They utilise social networking sites to share activities and news and to keep in touch.

Social media and its associated technology add a new dimension to loneliness and anxiety by offering the young person a way of comparing themselves with their peers.

Social media provides a yardstick for one’s popularity – or more significantly, one’s feelings of loneliness and alienation.

Studies highlight that loneliness, social anxiety and social isolation can cause excessive use of social networking sites in young people to the point that it becomes addictive. This addiction poses a threat to their physical and psychological well-being and interferes with other aspects of their life.

Young people who use social media to chase connectedness may feel more disconnected and lonelier.

Even more concerning is the pressure social media places on young people to be perfect. Young people compare -leisure pursuits, body image, possessions, friendships, happiness – then they can’t help but despair because, in comparison, their lives are so imperfect.

According to recent worldwide research, social media platforms, Facebook, Snapchat and Twitter are all viewed as being detrimental to young people’s mental health because they contribute to the harmful pursuit of perfection and they deepen feelings of inadequacy and anxiety.

Photo-sharing site Instagram is ranked as the worst for its effect on anxiety, depression, self-identity, loneliness, bullying and body image.

Perfectionism has increased substantially among young people over the past 30 years, with no regard for gender or culture.

The work of British researchers Thomas Curran and Andrew Hill explored three types of perfectionism: self-oriented perfectionism, or imposing an unrealistic desire to be perfect on oneself; other-oriented perfectionism, or imposing unrealistic standards of perfection on others; and socially-prescribed perfectionism, or perceiving unrealistic expectations of perfection from others. They found socially prescribed perfectionism to be rising more rapidly. Curran describes socially prescribed perfectionism as “My self-esteem is contingent on what other people think.”

The desire to live up to others expectations is impossible and is doomed to fail. The pressure to do better can lead to a breakdown and further social alienation.

Researchers found that young people with perfectionist traits are more likely to suffer clinical anxiety, depression, obsessive-compulsive disorders and eating disorders. Those who were overly concerned with meeting their perceived expectation of others’ reported more suicide attempts.

Dr Raychelle Cassada Lohmann has written about the perfectionism phenomenon. She says,

“The attempt to be perfect is the epitome of insanity…
We all have flaws, fears, and make mistakes, and that’s perfectly OK. It’s our imperfections that make life interesting and they help us grow into a stronger more resilient person. We don’t have to strive to achieve the impossible.”

Author: Bruce Rickard

Reflections on Suicide and Staying Alive: My son's suicide changed everything. I felt an obligation to understand why anyone would want to end their life. My regular blog posts explore the causes and prevalence of suicide and what is needed to sustain a healthy mind and a hope-filled future.

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