By Richard Wetaya
THERE is a lot of truth in the saying misery loves company,” Christian evangelist Fred Mukosha says. “I relate it to my dark days. Days I felt socially isolated and cut off from the rest of the world.
Days when I felt empty, lonely, sad and disconsolate, thinking life had cheated me of the happiness I desired. With the passage of time, my need for companionship grew.
The more I associated with other people, the better I felt,” Mukosha recalls. Psychologist Paul Wanetosi of Wanale Community Counseling Initiative, Mbale says without social engagement, companionships or intimacy, people can hardly glow or function well in life.
“Negative thoughts and misery will indeed love a lonely person’s company. The human need for company is very real. When it is not satisfied, feelings of unworthiness, guilt, tension, irritability, lowliness of mind and emptiness are bound to occur,” Wanetosi says.
“We all need viable and healthy social relationships for our mental and emotional well-being. Healthy social bonding is important for a good quality of life,” explains Mbale-based psychologist Robert Khabuya.
“Social relationships are important for everyone’s emotional fulfillment. We all experience loneliness at some point in our lives. The need to belong is built within our makeup. It is a psychological need that must be satisfied for one to avoid feeling unloved, empty, depressed, torn, broken and unworthy,” Khabuya notes.
HEALTH HAZARDS OF LONELINESS
Loneliness is often ignored but it can have adverse effects on one’s health. Conditions such as sleep dysfunction, psychological distress, depression, anxiety and high blood pressure can all be triggered and exacerbated by loneliness.
Khabuya notes that loneliness has also been linked to alcoholism, drug abuse, and resentment, and pessimism, alienation from society, suicides and physical illness.
In many respects, Khabuya says, loneliness is imposed on people by circumstances beyond their control.
“Life changing events such as moving to a new town, school, divorce, disability, family breakdown, bullying, being away from close friends for long, unemployment, poverty and bereavement can all impact negatively on a person’s emotional wellbeing. Lacking a strong support system in such stressful life experiences will trigger loneliness,” Khabuya explains.
Prolonged periods of isolation can lead to loneliness, sociologist Peter Onoria says.
“When a person isolates himself or herself for prolonged periods, they leave themselves open to loneliness. Even the Bible speaks against it. Proverbs 18:1 says a person isolating himself will seek his own selfish longing, against all practical wisdom,” Onoria says.
People bearing the brunt of stress are also easily prone to loneliness. Emotional loneliness, Wanetosi notes, is spawned by the absence of an attachment figure in one’s life. Social isolation, on the other hand, is triggered by the absence of a social network.
“In both cases, there is one distinct factor: A deficiency in relationships. In the former, a breakup say of a romantic relationship can spark intense feelings of loneliness, while in the latter, the absence of close relationships with family and friends will cause loneliness,” Wanetosi says.
Onoria says loneliness can also be precipitated by rejection or abuse. Self-pity, low self-esteem, resentment and grief can also trigger loneliness. “Loneliness comes from within. When an individual feels resentful, hurt and negative, a barrier is often formed. This barrier often keeps people from opening up and making friends. The upshot will be loneliness,” Onoria says.
Today’s lifestyle choices like the shifts in people’s attitudes can also elicit loneliness. “Today, most people invest little time in social ties. Society today puts more emphasis on fulfillment and achievement. Work is viewed as being more productive than social bonding. This in itself is counterproductive,” Onoria says.
STUDY ON LONELINESS
In January 2012, social psychologists from the University of Chicago did a study on the biological effects of loneliness. They identified several potentially unhealthy changes in the cardiovascular, immune, and nervous systems of chronically lonely people.
Their findings lend credence to earlier studies that show that socially isolated people have shorter life spans and are at an increased risk of other health problems like heart disease.
Lonely people, they noted, are also more susceptible to infections due to weak immune systems.
Psychiatrists from the University of Chicago theorised in a study that loneliness, like other emotional states, is contagious.
Loneliness, the psychiatrists rationalised, can spread from one person to another.
The study, published in the 2009 December issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, brought to the fore findings that indicated that lonely people attract fellow “lonelies” and influence others to feel lonely too.
EFFECTS OF LONELINESS
When loneliness becomes a chronic condition, the impact can be far more serious. Onoria says loneliness not only inhibits people from fully experiencing the joy of everyday life, but also lays them open to depression.
“Low levels of social engagement can lead to depression. Depression has an immediate impact on an individual’s health and ability to function. Depression also puts strain on the heart. This results in high blood pressure and other heart problems,” Onoria says.
Loneliness alters many people’s lines of behaviour. Indulgence in self-destructive and risky health habits like drug abuse, smoking and alcohol consumption is sometimes high.
“Lonely people are easily inclined to risky health habits and unhealthy comfort food diets. They also tend to take less exercise. These are all risk factors for obesity,” Wanetosi says.
Loneliness is also a risk factor for emotional immaturity. “Most lonely people act emotionally immature. They yield quickly to temper tantrums, pouting, anger, crying spells and hardly adjust to other people. Emotionally immature people hardly bond with others in a supportive and constructive way,” Onoria says.
Lonely people also report difficulty in sleeping. A difficulty in sleeping spells increased blood pressure, fatigue, depression, memory lapses, anxiety and heart failure, Wanetosi explains. Hormonal imbalances are also bound to occur often when one is lonely.
“The stress that occurs when one’s hormones are out of balance can not only lead to inflammation but can also cause fatigue, weight gain and headaches,” Wanetosi adds.
HOW TO OVERCOME LONELINESS
Establishing a satisfying social support system is invaluable in dealing with loneliness. Many people feel lonely because they do not have the necessary inter-personal relationships they need, psychologist Robert Khabuya says.
"To ward off lonely feelings, fulfilling and meaningful social interactions with other people are vital. It is therapeutic. It keeps away lonely feelings and motivates others to take an interest in you,” Khabuya notes.
A person’s reaction to life depends on their attitude. Adopting a positive attitude is important in keeping low feelings at bay.
“Approach life’s daily situations with a positive attitude or state of mind. This will go a long way in knocking off lonely or other low feelings. Having a gloomy outlook on life is a recipe for loneliness,” Khabuya adds.
Engaging in active healthy behaviours like writing and reading can help combat loneliness.
“Lonely people tend to be introverted. Writing or reading self-help books, for example, serves a useful purpose. Keeping one’s mind preoccupied diverts and keeps away negative energies that come with being lonely,” Wanetosi explains.
Getting involved in voluntary community schemes is also key in combating loneliness.
“Community volunteering offers a sense of connection with others. It provides opportunities for one to meet and share ideas with people. Getting involved with other people makes one’s life rich, satisfactory and fuller,” Khabuya says.
Bolstering and building one’s low self-esteem is another helpful loneliness intervention, Khabuya says.
“Learn to have a belief in your worth. Learn to love yourself,” Khabuya says. He adds that prayer and meditation can come in handy too. Prayer has always been therapeutic. Prayer not only strengthens but also gives a sense of wellbeing.
“The Bible contains verses that can help ease the pain of loneliness. If one reads sections like Psalms 25:16 and Matthew 28:20, they will be emboldened,” Wanetosi says.