Did you know that loneliness is actually an emotion, not just a description of our circumstances?
This is validated by the fact that, just like other emotions, loneliness activates a specific area of brain. And like all other emotions, loneliness has evolved to aid in our survival. It arises to warn us that we are dangerously alone, that our survival is threatened, and that we need to take steps to make ourselves safe again. We have developed this response to isolation because it serves a very important evolutionary purpose.
For early humans, being alone was no way to live. Those on the tribe’s periphery faced increased risks of starvation, predation and early death. And so humans (like other communal creatures) evolved specific physiological/emotional responses to the threat of isolation and possible death that it brought.
Even though we call ourselves modern humans, our physiological responses are no different. We are still the same animal. When we experience isolation, at the instinctual level we experience a threat to our existence, and a whole negative cascade of emotional changes, as well as hormonal and physiological stress reactions, are triggered.
These days we don’t usually face starvation or predation if we are isolated and lonely, but we do face an earlier death. Scientists have found a significant relationship between premature death and loneliness that is even greater than the relationship with obesity. So feelings of loneliness do actually signal a very real threat to our survival.
However, a very common response to the emotion of loneliness is self-criticism. We tell ourselves that there must be something wrong with us that we are alone. We are afraid that we must be socially defective, or that we are too weak to stand on our own. So we start to feel ashamed of our loneliness, and try to repress, deny or hide it.
But loneliness is a signal much like thirst, hunger or pain, and denying that we feel lonely makes no more sense than denying that we are hungry. Just as it makes sense is to seek food if we are hungry, it makes sense to seek company if we are lonely.
However, if we are ashamed of our loneliness, it makes us less likely to seek out our friends. We don’t want to be seen as defective, weak or shameful. And these fears lead us into a vicious cycle – when we feel lonely, we isolate more, making ourselves even more lonely, and so on.
So if we find ourselves feeling lonely, rather than being ashamed, we need listen to this biological warning system that evolved over millennia, because it is alerting us to potentially dangerous levels of isolation. We need to take it as a prompt to reach out to others. And we need to remember that our friends need us just as much as we need them, and that they may also have times of loneliness.
It’s good to remember that reaching out when we’re lonely is a actually a generous gesture that serves the health and happiness of us all.