Mental health has become a much more talked about subject within younger generations than ever before. The apparent rise in loneliness amongst young people seems to be a topic that is spreading concern to both young and old, with many young people asking themselves about where their mental health is headed and parents wondering how they can help their children navigate their way through loneliness.
Why is loneliness more common with the youth?
Unfortunately there isn't one clearly defined answer for this particular question, but rather a host of contributing factors that play their part in the number of teens experiencing loneliness, increasing to 1 in 8 people between the ages of 16-24.
Despite the fact that teens today, compared to the generations before them are more likely to report loneliness, this does not necessarily signify an increase in loneliness levels so much as it puts a spotlight on and addresses a formerly overlooked matter of interest.
Besides the obvious reasons for experiencing loneliness, such as the loss of a loved one or exclusion from your peers/family/friends or community, the unique confrontation with loneliness that young people often encounter comes in the form of loneliness not necessarily meaning to be alone but rather the feeling of aloneness even when in the presence of others. Loneliness is a perceived, individual experience. There’s a sense of detachment, alienation, and isolation.
Teens becoming young adults are going through some big life changes. Nearing the end of high school and transitioning into the next chapter of studies and work, teens decide who they are going to be, what they want to do, where they want to live, etc. Stepping into a new season of responsibility, making weighty decisions, and gaining independence can often lead to experiences of isolation and loneliness.
Add to the changing life stage of these young people, the ever evolving social climate of modern society, and the technological advancements that come with it, and then you can start to see how this crucial time period in a young person's life is balanced on the sharp incline of both internal and external world changes.
Being Alone vs. Being Lonely
Loneliness is the unpleasant feeling of being separated or divided from others. People who often feel lonely describe the inability to connect deeply with others. Loneliness is something we have all experienced, and it is fluid in that it can come and go, or persist long-term. It is important to differentiate this from being socially isolated, which is an objective physical separation from others. While the terms loneliness and social isolation are used interchangeably, it is possible to feel lonely while around others and you can be physically alone or isolated and not feel lonely.
Health Risks of Loneliness
Both loneliness and social isolation can have a negative impact on our health. Previously we had thought that simply being alone was unhealthy due to lifestyle things like not going out as much, less exercise, poorer diets and we used this as an explanation for why these individuals had more diseases – but studies are showing that loneliness itself is a risk factor for disease.
Studies have shown that, beyond the emotional effect of loneliness, there is an actual affect upon our biology when we are lonely. There was an interesting study done several years ago that followed 141 people for several years with questionnaires about loneliness. When they stated they were lonely, blood tests were done to monitor what was happening in their bodies.What was found that when people were lonely, the usual flight or fight response was activated (in the form of fighter cells being produced and adrenaline like neurotransmitters) in these individuals during periods of loneliness even when they weren’t in physical threat.
When the fight/flight response is turned on for too long or sent into overdrive inappropriately as it is in those who experience loneliness chronically, it leads to inflammation that can increase the risk of heart attacks and strokes, diabetes and obesity. If the inflammation occurs in our brain, that can lead to dementia. We may also notice that we get sick more often as our immune systems are impaired. The overall risk of death also increases in those who have chronic loneliness, at about 26% in those who voice loneliness as a concern – comparable to risks of smoking and obesity.
According to Dr. Vivek Murthy, a former Surgeon General of the U.S. “Loneliness and weak social connections are associated with a reduction in lifespan similar to that caused by smoking 15 cigarettes a day.”
I say this not to cultivate fear but to highlight the seriousness of Loneliness overlooked and untreated. Fortunately there are both simple and practical solutions to help counteract loneliness behaviours and mentalities.
How to Break Free of Loneliness
In Psychologist Guy Winch's book Emotional First Aid, he outline's some practical ways in which we can counteract negative emotional pain. These steps are an effective way to fight back against the harmful traits loneliness can apply to your life if untreated;
1. Take initiative
If you’re socially isolated, consider volunteering, doing community service, or an activity you enjoy, as these are good ways to meet people. In addition, try going through your phone and email address books as well as your Facebook and other social media contacts and make a list of people you haven’t seen or spoken to for a while. Don’t psych yourself out and tell yourself they’re not interested. Instead:
2. Give others the benefit of the doubt
Once you’ve compiled your list of friends and acquaintances, reach out to one of them each day. Yes, they might not have been in touch for a while or returned your phone call from two months earlier but give them the benefit of the doubt. Invite them to have coffee, a drink, or even a catch-up on the phone and you’ll be surprised by how many of them will happily make plans—especially if you remember to:
3. Approach people with optimism
It’s perfectly normal to fear rejection, but you have to get yourself in the right frame of mind when you contact people so the vibe you put out is positive and inviting (rather than overly cautious and uninviting). Getting into a positive head-space is also important when you contact people on line. Emoticons can be very useful. “How have you been? :)” is much more appealing than “Haven’t heard from you in two months, wanna get together?”
The bottom line is that you have to recognise your loneliness for what it is—a trap that requires effort, bravery, and a leap of faith to escape. Freedom will be sweet once you do.
Knowing that it's okay to feel lonely sometimes, helps take the edge off what can otherwise feel overwhelming. Talking to someone when you're in a place of loneliness is always a good place to start, and if you're looking for some qualified help in this area or if you know of someone else who does, here are some contacts below that can be of service to you:
- Lifeline on 13 11 14
- Kids Helpline on 1800 551 800
- MensLine Australia on 1300 789 978
- Suicide Call Back Service on 1300 659 467
- Beyond Blue on 1300 22 46 36
- Headspace on 1800 650 890
- ReachOut at au.reachout.com
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