Loneliness in western society is increasing. Does it also cause anxiety?
More and more people each year report to scientists and surveys that they experience feelings of loneliness. In fact in the last few decades the number of adults reporting that they felt lonely rose from 20% in the 1980s to 40% today.
That’s a huge increase.
And it gets worse: loneliness causes anxiety.
To understand how this happens we have to understand what loneliness is. Contrary to popular perception loneliness isn’t just a feeling of aloneness because you’re not around other people at the moment.
There are a lot of people in our society who feel lonely and yet they are surrounded by people! They go to work and interact with their co-workers, they may be university students with many friends, and many are even in relationships.
But they still feel lonely.
The Truth About Loneliness
We experience loneliness when we feel unneeded. If we begin to believe that other people would get along just fine without us we fall into a depression.
This is because as humans we want to feel as if we have a social purpose. We need other people to consider us an important part of their lives and we get strength from feeling that our presence makes the lives of other people better.
When we lose this feeling of purpose we can be surrounded by a hundred people and still feel lonely.
I remember when I first moved away for college. My family and I packed all of my things into our van and we spent the three hour journey to my new school joking around and having a great time. We stopped along the way to take photographs, see interesting roadside curiosities, and share snacks.
But then they dropped me off and I remember standing in front of my new home waving at them as they drove away. As they turned a corner and disappeared I went to my room and a feeling of intense loneliness hit me.
Here I was hundreds of miles away from home and I didn’t know anyone. The people who mattered to me most were gone.
At the time I didn’t know that I suffered from social anxiety but I soon figured out that something was wrong when I didn’t join in with all the social experiences of college that everyone else was taking part in.
My anxiety was so bad that I didn’t even talk to my roommates and I would listen to make sure no one was in the hallway before making a run to the washroom.
Aside from my classes I lived as a hermit.
Even though I was surrounded by thousands of people my age I had failed to make them a part of my social life. And since my family was living their own lives just fine I felt as if I wasn’t needed by anyone at all.
And I felt more lonely than ever.
How Loneliness Causes Anxiety
The way we perceive the world is not always the way it actually is. Our perception of a situation is coloured by the beliefs, predictions, and assumptions about that situation, and ourselves, that exist in our brains.
Your brain is a very observant little thing. It closely monitors your life so that it can be quick to generate solutions to problems that could threaten your wellbeing.
But the brain is also very shallow. It makes a lot of assumptions about the way things are from a surface level analysis of a situation.
When your brain observes that you’re lonely it begins to think hard about why it is that you’re lonely. It wants to find a solution.
Unfortunately if you happen to have low self-esteem the brain can conclude that you’re lonely because you’re not good enough for anyone to want to be around you.
Feeling proud of itself for figuring out your loneliness the brain begins to generate thoughts and assumptions based on this wrong belief. Soon the subconscious belief that you’re lonely because people don’t like you becomes part of your identity.
Wouldn’t this sort of belief generate quite a bit of anxiety?
What happens when you do end up around other people? Do the negative thoughts and beliefs about your inferiority just disappear?
Even though you may be around people that like you and chose to spend their time with you your subconscious will continue to believe that you’re not good enough to deserve their company.
In fact you’ll begin to believe that they all share your opinion about your inferiority. You feel as if they’re secretly judging you. You’ll soon experience anxiety whenever you’re around people because you’re desperate to be “perfect” in order to give off a good impression and hide your “true” inferior self.
But it’s all a big lie.
The negative thought patterns generated by the brain because of your loneliness are not true. You know very well that people in the past have enjoyed spending time with you.
The key to combating anxiety caused by loneliness is to attack the loneliness itself.
In order to overcome loneliness you need to regain the feeling that you have a social purpose. You need to believe that there are people out there who not only need you in their lives but who benefit positively from the impact you make on them.
Let’s look at a few different things you can do to counteract loneliness by increasing your sense of social purpose.
Spend More Time With Family
If your family lives close to you then a simple and effective way to counteract loneliness is to spend more time with them. Make a habit of visiting them at least a few times a month.
Maybe you could invite them over to your place? For some time I have had a tradition with my parents where they come over on Saturdays and I bake a brand new cake, pie, or muffins. It’s a chance for us to hang out for a couple of hours and every Saturday I end up feeling better.
Now you might not be able to make time every week but try to see your family (whether it is your parents, siblings, grandparents, or even a favourite aunt or uncle) at least a few times a month.
Living away from family is a very recent thing. Up until a hundred years ago or so humans have always lived in the same local area as the rest of their family. Most even lived with their family!
So it’s no surprise that we feel worse when we’re away from them.
Are you currently in a relationship? If not then consider that one of the most effective ways to reduce loneliness is by expanding your family!
No, this doesn’t mean that you have to get married or have children. But finding a girlfriend/boyfriend that you truly connect with is like adding a new person to your family. You now have another person on your list of people you trust and can share personal things with.
If you are in a relationship and feel lonely ask yourself why that is. Does your significant other spend time with you? Or just around you?
See If Your Current Friends Want To Hang Out
We’re all so eager to be invited to hang out by our friends that sometimes we forget that our friends are waiting for us to invite them.
If you already have a handful of good friends (or even just one or two) then start inviting them to hangout more often. See if there is the opportunity there to deepen the friendship.
You may realize that someone you considered just a casual friend (or an acquaintance) is thrilled to be able to spend more time with you.
Join A Group That Meets Regularly
Joining a club or volunteering for a worthwhile organization can both be excellent ways to reduce loneliness.
But don’t just join a random club where people get together and drink every Friday. Remember the key to combating your loneliness is to feel that you have some sort of social purpose. So the club or organization you join should give you some sort of function or responsibility.
You need to feel wanted and needed by the group. You can’t just be someone who sits at the edge of the table and smiles and nods while everyone talks and then goes home feeling as if it would have made no difference if you had been there or not.
The Permanent End Of Anxiety Caused By Loneliness
Your anxiety is not likely to go away instantly. The negative thoughts that your brain made up to explain your loneliness will stick around for weeks or even months.
But as you continue to develop the sense of feeling needed by other people your loneliness will decrease. Your brain will notice this and will re-adjust its beliefs and assumptions. When you begin to feel better about yourself because you believe that people like you and want you around them then your anxiety will end.
Wilson, C. & Moulton, B. (2010). Loneliness among older adults: A national survey of adults 45+. Prepared by Knowledge Networks and Insight Policy Research. Washington DC: AARP.