In today's world, especially after the series of lockdowns, loneliness is no longer an 'alien word' (or feeling). Despite being linked to something you experience by yourself, it is a feeling that brings people together. But more often than never, loneliness is associated with the elderly. According to NSSO of India statistics, around 1.23 million men and 3.68 million women - all elderly, live alone and face loneliness.
But is it restricted to age? Novelist Joseph Conrad wrote in his book Under Western Eyes, "Who knows what true loneliness is - not the conventional word but the naked terror? To the lonely themselves it wears a mask." It talks about how loneliness is a malice everyone experiences differently, and might not even be aware.
Literature also narrates stories of characters and people that experience loneliness. Frankenstein or Anne Frank, for example, were a victim of loneliness. But it highlights the beauty of it, and the understandings that you develop as you survive through loneliness.
The feeling of loneliness could be well understood through the story of Wreck-it Ralph. Ralph is lonely, tired of being the bad guy and living away from people. He wishes to be the good guy and, wants to be appreciated; leading him to 'go turbo' (read abandons his game). But soon, he realises that help was always around him. Loneliness is malice, but if you work on it and deal with it healthily, it could do wonders.
Loneliness inside the brain
Nathan Spreng, a neurology professor at the McGill University, Montreal recently decided to study how loneliness looks inside people's brain.
Through the research, the team found several differences in the brains of lonely people. The brains of lonely people had strong networks around brain areas that deal with inner thoughts such as reminiscing, future planning, imagining and thinking about others. The grey matter volume was also higher (good brain cells relating to memory, attention and language.)
The strong network is because lonely people often use imagination, memories of the past or hopes for the future to overcome their social isolation.
Nathan Spreng from Montreal Neurological Institute-Hospital of McGill University and the study's lead author says, "In the absence of desired social experiences, lonely individuals may be biased towards internally-directed thoughts such as reminiscing or imagining social experiences. (We know) these cognitive abilities, are mediated by the default network brain regions. So this heightened focus on self-reflection, and possibly imagined social experiences, would naturally engage the memory-based functions of the default network."
When does loneliness become dangerous?
There is a fine line between being on your own and feeling lonely. You never know when you might cross over. "But if you start feeling miserable, and start questioning your time alone, you should know you are experiencing loneliness," says Dr Rahul Khemani.
'"The feeling of loneliness is often confused with being alone or solitude. But it is not. Some people are introverts who prefer staying alone. They might not necessarily be lonely," he adds.
But loneliness is dangerous if you do not know that you are experiencing it. Talking about identifying the feeling Dr Khemani says, "If there exists a feeling of emptiness and the feeling of being all alone and unwanted. If you feel people are avoiding you. Then it is important to seek help."
He explains loneliness as a state of mind that prevents a person from interacting with people around them. "You could be surrounded with family or friends and still could feel lonely," he explains.
This feeling of being alone, having no one to talk to doesn't just affect your mental health but also affects your career. The issue has come to limelight after many spent the lockdown days alone and away from family.
The main reasons for loneliness in today's world, directed by social media, are the fragmented sense of community, superficial relationships or the lack of meaningful, fulfilling relationships. "People also desire instant gratification - this stops people from putting in work in relationships, as they expect trust can develop in a day. When that doesn't happen, people give up," says Dr Khemani.
"The feeling of being lonely is often followed by various negative coping mechanism. Some might turn to alcoholism, while some may have suicidal thought. All of this happens because lonely people often question their self-worth," the doctor says.
These things lead to loss of appetite, interest, concentration and overall enthusiasm - all of which affects your productivity.
Cure and consult
The two most important parts of mental wellbeing are identifying and working towards curing. The same applies to loneliness.
Dr Khemani says, "We need to understand whats stems the lonely feeling. It could be a result of not having enough yourself or your loved ones leading to developing a disconnect."
"When you have little or nothing to say to your family and friend, you start to feel you are alone," he adds.
We often experience this when we move cities, or get to busy with work. We find ourself with little or no time to connect with people, and soon the redundancy in work begins. But it is essential to find help and engage in activities that could make you feel less lonely.
"Community service can be an effective way to fend off loneliness. Helping at an old-age home or volunteering with cancer patients is a good way to go about it. This way, one may feel connected with people and also feel good about themselves."
Though loneliness can be beneficial for your brain, it isn't necessarily good for your mental and physical wellbeing. It is more important to spend 'me-time' and often disconnect from the social world to retrospect. But when you aren't comfortable being on your own, and yet struggle to connect with people. It is essential to seek help.