The discomfort of loneliness is as essential to humans as thirst or hunger. A survival instinct, it kicks in reminding us to reconnect to the group when we become isolated.
But new research, Australia's most comprehensive study of loneliness to date, reveals not only its prevalence, but its paradox; the lonelier people feel, the less likely they are to reach out.
One in four Australian adults are lonely. They are more predisposed to poor physical health (poorer sleep, more headaches, more stomach problems, worse experience of physical pain) and mental health (loneliness increases the risk of depression by 15 per cent).
Higher levels of loneliness are also associated with higher levels of social anxiety (13.1 per cent higher) and less social interaction.
“Australians have a high level of social avoidance,” says lead author, Dr Michelle Lim from Swinburne’s University of Technology which partnered with the Australian Psychological Society on the study. “We feel lonely and then we avoid people – it doesn’t help the problem. It just feeds itself.”
Wanting to connect with others is “built into our DNA”, Lim says, but we can get into a cycle of thinking that we’re not part of a group so we try to protect ourselves by pushing others away.
“If we think of things in terms of evolution, we can’t actually afford to do that. Someone goes hunting, someone takes care of the children?– we have to rely on those communities in order to survive,” says Lim, who is also the scientific chair of the Australian Coalition to End Loneliness.
“But now it’s almost like we’ve become so self sufficient that we don’t need people, so a lonely person’s brain functions differently. They might say ‘I’m lonely I want to connect’ but their brain is sending them all these alarm signals which makes it a lot more difficult for them.”
She adds: “It’s not just their brains, their physiology changes. They are less tolerant to stress. People who don’t feel anyone has their back ... are much more alert, they are hyper vigilant, their heart rate is higher, physiologically they are functioning at a different level to people who feels that someone has my back. That perceived level of social support is incredibly important because?it makes us feel much more at ease physiologically.”
Add to this connotations that feeling lonely means there is something wrong with them and people become paralysed by the pain of it.
Bondi local, Sam Webb, knows the feeling.
“Once you’re at a stage where you’re feeling really alone, the last thing you want to do is speak with anyone or deal with anyone. It can be very daunting,” says the 30-year-old, speaking of his own experience but also his experience speaking to others as the co-founder of mental health initiative, Livin.
“I remember when I was struggling and life ... looked great. You’re the life of the party and it looks like you’ve got your shit together and you’ve got a great job and great support and great friends but because you’re not being honest self to them and they don’t know the struggle you’re facing behind closed doors, it actually makes you feel more alone.”
It’s a “double edged sword”, he says.
“You become so good at hiding how you really feel, so people don’t ask you how you’re really feeling and you think they don’t give a shit.
“Some people put their brave face on and look like they’ve got their shit together and they do that because ... we don’t want to show our vulnerabilities?and our weaknesses and we feel it’s weak to reach out ... there’s a fear of judgement. Everyone has struggles and hiding your struggles and hiding your pain doesn’t help you, it hurts you.”
The reluctance to reach out makes a remedy to loneliness "complex", Lim says.
"If we really were to address loneliness then we really need to encourage people not to avoid each other or when they do come together?as a group to engage fully not partially or find ways to mitigate their distress (by drinking) or standing by the exits," she says.
"If you do those things it’s actually going to make you feel more lonely, but we don’t make those connections."
But she "would never" suggest a lonely person just 'go and make a new friend'. Rather, she would suggest looking within their network for people they feel comfortable with and building on the intimacy of those relationships.
“Making new friends, new extensive networks?– it terrifies most lonely people, people who feel socially anxious,” Lim explains. “So it’s suggesting things they can do rather than what they can’t do ... Expanding on what we call little social successes – they don’t have to be massive ones.”
She adds that connecting with others on a daily basis – be it colleagues at work, your barista, or simply smiling at people you pass – is also important and “it doesn’t have to be super deep”.
“It’s about building confidence,” she explains. “People forget they teach other people how to react to you. When you signal openness to connect you are giving people a message that you’re willing to have a conversation but if you’re walking about and you’re having your head down and you’re not looking, then you’re not sending the right signal and people will react accordingly as well.
“In many ways lonely people should feel empowered that they can change certain things and that what they do can affect other people around them.”
Every one of us can make a difference to this epidemic.
“It’s not just the lonely people we’re also educating but the people who aren’t lonely as well. The lonely people often say ‘I tried to connect'," Lim says, "but the less lonely people don’t give them the time of day. They don’t have 10 minutes?to chat, but that 10 minutes means so much."
Establishing meaningful relationships is "crucial" Lim says.
“We obviously don’t fit into all groups, but we need to find our tribe. We need to find one group. You can create those things – it takes time and it takes effort but it’s absolutely worth it.”