Image taken by Andreas from www.standingfreephotography.org
The headline said that being lonely can be as detrimental to your health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. It also increases the risk of a heart attack by 30% and 60% of Australians report that they often feel lonely.
There are of course many reasons for why we feel lonely and why it is at alarming rates in our society. Key thing is we are social beings who experience ourselves in the context of relationships. We need each other, we are interdependent, physically, emotionally and mentally. Without relationships we are lost, lonely.
I have loved ones who live alone and I know that irrespective of how resilient they are, of how much they pick up the phone and make social arrangements there are too many ‘alone’ moments for what is good for them as humans.
Do you experience loneliness? How does it feel? Have you felt lonely while with others? Lonely while living with others? I have, I have felt desperately lonely while from the outside it looked like I was well connected. In the loneliness was the feeling of not being seen, not heard, separate and disconnected from the society.
Feeling lonely is painful. Scientists at University of Michigan found that social rejection (perceived or real) registers in the same brain areas, in fact there is a 83% overlap between the emotional experience of rejection and physical pain. Loneliness hurts.
For a moment see we humans as little snowflakes, all slightly different to each other but of the same matter, snow. Feeling connected is then about the experience of our sameness, our snow, our same matter.
In the experience of connection or ‘snowness’ there is a muting of ‘the self’ of the ‘me’ focus. Hormonally it is the connecting hormone Oxytocin and when we are lonely there is a lack of oxytocin happening.
The Buddha observed over 2500 years ago ‘the more self the more suffering’. The more it is all about me, me as the centre of the universe, me as the one it all happens to, me who is not included, me who is alone; I suffer. Interesting another property of Oxytocin is that it mutes the sense of self. It does so in a couple of ways, one is that it increases trust of others and naturally reduces mistrust which gives a strong sense of me and the other (separation). It also soothes stress hormones, and when stressed it is all about me.
Disconnect is when I identify and only know myself as separate, unique and different. This can be real or through the way I relate. Loneliness is the opposite to being connected, feeling loved, wanted, useful, part of something.
What takes us a way from feeling connected?
There are many aspects to this, some based in social structure, some in culture, some in our biology and some in how we tend to perceive things.
About one third of Australians now live alone and this is on the rise. This means we don’t have access to daily cuddles or perhaps don’t access little daily connecting chats. We go to work needing to connect, but if we are seen as a ‘human resource’ rather than human beings then connecting might not happen.
In earlier blogs spoken I have shared the three emotional regulation systems by Professor Paul Gilbert. The Threat, Drive and the Connected/contented state. As a culture we celebrate the Drive state where there is a focus on me and my task, a focus on what I achieve, what I get done, how much I earn, how good I look, how many followers I have, how clever I am etc etc. A relentless striving for self esteem for being a ‘success’. Most self help literature is based in how we can sustain ever more energy to become more successful, do more in less time, have it all etc etc.
In the Drive state there is no concern and care for others. From a brain perspective empathy is off line and without empathy there is no real connection, in other words little or no Oxytocin.
From a body perspective the enemies of Oxytocin is testosterone. Competition and status increases testosterone and in research where men are dosed with testosterone it causes them to be more selfish and entitled. (Paul Zak) But also high stress inhibits the release of oxytocin!
Are we our own worst enemy?
Do we also feel lonely at times due to a disconnect to our moment to moment life experience?
The heart of Buddism is compassion and the heart of compassion is self compassion. Can we extrapolate that the heart of Buddhism is connection and the heart of connection is ‘present based self connection’?
A recent report found that Australians spend an average of 46 hours a week in front of various screens. Judson Brewer refers to the phone as the weapon of mass distraction. We have been taught distraction through shopping, eating, being on our phones, films etc, these activities do not bring us home, they leave us at the door hovering.
There may be elements influencing loneliness right now that are hard to change but there are some things that you can do.
- You can greet the feeling of loneliness with: ‘so this is what loneliness feels like’ and know it as a shared human emotion that like all other emotions will pass.
- You can also connect with nature, with your dear body, through mindful eating, with music and dancing.
- You can connect with people serving you in cafes, shops, and other outlets where there is an opportunity for human connection.
- You can start to reconnect more with your body bringing you into the present.