THE PSYCHOLOGY OF LONELINESS

Loneliness is the feeling of boredom, self-pity, sadness, emptiness, shame... when being alone or finding oneself to be alone.

Definition Of “Loneliness”

Loneliness can be defined as feeling uncomfortable or uneasy when being alone or finding oneself to be alone. It is associated with cognitive social isolation rather than objective isolation. Adjectives such as “bored”, “self-pitying”, “sad”, “empty”, and “embarrassed” are often used to describe the feeling of loneliness.

Behavioral symptoms of loneliness can be divided into four behavioral groups as follows:

  1. Sad passivity, including crying, sleeping, doing nothing, overeating, overusing sedatives, alcohol, and even drug use

  2. Active solitary activities, including writing, listening to music, exercising, studying, working... to avoid loneliness

  3. Spending money by over-shopping or buying unnecessary items

  4. Getting social contact by reaching out to friends, participating in social activities, and doing things to avoid being alone

What Psychological Factors Lead To Loneliness?

Attributional Style

Attributional style is the way people, often unconsciously, explain various events in their lives. Lonely people may interpret their experiences differently, which can strongly impact their self-esteem, expectations about the future, emotional reactions, and coping behaviors. The causal attribution model shows that people tend to explain their situations in the following two ways:

  • Whether the causes of loneliness have to do with themselves or with external situations.

  • Whether such causes are likely to be stable or varied over time.

When someone attributes their loneliness to themselves (internal factors), this can affect their self-esteem, with inadequacy, self-blame, lowered self-worth, and even shame being a possible feature. On the other hand, when someone believes that the cause of their loneliness is stable or unchangeable, they will anticipate prolonged loneliness, which could de-motivate them from trying to tackle their loneliness.

Coping Styles

Studies have found that people with a more problem-focused coping style tend to externally problem-solve to improve their relationships. Meanwhile, people with an emotion-focused coping style tend to manage situations by managing their emotions, which might aim to lower their expectations about relationships. Therefore, problem-focused coping strategies are associated with lower levels of loneliness than emotion-focused strategies. 

Perception

People who feel lonely may have biases in the way they process their social experiences (social cognition). These people will have different social cognition compared to people who are not lonely. They may be more inclined to process information negatively and more attentive to social rejection cues. They may also have a greater fear of rejection, being a burden, or a distrust of other people.

In general, a lonely person is more likely to react to and process information in ways that perpetuate difficulties. Loneliness creates an excessive sensitivity to minimal signals and a tendency to misinterpret or exaggerate the hostile intentions of others.

Personality And Early Life Experiences

Early life characteristics and experiences influence how individuals interact with others, and over time, it can lead to loneliness. A person with high neuroticism, which is a tendency to easily experience psychological distress and have difficulty regulating emotions, tends to feel more lonely. In contrast, individuals with conscientiousness (organized, trustworthy, preferring planning over spontaneity) or extroversion (tendency to be assertive and seek stimulation from others) are associated with a lower risk of loneliness. Besides, adverse events and experiences in childhood, such as conflicts between parents, long-term bullying, or economic problems in the family, may lead to people becoming less resilient, more insecure, and more likely to be lonely.

Self-Esteem, Self-Confidence, And Self-Efficacy

Self-esteem, confidence, and self-efficacy are terms that describe a combination of personality characteristics and coping mechanisms that are associated with loneliness. Being lonely is associated with lower self-esteem and coping inactively. Self-efficacy is the belief that you can succeed in certain situations or complete tasks, like going out or making friends. When someone has low self-efficacy, they are more likely to feel lonely. On the other hand, believing in your ability to succeed and change your situation helps protect against loneliness.

The Impact Of Loneliness On Mental Health

Loneliness is not a mental health problem itself. However, mental health problems can lead to loneliness and, conversely, loneliness can cause mental health difficulties.

Loneliness is one of the causes of depression, and when loneliness and depression coexist, the risk of early mortality increases. Loneliness and depression are strongly correlated: by reducing loneliness, we can reduce the level of depression and vice versa.

Loneliness is also linked to anxiety, especially social anxiety. This is a common type of anxiety disorder in which a person feels fearful or anxious in some or all social situations, including meeting strangers or interacting in everyday situations. This goes beyond shyness, which often begins in adolescence and can lead to a long-lasting and overwhelming fear of social situations.

Overcoming Loneliness

Take Care Of Yourself

Having many friends and many relationships in life does not mean that you will not feel lonely. Sometimes, improving your relationship with yourself can help relieve your loneliness. You can start by thinking about what self-care means to you. Remember that self-care will be different for everyone.

Start doing activities you enjoy by yourself, for example: going for a walk, doing arts and crafts, or cooking a meal, etc. You can try different things to see what makes you feel satisfied. Try to be patient with yourself.

Open Your Heart To Those Around You

You may feel like you know a lot of people but don't have a deep connection with them. Or you may feel that the people around you are not giving you the attention and care you need. If this is how you feel, opening up to someone you trust may be helpful. It could be a friend or family member, a co-worker, or someone else in your life. You don't have to meet and talk face to face, you can send them messages via social networks.

Many of us have experienced loneliness, but talking to others about it can be scary. Think about what you want to say in advance, you may find that they have experienced similar feelings before. Normalizing feelings of loneliness with someone you trust can help you feel better.

Expand Your Network Of Relationships

If you've felt lonely for a long time, you may feel overwhelmed and nervous about meeting people. First, try chatting with people you meet in everyday life, such as saying hello to the cashier at the supermarket or chatting with a neighbor.

You may find it helpful to be in an environment where there are many people around (coffee shop, library, or shopping mall…). You can also try participating in activities where there are many participants, but you don't necessarily interact with them, such as a drawing class or creative workshop. Feeling the presence of others can help reduce feelings of loneliness.

Establish a routine of going to the same place at the same time every day. You may start to recognize people in these places, which will help form interpersonal connections.

Additionally, think about how your hobbies can help you connect with others. For example, if you like reading, you can join an online forum to chat about books. You can also spend time at the library before joining a book club. Focus on environments where you feel safe and try not to put too much pressure on yourself.

Psychological Therapies Help You Cope With Loneliness

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)

Research shows that Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) can address loneliness in life, especially in adults. The purpose of CBT is to help people develop new beliefs that are more beneficial to their well-being. This can be very relevant for people experiencing loneliness or isolation, especially if they are having difficulties forming relationships with others. There are many techniques used in CBT including keeping thought records, relaxation, breathing, etc.

A principle intervention in CBT is to identify and challenge individuals' unhelpful thinking styles, such as:

  • Catastrophizing: the tendency to exaggerate negative things and think the worst in every situation. This thinking error can be one of the most damaging ones because constantly interpreting future events in the worst possible light undermines confidence and can significantly de-motivate.

  • Black or white thinking: the tendency to see only two opposite extremes of a situation, never in the middle. This way of thinking can limit an individual's ability to be flexible in their responses.

  • Mind reading: this is when people imagine that they know what the other person is thinking. The reality is that we can never know, we can only guess. This thinking error is the cause of many difficulties in relationships between individuals and those around them. Individuals can imagine a lot of hurt and contempt happening to them without any evidence.

Identifying and challenging these tendencies can help people replace them with more realistic and productive thoughts, thereby reducing feelings of distress and self-defeating behavior.

Mindfulness

Mindfulness is based on a cognitive philosophy of helping people perceive each moment of experience in an accepting and non-judgmental way. Research evidence suggests that mindfulness can reduce loneliness in older adults and adults in general.

Mindfulness therapy enables individuals to perceive and evaluate the value or usefulness of their thoughts during difficult times. They can then choose to reject or accept them. Mindfulness provides a space between the event that creates the thought and how the individual chooses to respond to it. It is a very important skill for mental health because it challenges automatic thinking patterns. If these negative thoughts are operated outside of awareness, they can dominate consciousness and make it difficult for people to control their emotional reactions. In the context of loneliness, it challenges the mind's obsessive thoughts about fear or negative assessments of its ability to bond with others, which can undermine the individual's efforts to connect.

>>> Reference: Practicing Mindfulness To Increase Happiness

Positive Psychology

Positive Psychology focuses on creating a state of well-being by using techniques to promote positive emotions to overwhelm negative emotions. Positive Psychology focuses on positive life events and influences, including:

  • Experiences such as happiness, joy, inspiration, and love

  • States and traits such as gratitude, resilience, and compassion

  • Topics include character strengths, optimism, life satisfaction, happiness, self-esteem, self-confidence, and hope.

One of the main frameworks for promoting well-being is PERMA:

  • P: positive emotions 

  • E: engagement in satisfying tasks 

  • R: relationships – communicating positively with other people 

  • M: meaning and sense of purpose in life 

  • A: achievement – setting and attaining meaningful goals in life

In addition, methods and techniques in Positive Psychology that are commonly used to help people reduce loneliness and increase happiness include:

  • Focus on what the individual needs to be grateful for in life

  • Savor and enjoy life's experiences

  • Learn to challenge negative thoughts

  • Learn to be more optimistic when facing difficulties

  • Develop evidence-based strategies to reinforce positive emotions (such as PERMA)

  • Address barriers to happiness, such as negative thinking or comparing oneself to others

  • Use personality strengths to handle life changes

If you feel like you are not okay with loneliness, go to a medical facility for a timely examination and diagnosis or contact the Vietnam - France Psychology Institute via Hotline: 0979.158.463 for specific advice. Early intervention is key to improving health and quality of life.

References:

[1] Loneliness. https://www.mind.org.uk/information-support/tips-for-everyday-living/loneliness/tips-to-manage-loneliness/

[2] How to Overcome Loneliness According to Psychology. https://positivepsychology.com/loneliness-psychology/

[3] The Psychology of Loneliness: Why It Matters And What We Can Do. https://www.campaigntoendloneliness.org/wp-content/uploads/Psychology_of_Loneliness_FINAL_REPORT.pdf

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VIETNAM - FRANCE PSYCHOLOGY INSTITUTE

HEADQUARTER & PSYCHOTHERAPY CENTER: WINCO Building, 54 Tran Quoc Vuong Street, Dich Vong Hau Ward, Cau Giay District, Hanoi, Vietnam

PSYCHOTHERAPY CENTER IN HCMC: Landmark 81 & Landmark Plus, Vinhomes Central Park, 720A Dien Bien Phu Street, Ward 22, Binh Thanh District, HCMC, Vietnam

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