Understanding loneliness and finding ways to deal with it

“Waiteth I for them so long,
Has anyone ever watched with an eye so keen,
To see the faintest sign of me?To hear the ringing of my voice?
To smell my footsteps marching nearer?
My eye waters,
At the thought of being forgotten,
Forgotten as they live their happy existence,
Without me…
A lone dog came over to sniff at my loneliness,
I fed him a biscuit,
Atleast someone is happy today…”

I stumbled upon these words on my personal blog, scribbled more than a decade ago on December 28, 2007. My heart saddens for the past me who felt so alone in that moment of empty space.

At least, I could write about it. More often when we are lonely, we don’t realize it, leave alone admit it. We sit in a room full of people, unable to make any real connections with them, longing for somebody to reach out who’d truly understand for a change or simply care that you are around.

The feeling of being lonely is even harder to navigate during a pandemic-driven lockdown. For some people, physical distances may have fueled the fear of being forgotten or unseen. The way I see it, if we are to draw ourselves out of this quicksand it may prove useful to start at the root – understanding loneliness and how it operates.
According to Psychoanalytic Psychotherapist, Ashwasti Tripathi, “Loneliness is that moment when you look up from the hullabaloo of everyday life and find yourself at some distance from everyone else you know and love. It is the state that houses within itself the capacity to feel the need for an ‘other’, for a community at its most intense, while at the same time confusing us into believing that we cannot honour this need.”
She goes on to explain, “Loneliness could be felt at many stages in life, but the essence is the lack of connectedness and belongingness that one feels. It is an awareness of the need to connect and the inability to do so.”
Ananya Kushwaha, Psychoanalytic Psychotherapist at the Psychotherapists Collective approaches loneliness from a different perspective. “It is important to identify why you are feeling lonely. Is it because of your personality type wherein you struggle to make friends, express yourself openly, feel anxiety and the fear of being hastily judged? Is it situation-induced, like the Coronavirus lockdown or the loss of somebody close or a socio-structural issue like discrimination? Loneliness has more to do with a personal location. The two pertinent questions to ask are 1) Where is it originating from? and 2) What can I do about it?”

Tripathi sums it up for me. “Imagine scrolling through your contacts with the wish to call someone and talk to them but not being able to because something holds you back. The list of contacts ends but your inability to reach out does not. It is this inability that makes you realise you are lonely.”

She explains that different people may describe or exhibit loneliness differently. Some as a pit in their stomach, some as a void in their heart, some as though a limb has gone numb.“These body metaphors help us imagine that loneliness can feel like some parts of us inside are inaccessible to us, with an outside manifestation of having no one to talk to or being unable to talk to anyone.”

All this rang a bell. I was only too familiar with situations in the past that left me feeling outnumbered and isolated. That feeling when nobody gets you, empathises with you. And there’s a mountain of judgement from people that pushes you into your shell even further. There is anger and a desire to be left alone, when all you want is the opposite – a warm, comforting hug and the feeling of being wanted and included.

Loneliness not only leaves us feeling empty and sad, it can be detrimental to our physical and mental health.

“If you’re feeling lonely (and it’s never by active choice) it can be a source of great suffering. Silence can mean a lot, there is a lot of sound in it. On the days you’re particularly feeling low, your body may feel drained of energy, you may fail to process and share your experiences. All this is likely to affect your body and mind,” says Kushwaha.

As per Tripathi, loneliness can make it difficult for a person to communicate about any mental distress that is being faced. In my opinion, this is a dangerous precipice – being isolated on an island with your trauma and stress, with no way out can lead to a miserable existence or desperate measures that don’t end well.

“Loneliness affects our physical health too as the stress levels increase in the body. The mind-body connection ensures that the more a person feels awry mentally, the more they are likely to feel anxious and restless. This can result in a host of difficulties in both the respiratory and digestive systems of the body. Loss of sleep or poor sleep is also reported by clients in therapy,” shares Tripathi.

Being an eternal optimist, I always believe there is a way out. It may take time, effort and patience, but the tide will change and a wave will carry you to sunnier shores. Kushwaha gives me the first clue. “If you have a better sense of what it is that’s making you lonely, then you can do something about it. If you don’t, you may want to get in touch with yourself or seek therapy to address it.”

“I see an increase in the awareness to connect to people we care about during the lockdown,” tells Tripathi, talking particularly in the context of the self-quarantine situation we have on our hands. Her solution, “The need to allow oneself to miss people and acknowledge their presence, perhaps vocalising it to them, may prove to be helpful in alleviating the effect of loneliness mentally. This allows us to both acknowledge our need for connection and belongingness and helps us reach out to the people or processes that help us feel better.”

She goes on to recommend utilising the lockdown period toalso reconnect with old activities that once gave you joy but were forgotten in the rigmarole of everyday life.“One client has returned to sketching, another to doodling; one cooks more often and many find parts of themselves in music. In all these activities, one also finds ways to reconnect with lost parts of oneself that have not been communicated with for a long time.”

When I revisited the past on my blog, I felt another response. Surprise. I was surprised at my self-awareness and courage to admit that I am lonely. This is something I don’t hear or read every day. But I am certain, the feeling is common. Tragically, a little too common.

“It takes tremendous courage to accept that we are feeling lonely, for that part of you to speak up. This is probably because sometimes and for some people in particular, it is genuinely hard to feel the need to reach out to another. In the lockdown setting this becomes doubly hard. But it is important to listen to that part of you. In doing so you honour your experience and it gives a sense of being able to trust yourself.”

It is because I have felt the shadow of loneliness several times in life, that I am more aware of it in others and try to help any way I can. And you can too!
“If you feel somebody is deeply withdrawn or trying to catch your attention in different ways like picking a fight, struggling to make their presence felt but unable to do more, try to engage with them.Maybe they’re looking for a hug, a conversation, comfort and you can provide the same.You can be mindful to other people’s situations,” suggests Kushwaha.
Hugs are free. They cost us nothing. Sure, during the lockdown physical hugs are a dream but there are a thousand ways for being there for somebody who’s feeling lonely, be it an elderly relative or a friend quarantined alone. All it takes is a heart full of warmth and a small step to let them know they haven’t been forgotten.

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