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Tuesday, May 19, 2015

"I Get So Lonely, I Could Die" -- The Lost and Desolate


Desolate and lone
All night long on the lake
Where fog trails and mist creeps,
The whistle of a boat
Calls and cries unendingly,
Like some lost child
In tears and trouble
Hunting the harbor's breast
And the harbor's eyes.

By Carl Sandburg

If you have ever lost all sight of harbor, the desolation is overwhelming. The feeling can be described only as wretched misery. Sandburg uses a boat, lost and in trouble, as a symbol of excruciating loneliness and the palpable suffering felt by those left alone.

It is important to understand the difference between comfortable "aloneness" such as solitude and loneliness. For example, if you are an introvert, you will be likely be more comfortable and happy in interacting with as few people as possible. On the other hand, loneliness occurs when you want to interact with others but you can’t -- Sandburg's "boat calling and crying unendingly" without success. 

Psychologists define loneliness as the difference between desired and actual extent and level of interaction. When you feel lonely, you are measuring the amount of social interaction you have against your ideal of desire for how much you would like to have. That “ideal” differs with each individual and can change over time.

(Ilona L. Tobin. "Coping with Loneliness." August 31, 2011)

Psychologists have even compared friendship to a staple of life -- food. Without assistance and inclusion as a social animal, you can fall apart mentally and physically. The effects are distinct enough to be measured over time, so that unmet social needs take a serious toll on your health, eroding your arteries, creating high blood pressure, and even undermining your learning and memory.

Loneliness can make you feel so sad that emptiness pervades your consciousness. You long for a contact -- a human harbor -- that you feel  isolated, distanced from others, and thoroughly deprived. These feelings tear away at your emotional well-being.

State loneliness is temporary and lasts for a short period of time. It is a normal feeling common to the human experience, but chronic loneliness marks maladjustment. It, usually, develops into a trait (trait loneliness), in such that it is a feeling that is stable and enduring. Trait loneliness is especially devastating to children -- it is most often the real reason behind most school dropouts. It sets in motion a course on which children become outcasts while developing delinquency and other forms of antisocial behavior.

In adults, loneliness is a major precipitant of depression, alcoholism, and drug abuse. And it increasingly appears to be the cause of a range of medical problems, some of which take decades to show up.

Psychologist John Cacioppo of the University of Chicago has been tracking the effects of loneliness for a very long time. He has performed a series of novel studies and reported that loneliness works in some surprising ways to compromise health. Here is some of what Cacioppo found:
  •  In a survey he conducted, doctors themselves confided that they provide better or more complete medical care to patients who have supportive families and are not socially isolated.      
  • Living alone increases the risk of suicide for young and old alike. 
  • Lonely individuals report higher levels of perceived stress even when exposed to the same stressors as non-lonely people, and even when they are relaxing.      
  • The social interaction lonely people do have are not as positive as those of other people, hence the relationships they have do not buffer them from stress as relationships normally do.      
  • Loneliness raises levels of circulating stress hormones and levels of blood pressure. It undermines regulation of the circulatory system so that the heart muscle works harder and the blood vessels are subject to damage by blood flow turbulence.      
  • Loneliness destroys the quality and efficiency of sleep, so that it is less restorative, both physically and psychologically. They wake up more at night and spend less time in bed actually sleeping than do the non-lonely.

(Hara Estroff Marano. "The Dangers of Loneliness." Psychology Today. July 01, 2003)

Why Are People So Lonely?

A new set of studies indicates that the idea that lonely people have deficits in social skills, particularly the ones relevant to reading other people's nonverbal cues, is most likely wrong. Across four studies, Megan Knowles and her colleagues showed that lonely people are just as interpersonally perceptive, nonverbally, as people who are not lonely – and sometimes they are even more accurate. Something else gets in the way of the meaningful social connections that they crave.

The authors posited the problem is anxiety. Lonely people really want to form relationships, but they worry about whether they can succeed in doing so. When a situation arises in which they think they may need to use their social skills in order to bond with other people, they feel anxious. That anxiety undermines their performance. The kinds of skills that are at their disposal when they are not worried, are no longer there for them once their anxiety kicks in.

 (M.L. Knowles, G.M. Lucas, R.B. Baumeister, and W.L. Gardner, W. L. 
"Choking under social pressure: Social monitoring among the lonely." 
Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 41, 805-821. 2015)

Writer Abigail Van Buren ("Dear Abby"), wrote: “Loneliness is the ultimate poverty.” What a revelation. A person with friends has a treasury of love, but one without close acquaintances is without the greatest fortune.

I absolutely believe the anxiety lonely people feel debilitates them, stifling their ability to interact and causing them immeasurable suffering in their lives. This kind of fear feeds upon itself, and others tend to misread it and simply assume a lonely soul longs for solitude.

I also believe huge numbers of senior citizens feel desolate just like the "lost child" vessel in Sandburg's verse. In fact, in yet another study, John Cacioppo and the researchers at the University of Chicago found that for the elderly, loneliness is twice as unhealthy as obesity and is a major health concern. People aged 50 and older they monitored for the study were twice as likely to die during the study's duration. Compared to an average person, loneliness caused a 14 percent higher risk of death and adding poverty to the mix raised the rate to 19 percent.

"We are experiencing a silver tsunami demographically. The baby boomers are reaching retirement age. Each day between 2011 and 2030, an average of 10,000 people will turn 65," said John Cacioppo. "People have to think about how to protect themselves from depression, low subjective well-being and early mortality."

("Loneliness a Major Health Concern for Seniors, Also Contributes to Several Medical Conditions." University Herald. February 18, 2014)

So, it seems that age and meagerness increase what Abigail Van Buren labeled "the ultimate poverty" of loneliness. As difficult as the findings are to accept, you and I should ask ourselves how we might aid in stopping an emotional murderer operating in the "fog and mist" of friendlessness and seclusion. It is certainly a problem we hope our loved ones never face, but I believe loneliness can actually kill human beings. Perhaps, we should think a little more about rescuing complete strangers too.

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