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Loneliness, why it happens and how to deal with it

Loneliness is a common experience as the main issue or as a factor that contributes to a person’s difficulties. It is important therefore to:

  • understand what it is
  • be familiar with how loneliness impacts people
  • be able to identify the social, economic and psychological aspects of loneliness
  • have strategies to help people with loneliness.

Lonely people are social beings genetically wired for connection. We have evolved with an intrinsic need for cooperation, working together to survive, so we can raise our offspring. We also feel psychologically more secure when we are part of a tribe that shares our values and goals. If we lose connection or feel alienated, we are more likely to feel lonely. Life expectancy is increasing. Spain usually occupies the top positions in the life expectancy ranking, which now after the pandemic slightly exceeds 82 years. The birth rate is declining. According to the INE, in 2020, just over 7 children were born per 1000 inhabitants, while the fertility rate in 2019 was 1.24 children per woman. Family models are changing. Separations or divorces and mobility (for work, economic, personal reasons…) are more common now.
We have less time and our fast-paced lifestyle makes it difficult to dedicate the time we would like to our family and social relationships (due to long work hours, travel, etc.).
Consequently, society is progressively ageing: we live longer, but we also do so more alone or isolated from our loved ones, and many areas are becoming depopulated, known as “emptied Spain.”

Loneliness is not always the same as being alone, or aloneness. You may choose to be alone and live happily without much contact with other people, while others may find this a lonely experience. Self-abandonment may create aloneness. When a relationship fails, a person sometimes closes their heart to someone they have loved. In the case of a child with narcissistic parents who didn’t know how to love them or connect with them, this can lead to an adult who both fears and lacks the innate ability to connect emotionally with others in later years. Aloneness may also suggest that the person may have an avoidant attachment style.

The Loneliness Experiment was conducted by BBC Radio 4’s All in the Mind, in collaboration with Wellcome Collection and researchers at the University of Manchester, Brunel University London, and the University of Exeter. It was launched on Valentine’s Day 2018, and 55,000 people worldwide completed the survey, making it the largest experiment yet. While the BBC acknowledged that the survey may have had some bias, as older people may not have access to the internet, it observed (2018):

‘There is a common stereotype that loneliness mainly strikes older, isolated people – and of course it can, and does. But the BBC survey found even higher levels of loneliness among younger people, and this pattern was the same in every country.’ The study drew the following conclusions:

  • Levels of loneliness were highest in younger respondents, with 40% feeling lonely compared with only 27% of older respondents.
  • 41% of respondents thought loneliness was sometimes a positive experience.
  • Loneliness was higher among those respondents who were unemployed, regardless of age.
  • Respondents who filled in the version of the survey for people who were blind or partially sighted reported slightly more loneliness, especially if they felt discrimination was high.
  • Respondents who were parents tended to feel less lonely, except for those aged 18 – 24, who reported higher rates of loneliness.
  • Respondents in relationships tended to feel less lonely than those who said they were single.
  • Respondents who lived alone were only slightly more likely to feel lonely more often. This suggests that living alone is not as much of a problem as spending lots of time alone.
  • Respondents who were carers reported higher loneliness levels if they were female.
  • Respondents who identified as gay or bisexual felt lonelier, but only if they felt discriminated against.
  • Respondents with lower socioeconomic status felt lonelier, but only if they felt discriminated against.

According to a study by the Social Observatory of the La Caixa Foundation with the general population in Spain, more than half of the participants felt alone or isolated or were at risk of being socially isolated (55% in total). These figures increase as the level of education decreases or with increasing age.

However, loneliness does not exclusively affect older people. According to this same study, people between 40 and 64 years old show worrying results, precisely when they are supposed to be more involved with work, leisure and free time activities, raising children and family, etc. However, they report feeling little social and emotional support: 32% of women and 27.5% of men between 40 and 64 years old feel socially alone. On an emotional level, the percentages increase to 44% among women and 32% among men.

According to another study by the Social Observatory of the La Caixa Foundation with the elderly population in Spain, 64% reported experiencing some type of loneliness. Of them, 15% had a serious or very serious form. That is, 1 in 6 seniors was in a very serious situation of loneliness. It is also a major social and health problem, as loneliness in older people is related to poorer health in general. Specifically, with problems of:
Malnutrition.
Less adherence to medical treatments.
Cognitive and physical impairment due to less activity (physical, social or family), and also the risk of falls.
Higher levels of anxiety and depression.
Lower level of well-being and life satisfaction.
Furthermore, this group of older people is made invisible. So, we need to promote activities, support, ways to provide company and maintain their usual home environment.

The Marmalade Trust identified five types of loneliness:

  • emotional loneliness – when someone you were very close to (e. g. a partner or friend) is no longer there
  • social loneliness – when you feel like you’re lacking a wider social network of friends, neighbours or colleagues
  • transient loneliness – when the feeling of loneliness comes and goes
  • situational loneliness – when you feel lonely only at certain times, e.g. on Sundays or bank holidays, or at Christmas
  • chronic loneliness – when you feel lonely all or most of the time.
    And in Spain, residential loneliness is also identified, where people live alone, for whatever reason. According to the INE, almost three million people under 65 years of age, and just over two million people over 65 years of age lived alone in 2020.

There are several life points at which people are more likely to feel lonely. Some examples of such times are:

  • moving away from home
  • starting university or a new job
  • becoming a new parent
  • relationship break-up
  • bereavement
  • retirement
  • becoming a carer.

Some autistic people have difficulty communicating and so end up becoming isolated and therefore, lonely.

Klein talked about the connection to ourselves becoming severed when we experience loneliness. It can make us feel that life isn’t worth living, because in our early childhood, we did not have the time to develop and to feel wanted in the world. She describes the psychoanalytic view of loneliness like this: ‘Full and permanent integration is never possible for some polarity between the life and death instincts always persists and remains the deepest source of conflict. Since full integration is never achieved, complete understanding and acceptance of own emotions and anxieties is not possible and this continues as an important factor in loneliness.’ Maizels adds the following: ‘To Klein, loneliness encompasses a longing for the idealised relationship between mother and infant, where one could be understood without words, a typical fantasy about the early mother infant relationship, which also reincarnates the longing to return to the womb.’

People with schizoid personality disorder often experience a reduced capacity for forming and maintaining social and close relationships. They may prefer being alone to being with others, and so avoid social contact. According to the DSM-5, symptoms of schizoid personality disorder include the following:
does not desire or enjoy close relationships
appears aloof and detached
avoids social activities that involve significant contact with other people
almost always chooses solitary activities
has little or no interest in sexual experiences with another person
lacks close relationships other than with immediate relatives.
works in jobs alone
chooses jobs with limited social contact
may experience anhedonia (the inability to feel pleasure)
indifferent to praise or criticism
no interest in sexual intimacy
tends not to have significant distress
unlikely to present in therapy

Holt – Lunstad et al. talk about the effects of loneliness on our health. They say that: ‘Substantial evidence now indicates that individuals lacking social connections (both objective and subjective social isolation) are at risk for premature mortality. The risk associated with social isolation and loneliness is comparable with well-established risk factors for mortality.’

For people who suffer from loneliness, it can be helpful to try to help them to identify a time when they did not feel lonely. Exploring with the person what kinds of relationships work best for them may also be useful. For younger people, sometimes there is no boundary between online and face-to-face relationships, so we can support them to learn more about how to deal with both. We can also recommend people to get support in the community, which is otherwise known as ‘social prescribing’, which NHS England describes as: ‘a way for local agencies to refer people to a link worker. Link workers give people time, focusing on ‘what matters to me’ and taking a holistic approach to people’s health and wellbeing. They connect people to community groups and statutory services for practical and emotional support.’ This alternative provides having a multidisciplinary team, with different professionals working together to help them explore new relationships and events.

If someone needs to work on their loneliness in therapy, respectful reparenting is one way to help them. Many people end up seeing therapists as the ‘good enough other’. At some level the person emotionally takes on the therapist as a ‘parent figure’ to support them during the personal growth that hopefully takes place during therapy. Clarkson described this as follows: ‘The developmentally-needed or reparative relationship is intentional provision by the psychotherapist of a corrective, reparative, or replenishing relationship or action where the original parenting was deficient, abusive or over-protective.’ However, a lonely person may see a therapist as their friend, and not want to disengage or move on. They have to be made aware that there is a clear difference between befriending and therapy, as part of the process is to be accompanied until they can develop their own autonomy, and no longer need therapy.

References
Lees – Oakes, R. ( 2022). Understanding and Managing Loneliness [online]. Counsellor CPD. Counselling Tutor. [22/04/24].
https://elobservatoriosocial.fundacionlacaixa.org/es/-/soledad-personas-mayores?p_l_back_url=%2Fes%2Fsearch%3Fq%3Dsoledad&_ga=2.191686378.1744742504.1713777189-1756627641.1713777189

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