Everyone experiences loneliness at some point in their lives. Feeling isolated is not only emotionally draining, but damaging to our health. Loneliness can be as negative to our health as smoking, and about three times more detrimental than obesity.
Those with diabetes are at an increased risk of loneliness because of the isolating nature of the disease. After a type 2 diagnosis, people spend less times with family and friends, and even participate less in social clubs and religious activities. Loneliness can contribute to various mental and physical ailments and eventually lead to depression. It can be the first step on a downward slope, but there is hope.
A necessary first step to combating loneliness is understanding what it is, how it works, and why it’s important. It’s easier to work against things we understand than things we are confused about, or worse, afraid of.
What is Loneliness?
Dr. John Cacioppo, Ph.D. and director for the Center of Cognitive and Social Neuroscience at the University of Chicago, defines loneliness as perceived social isolation. You can feel isolated at home alone or in a crowd because someone feels lonely when they perceive that others around them are a threat rather than a source of help and support. A lonely person will worry more about their social interactions and be more likely to view those interactions as negative.
Dr. Louise Hawkley, also at the University of Chicago, emphasizes that loneliness is subjective. If someone feels lonely, then they are. This is because loneliness is not caused by a specific set of circumstances, but by someone’s perceptions of their own isolation.
An article in the Journal of General Internal Medicine found that many people who live alone are not lonely while many who live with family or friends are. Feelings of isolation, perceived lack of social support, and perceived threats can cause a person to feel lonely even if they are surrounded by people.
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What Causes Loneliness?
While perceived social connection and mental state play a huge role in a person’s feelings of loneliness, plain circumstances should not be completely discounted. If a person lives far from friends and family or has difficulty making friends, they are more likely to feel lonely. If they already have tendencies toward loneliness, lack of social resources may decrease their ability to overcome loneliness.
We know that those with diabetes specifically are at a higher risk for loneliness, and that may be due to challenges to social interaction that come with disease management, physical pain or illness, or a lack of understanding from friends and family (either real or imagined).
But not everyone with diabetes is lonely, and not everyone who lives by themselves is lonely. The common thread among lonely people seems to be how they perceive their interactions with others. An article in Psychology Today notes that lonely people are more likely to feel misunderstood and see themselves as victims. “People grow lonely because of the gloomy stories they tell themselves,” the author said.
Once in this gloomy state of mind, a person’s loneliness can make them misinterpret the well-intended actions of others, reinforcing their perceptions that they are being rejected. If a lonely person then responds by becoming defensive or detached, others may be less likely to reach out to them again. Loneliness easily becomes a self-defeating cycle. Robin Marantz Henig, writer and self-described lonely person, says, “What we most crave is the company of other people, but it can be that very company that sets us off.”