Depression & Loneliness: The ‘Tug-of-War’

“Loneliness reflects how you feel about your relationships. Depression reflects how you feel, period.”

– John Cacioppo, author of Loneliness

out with the old (1)

As you know, we have had many conversations about loneliness since this blog began. We’ve talked about how important it is to get to know yourself and be able to be alone and be content at the same time (finding the inner person); we’ve discussed being in tune with others and ways to get out there (finding the other person); and, we have tossed out the idea that spirituality can help us climb out of loneliness (finding the upper person). But we have only barely begun to touch on the subject of depression. How does depression relate to loneliness? Does loneliness have anything to do with depression? Are they one and the same?

Before we can even begin, we need to know some basics about depression. Like loneliness, it carries an indescribable weight along with it – one that a simple word cannot communicate. The depression we are talking about here is clinical depression. Doctors define clinical depression as having some/all of these symptoms:

 

–          Ongoing sadness; crying frequently

–          Sudden weight loss or weight gain

–          Change in appetite

–          Feelings of emptiness

–          Feelings of worthlessness or helplessness

–          Feelings of guilt

–          Anxiety or feelings of restlessness

–          Difficulty remembering, focusing, or making decisions

–          Fatigue, low energy

–          Apathy toward what you once found exciting

–          Aches/Pains

–          Insomnia, or trouble sleeping

–          Suicidal thoughts

Some of these symptoms, as you can probably see, are also symptoms of loneliness. Ongoing sadness, crying, worthlessness, guilt, restlessness.

We’re quick to find one-word labels for our problems, but truthfully, we are more complex than that. We are whole people, and our mind, body, and spirit are separate but all a part of us. So sometimes loneliness becomes a symptom rather than the problem. And sometimes depression becomes a symptom rather than the root problem. Psychiatrists have known for a while that loneliness often accompanies other conditions. But a study by Segrin showed that the “most common pairing was intense manifestations of both loneliness and depression” (Cacioppo 83).

Loneliness is bad enough on its own.

Depression is definitely bad enough on its own. I think it’s one of the very worst possible maladies one could ever contract.

Their relationship is stormy. They are a paradox – a yin and yang – both separate and whole. They feed each other. They feed off of each other. They pull each other & push each other. They fight each other, and they fight as a team against you.

Loneliness with Depression

Loneliness is a common “feeling” – one to which any human can relate. So, when we feel lonely and wanting companionship and deeper friendships, we can get to a point where our loneliness actually leads us into depression. Many physical illnesses unrelated to depression eventually lead to depression just because the sick person begins to feel loneliness. As the person continues to feel isolated in their illness or in their disability, they begin to feel lonely. Other factors lead them on a path that continues on into deep depression through stress factors and physical trials.

Depression with Loneliness

Depression is also common, but not so widely felt as loneliness. Though many people struggle with clinical depression, not everyone can relate to a chronic, constant state of sadness and apathy. Though loneliness can be immensely difficult, depression can be debilitating.

When we experience depression, it is because we are deficient in serotonin. This, then, causes feelings of being alone. The voice in our head tells us that we are alone. Alone-ness becomes a state of being, not a feeling. We cannot feel happy emotions. We, ironically, feel apathy. We feel the lack of feeling, and we experience that apathy deeply. Our ability to reach for others is stunted. We can become passive, and in so doing, we can become dangerously lonely.

The Tug-Of-War: ‘D’ versus ‘L’

Untitled design (2)In one corner of the ring, we have Depression. Down-and-Out ‘D’, trying to prepare to battle it out. He grabs one end of the rope and sighs. His odds don’t look promising.

In the opposite corner, Loneliness gives a shy smile. Left-Out ‘L’, bends down and holds the other end of the rope with one hand. Will he even try? Will he succeed?

They stand off. Down-and-Out ‘D’ against Left-Out ‘L’. The crowd sits back and wonders. Many of them leave. It’s not going to be an exciting match. These opponents are opposites, but they look like twins. They could join each other and fight against you easily.

Even though they are similar, Cacioppo the “loneliness expert” says this: “Loneliness, like hunger, is a warning to do something to alter an uncomfortable and possibly dangerous condition. Depression makes us apathetic. Whereas loneliness urges us to move forward, depression holds us back” (Cacioppo 83). Because they are linked in this way, loneliness seems to pull depression, and depression seems to push loneliness. It is a tug-of-war, a link that can be broken. But the lack of ability to control thinking and decision making makes it difficult for both to stop pushing and pulling.

Answers

On both sides of the tug-of-war, depression and loneliness are stuck. An outside influence is needed to break the chain. This can come in the form of an outside helper, an inside helper, and/or an upper helper – like we talked about. Medication may be needed for depression, even a little spark of desire to get better can come from within, and a look at the big picture or a spiritual identity can help you from beyond yourself or anyone else.

The thing is that we need to fight back. We need to catch depression at the onset and seek help. We need to notice loneliness and take action. If there is a long road ahead, we need to learn how to cope during the healing process – in the in-between no matter how long that may be.

We need to help others with these. We need to fight for each other. You may be the outside force for someone else. You may save a life.

Loneliness and depression are intertwined – both friends and enemies. Both hard to get rid of. I battle both often, and I’ve learned to let others help me. I’ve learned to help myself. And I’ve learned to look up. My hope for you is that you can get through these tough days and find hope. My hope is that you find joy – that you find meaning in the darkness.

Right now, I am filled with joy and I feel content. I pushed through yesterday and have found today. It’s possible. You and I don’t know what tomorrow looks like. But today can be joy. Hold on to that hope. It’s a weapon you can use to fight back.

 

The Art of Friendship

My 10th High School Reunion is coming up! But, I won’t be there. Not because I don’t want to be or anything. It would be really cool. And I can understand why so many sitcoms use the “High School Reunion” scenario. It’s because you want everyone to see how well you’ve done – or you want old friends to see that you’ve lost weight – or you don’t want to go because you’re embarrassed – or you want to see that your life is better than everyone else’s. I would be quite selfish, probably, and want to go show off my husband who is really nice-looking and has a sexy accent. I wasn’t really selfish in high school, so daydreaming about showing off seems like less of a sin. 🙂

But, I would be quite happy to see those people I graduated with living equally happy lives. I do sincerely want the best for them. And that makes me not such a horrible person?

The Art of

So I’ve been thinking about my high school experience lately. Do you remember when you were in junior high/intermediate and high school, wondering who would be valedictorian or salutatorian? The top 10% were always honoured in some way. I remember that five highest grade point averages gave little speeches at graduation – The Valedictorian got to say whatever they wanted. I think one of them did the invocation or the benediction, but the others were given topics like “Success”, “Moving On”, or “Friendship”.

The “Friendship” topic was in high demand, and I can recall the girls talking about how they just did not know what they would do without their friends – How could they possibly go off to college and leave all their friends? Many of them, I believe, stayed and went to the nearby university. I don’t know if this was due to finances, family, relationships, or fear of losing friends. For many, I’m sure it was finances. Live at home and save money. But, I used to imagine: What would I say about friendship if I were given the chance?

Honestly, I would have tried to turn the topic elsewhere. Something like: Many of us are leaving behind the people that make us feel safe and comfortable. But, we are going forward to bigger and brighter things. To more friendships. To more people that understand us. To a world and an adventure bigger than anything we have known so far. And then my speech would have turned into a rant on adventure, because adventure is obviously more important than friendship. Right?

I’m not so sure anymore. They kind of go hand-in-hand now.

Anyway, the topic of “friendship” was my least favourite of all the topics given. I guess I thought that friendship was for the weak – for those that, in my mind, lived a different kind of life. Because I was in school pre-High School Musical. I was in school during the era when the cool people had the “real” friends. The ones you would want to have.

No one was like me in high school, so I guess feelings of loneliness started there. I never felt lonely at home, and my mom was my best friend – which I’m really glad about, especially looking back. I mean, I had what you might be able to call friends in high school. Friends that made me feel bad about eating healthy food because they were eating unhealthy food, friends that said they would go to the big banquets with me and took someone else, friends that stayed silent while I struggled through depression and anxiety, and friends who disappeared when my dad was in a car accident. But, writing about friendship seemed like a waste of time.

I don’t think it’s such a waste of time to write about now. So here I am. And here is what I know about friendship. What do you think of when you think of “friendship”?

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Real friendship is not shallow. Real friendship is lasting.

Real friendship doesn’t get angry when you don’t call, and you don’t get angry when they show up late. It’s patient and kind. It doesn’t get jealous or try to one-up you. It’s not selfish. It wants your good. (1 Cor. 13)

Friendship is about community. It’s a form of family. We may not see one another every day, like in high school. We might be halfway across the world, as most of my friendships are. But, we are the same. We watch each other grow up and grow old. By helping each other, we because happier and healthier together.

Friendship is mutual, but not always easy. Sometimes a good friend goes through a bad time, and that is when you stay by their side. That is when you get close, and that is when you are welded together and real, trusting friendship is forged in the fire. You love them in spite of their flaws or troubles and they love you in spite of yours – mutually.

Friendship is a gift. When a good friend comes along, you have found a blessing. You have gotten lucky. If you find someone that can cry with you, and that you care enough about to cry with, then you have found a bottle of precious tears. There is a lot of magic in those tears. If you find someone that can laugh with you, and at you, and at life, and you can do the same

Deep friendship is not exclusive, but it is not freely given. My best friend taught me this. I wanted to be everyone’s best friend, and in trying to do that, I spread myself too thin and even made myself sick. Don’t feel bad if you can’t be there for everyone. We are human. Be a friend, but know that the deepest friendships can only come two or three at a time.

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My mom always told me that when I went off to college, I would make life-long friends that had the same interests as me and were more like me. I’m glad she was right. To miss out on that kind of friendship would be sad. I was content before, but having real best friends and trying to be a real best friend for them, is one of the most continuously rewarding experiences that any human being could ever know.

Looking back over my life thus far, I can now see that friendship is not fluffy. It’s not about who you can give the other half of your friendship necklace or bracelet to. It’s not just pink and girly. It’s rough. It’s blood, sweat, and tears. It’s adventure on one of the highest degrees. It’s climbing a mountain, but climbing it with someone else. And that, my friends, is a pretty good deal.

Loneliness & Binge Eating

What does it mean to “binge eat”? Basically, it’s eating a lot of food at once, really quickly. Sometimes the person doesn’t even realize that they are “binging” at the time. Afterwards, they may feel depressed or guilty.

It’s funny because I’ve had down on my calendar to write about the link between being lonely or sad and binge eating on this very Wednesday for at least a month. And before I sat down to write today, I ate a whole bag of smoked paprika hand-cooked potato chips and a bowl of leftovers in the fridge. That was after lunch. Then I commenced to drive to the mall and grab a mocha frappuccino from Starbucks. And, although, I thought about each one and decided that they were okay for me today, it brought me back to some of my very worst binge-eating days.

Loneliness (9)

And in the past ten minutes, I have seriously considered trying another blog post to write today because of that. But, kind of like our post on Monday, it seems like the right day to write about this tricky subject. 🙂

Binge eating.

When you think of the term, what do you picture? I’m trying to ask myself the same question. I know what it looks like in my life, but I think that before I started binge-eating, I thought of it as an eating disorder, but one that was accompanied by purging – bulimia, in effect. But, that is simply not always the case. In fact, BED (Binge Eating Disorder) has just in the last three years become recognized as a diagnosable on its own rather than under EDNOS (Eating Disorder Not Otherwise Specified).

I want to talk more about it as a disorder next month (September 7 on my calendar right now), but today let’s just try and understand why it happens to every day people like you and me. Why do we get these massive cravings for fatty foods, sugary sweets, salty fries, or whatever else you may lose control over? And is it really emotional eating? Does it happen to everyone?

Coming from the States and the American diet, I’m willing to bet that almost all of us have binged at some time or another. We eat a gallon of ice cream after a breakup – or a box of Twinkies when we fail a class or have a fight with someone we love.

Studies show that loneliness affects our bodies, and we’ve talked about that some in our loneliness series. It affects the way we respond and cope with basic elements of life. Some of the more complex ways our brain works can “go haywire when our sense of belonging takes a hit” (Cacioppo 35). So, the following real-life study makes a lot of sense: Psychologists randomly divided up into three groups. One group was made to feel that they would be alone at the end of their life, another was told something unrelated, and another group was made to feel they would lead a normal, happy life, surrounded by friends and family. The group that believed that they would be alone in the future showed impairment in executive functioning whereas the other two groups did not. Basic ability remained close to the same. Executive functioning in the brain relates to attentional and inhibitory control – our attention span as well as the control of what you’re doing and how to make it happen. The processes to make things happen (from deciding, planning, organizing and finishing a task) or not is affected by loneliness. It affects our self-control.

But here’s the kicker: They put all three groups, one individual at a time, into a room with a bowl filled with 35 cookies. It was framed as a “taste test” and they were told to eat as many cookies as they needed in order to give a proper analysis of the cookie. The members of the alone group ate an average of about TWICE AS MANY cookies as the members of the other two groups (Cacioppo 43).

The people made to feel isolated, alone, and just sad ate a great deal more cookies than the others. I find what Cacioppo (the “loneliness” psychologist) says here really hits home:

 “Is it any wonder that we turn to ice cream or other fatty foods when we’re sitting at home feeling all alone in the world? We want to soothe the pain we feel by mainlining sugar and fat content to the pleasure centers of the brain, and, absent self-control, we go right at it. This loss of executive function also helps explain the oft observed tendency of rejected lovers to do things they later regret” (Cacioppo 43-44).

In another study, this time with older adults, studies showed that for each point different on UCLA’s Loneliness Scale, the older adults had an intake of about 2.56% more fat calories (Cacioppo 45).

I’ve heard it called emotional eating. Sometimes it’s not even binging. But, it’s fascinating that it happens when we’re sad. In fact, you might be getting sad reading this post because you just can’t stop eating. Many of us have been there. And just like with being lonely, you are not alone.

Ask yourself these questions:

 

How do I feel before I binge? If you feel in-control and have made a conscious decision, then fine. But if you lose control, you won’t feel good afterward. Once, I ate a whole lot of tiramisu that my friend made. And, I’m not gonna lie, I made that decision and I did not regret it. I felt good before, and mostly good after. But the majority of the time that I go overboard, I don’t feel good beforehand or afterward.

 

How does binging make me feel? If it makes you feel good – physically, mentally, and emotionally – then good! If it makes you feel sick, sad, guilty, depressed, or bloated, then maybe it’s not so good. I hope that next month’s posts will be able to help you. I wanted help when I was at my worst.

 

How can I make good decisions about what I eat? We don’t have to eat carrots and only carrots every day. I’m learning that. But, we can think about how what we eat makes us feel. There are some tricks we can do – people who can support us. I just went to the YMCA and talked to someone once a week about food and how that food made me feel.

Food does not have to be where we turn to for comfort. But, if you do go to it and binge a little, know that it is a normal response. Know that there are reasons why we go for that chocolate cake and that whole pizza with a liter of Coke. Know that you are not alone and that sadness doesn’t have to control you.

11 Confessions: Living with Chronic Invisible Illness

Someone needs to write this. I wish someone had written it for me. I wish someone had written it for the people I love to help them understand. I wish they had written about chronic invisible illness years ago. Maybe they did and I just couldn’t find it.

Creating (1)Today, I am suffering. So, it seems like a good day to write some confessions. I, like hundreds of thousands of people in the world, live with chronic invisible illnesses. I’m talking chronic fatigue syndrome (myalgic encephalomyelitis), adrenal fatigue, fibromyalgia, depression, anxiety, food sensitivities, irritable bowel syndrome, and recurring gastritis and UTIs, and many other illnesses that no one sees when they look at you. It’s not pretty to talk about. It’s not comfortable to talk about. It’s not nice to write that I am sick.

For others, it may be different chronic illnesses, things that people on the outside may not be able to see – arthritis, anemia, chronic headaches, or even cancer. These invisible illnesses affect your life like it affects mine.

I get sick a lot, and it’s not easy to always be sick, or to always wonder if I will feel well from one day to the next. Those that don’t know me well probably find it hard to figure out why I’m not always at church events or having to cancel coffee dates. Those that do know me best often get upset that I play it off in front of others. I don’t let on how hard it is. When someone asks me what I did last week, I try and brush it off and say, “Oh, I just sat around like a bum.” I want them to know that I don’t want to be like a bum. The verb “do” is a tricky one, and it’s hard to say what I “do” because everything I want or need to do, I do one day at a time.

More and more of us westernized, stress-driven men and women are being faced with a new sort of illness. It comes in many different and unique forms. It is general and consistent ill health. And it is often invisible.

When I first came to New Zealand (on January 1 of 2011), I was fairly healthy. I lived with a family and looked after two beautiful little girls as their au pair. A few months in, I started having these insane gastrointestinal pains and feelings of severe weakness and dizziness. After the stress of an unexpected conflict, I became almost immobile. By November, I was no longer able to work or drive. I could not function. There was a nice family, and then a house full of people my age who let me stay with them until I had strength enough to fly home to Texas.

After months going from doctor to doctor (from general practitioners to neurologists to gynecologists to gastroenterologists and many in between), they found a few things, but never anything that made me feel better.

I stopped eating sugar, dairy, and gluten for a time and got well enough to teach English for two years. But, I’m back in bed now at least 2 to 3 days each week. I want to be honest about what it’s like to live with chronic ill health because it’s hard for most of us to be honest about.

I hope that, in reading all of this – and these confessions that I give you – you can either find strength in relating to someone else like you, or that you can find mercy and understanding for those who suffer.

What is it like

So, what is it like to live with chronic health problems? I give you my confessions.

11 CONFESSIONS OF LIVING WITH CHRONIC INVISIBLE ILLNESS

1)      I always feel guilty.

The “invisible ills” always feel like we’re letting people down. Lately, I feel guilty for not being able to cook or to do the laundry. Mark has enough to do without taking care of me. I’m truly lucky that he doesn’t mind. But, when I was first sick, the guilt that I had from not being able to look after those two beautiful girls that I was nannying was unbearable. I still feel that guilt. Realizing that it’s out of my hands is hard. The same goes for having to say “no” when I want to do things with friends or family. The guilt comes, and it never seems to go away.

2)      I feel like I am alone.

We feel like outcasts because we just can’t “do” everything that others can do. If I go out for one fun day, it wears on me, and I spend the next day (or two or three) recovering. Those days recovering are lonely days – days that we want to be with people. But they are also days that we don’t want others to see us. We want people to understand, but most people don’t. This makes us even more lonely.

3)      My chronic illness means I often have anxiety and depression.

My depression and anxiety came with chronic fatigue syndrome. Many times, they go hand-in-hand. When we can’t live normal lives, it’s hard to cope in other ways. I can be soooo happy one day, and sooo low the next.

4)      I am almost always in pain.

Whether it’s depression or anxiety, CFS or fibromyalgia, there is pain. There is emotional pain, and there is physical pain. Both are invisible. I am in pain most of the time. Some days I am okay, and on those days, I am so very thankful. But if we seem grumpy or irritable one day, it might just be that we’re hiding something.

5)      Every healthy day is a gift.

My students used to ask me why I was so happy. Part of the reason was simply that I could get out of bed in the mornings and come to work. When I wake up and feel like a normal human being, there is just this immense thankfulness inside of me. Health can easily be taken for granted.

6)      I don’t always look sick.

It may sound obvious as a confession of “invisible” illness, but I want to confess it here. Sometimes when we tell people that we are sick a lot, they look at us puzzled. Sometimes they even say, “But you don’t look sick.” That is true. We don’t look sick. But we feel sick. Even bloodwork doesn’t always show that we are sick. They don’t know what causes chronic fatigue syndrome or fibromyalgia. But it is real. Sometimes I wish people could see how I felt. But, they can’t.

7)      It’s sometimes impossible to get out of bed.

Have you ever had the flu? A high fever? That’s how I feel when I am sick. I tried to get out of bed today – and even drove to where Mark was working. This invisible illness hit me, and he had to leave his car there and drive me home. Yesterday, I was probably out of bed for maybe an hour (and that includes going to the bathroom throughout the day). I have had days when I’ve had to be led to the bathroom. I have had days when Mark had to spoon feed me himself. When these days happen, none of us enjoys them. We want to get out of bed. We want to be normal. But, it just doesn’t happen.

8)      I am afraid. To work, to make plans, to have a life.Creating

Fear can easily control the lives of those with invisible illnesses. For the person with anxiety, they can feel completely debilitated in a crowd. They can be afraid to go out for fear of having a panic attack. It’s hard to explain to people that I am afraid to work right now. It’s a difficult confession to make. What if I can’t do it? What if I get sick and let people down? These invisible illnesses often put our life on hold. It’s just not fair.

9)      Exercise doesn’t always make me feel better.

Just today, I was reading that a primary symptom of chronic fatigue syndrome is flu-like symptoms following over-exertion. When I do too much, I am bedridden. The key is to exercise slowly. Very slowly. If we go out for a run to help ourselves feel better, as is often suggested by friends and family, we can put ourselves back for a few days.

10)   Not all doctors understand.

I went to two doctors in New Zealand before coming home, not including a trip to the Emergency Room. One of them told me I just wasn’t breathing correctly. In Texas, I went to at least seven different doctors. I left half of those crying because there was nothing done to help me. My mom and dad (whoever went with me that day) and I would tell them everything, and after a couple minutes, they would start fidgeting. Many people with “invisible” illnesses sometimes feel that we’re wasting a doctor’s time with all of our problems. To this day, I feel guilty when I sit with a doctor. I know that they are busy, and I feel bad. Of course they can’t fix my problem in ten minutes. This means I have a hard time telling them everything I need to tell them.

11)   I feel useless. Almost daily.

Another difficult confession to make. When I feel most sick, I have an almost continuous feeling of uselessness. I feel like I can’t do anything – can’t do anything right – can’t do simple tasks – can’t feed myself – can’t take my medicine – can’t remember to message or text someone back. Without the ability to work or cook or clean or, sometimes, to type, what is there to be useful at?

Those are my confessions – and, I believe – the confessions of many that suffer from illnesses that no one can see. Our conditions, diseases, and illnesses may be invisible. But we are not. Show someone compassion this week. You do not know what is underneath their skin.

Loneliness: Final Thoughts (on an un-final topic)

Loneliness (5)Holy-moly. We have spent three whole weeks talking about loneliness. I feel better. I hope you do, too.

My husband is studying at his parents’ house today; they have better sunlight in their house. My best friend is with her family in a different city. And my list of people to hang out with doesn’t extend a whole lot further than them.

finding meaningBut, today, I can choose not to be lonely. I can go to a nice coffee shop, drink my soy flat white, and feel connected to some of the people here, smile at them and enjoy watching them laugh with their friends, with their families. I take in the sunlight today, because tomorrow it may be gone. It is winter, after all.

Tomorrow, I may feel differently. I might not feel okay on my own. Even after all of these posts on beating loneliness, we have to realize that it might come back. It might come back every day.

But now I know, and I hope that you do, too, that there are things I can do – I can enjoy being with myself, I can branch out and meet other people either by helping them or by joining them, I can find meaning and purpose in every day, and I can find comfort in a higher power.

Thank you for joining me on this journey. I hope and pray we can continue on together.

Please, please, please remember. You are not alone.

 

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Stay tuned for the upcoming e-book, Loneliness: It’s All of Us

Did you miss one alone the way? Check out the rest of the “Loneliness Series”:

 

1.        Loneliness: It’s All of Us

2.       Loneliness: The Problem, the Paradoxical Virus, and a Cure

3.       Loneliness: Finding the “Inner” Person

4.       Loneliness: Finding the “Other” Person

5.       Loneliness: Finding Meaning in What you Do

6.       Loneliness: For the In-Between

7.       Loneliness: Understanding Loneliness in All People

8.       Loneliness: Helping Others, Helping Yourself

9.       Loneliness: Finding the “Upper” Person

10.     Loneliness: Final Thoughts on an Un-Final Topic

Loneliness: Understanding Loneliness in All People

Loneliness (2)

We live in a three bedroom, two bathroom house, which we share with two other people – sometimes three. Our landlord has all of his things in here, so we’re fully furnished. And, as luck would have it, the house came with a cat.

Now, I’ve never realllllly liked cats. Some of them are really nice, I think. But, I’m a dog person. Dogs are motivated to please their leader. And, I’m not gonna lie, I love when others make me happy. It’s like quality time, but probably quite selfish. Cats are motivated to please themselves – which I can relate to, but I don’t like it. I’m probably over-generalizing about the dog/cat differences. But this  particular cat that lives here – Rimmer – is a pretty cool cat. I like him.

He’s deaf, partly blind, and he’s 18 years old. So when we got here, we kind of thought we’d get a good laugh out of hearing him meow – people like to laugh at animals on YouTube, so why not us in our own backyard? He can’t hear himself, so his voice is a little … squeaky? Loud? It’s unusual, that’s for sure.

But, as the autumn months fell, and then winter came, the meow, once hopeful that we would go outside and see him, became something different. It became a couple of loud cries in the night – which at first we thought were possums (possum is actually spelled that way here, so don’t you go telling anyone I misspelled a word, ok?). These cries would wake us up for a minute, then we’d go back to sleep. It started happening almost every morning before the sun came up (like a rooster…but a cat), and the meows and cries turned to these blood-curdling yowls. It’s cold now and it happens almost daily – less when the sun is shining.

He is lonely.

No.Rimmer and I understand each other. On the days Mark & I can spend extra time with him, he is happy. He doesn’t yowl or scream. He does walk back and forth from window to window, looking in to see where we are and why we are not with him. We had to put my dog down a week before Mark and I got married last year, and she used to listen to my problems and hug me, so sometimes I like to hug Rimmer. It makes me feel better.

The lesson here is not a lesson in ending animal cruelty or digging into the study of pet psychology. I’m not saying that animals can feel exactly what humans feel because who could really know that? But, this is what strikes me when I hear our cat screaming, yowling in the night: Loneliness is universal. It strikes for good reasons and bad reasons. If a cat can be lonely, then of course it is normal for us to be lonely. It really can affect anyone, and with company and help, we can feel better for a little at a time, at least.

I just want to go through some life stages with you. Each of these age groups deal with loneliness, just like each person experiences happiness, sadness, anger, etc. There are none that experience it, notably, more or less than any other age group. As we said the first day, it’s all of us. What does matter is what we do to treat ourselves when we feel isolated or excluded, as well as how we can help others to feel better.

CHILDREN

It’s not a surprise that children, as small as infants, can have feelings of loneliness, but even once they are talking, they may not be able to verbalize, I feel alone. I need you to spend time with meneed to be held. It comes out in many different ways, and some of those ways may be even more loud and annoying than Rimmer’s midnight yowls. 🙂

Thirty-six years ago, in 1990, there were about 20% of single-parent households. Today, statistics say it is about 33% (Cacioppo 53). This compounds the feelings our children have of loneliness, abandonment, being left out. It’s a long way from a world where we all thrived in close-knit communities. Even at a young age, loneliness can take a hold. And no child should be alone.

TEENAGERS

We say that teenagers “over-react”. Their lives are filled with drama, they burst into tears for no reason, they punch walls just-because. But, what if there’s more to it than shifting hormones? Loneliness affects your executive functioning in the brain – your ability to goal-set and make decisions. If a teen is being made to feel isolated, even ostracized, at school, then of course they are going to “over-react”.

I think it’s especially important to remember during these years that the problems teenagers face are real to them. Sometimes, they are just doing the best they can to survive. They need a little sympathy before we yell at them. We don’t see what happens at school, or who put something hurtful about them on social media. They are trying to figure out where they belong, and if they can’t, then they can develop severe, chronic feelings of loneliness.

YOUNG ADULTS/STUDENTS

It’s pretty interesting to note that in studies with young adults, drinking alcohol is usually pursued by the non-lonely rather than the lonely (Cacioppo 30). It’s only later in life that lonely people turn, or continue to turn, to alcohol, and it becomes a problem.

Just in reading what I have studied, it seems that this age group is a very important time to develop coping skills for any negative emotion. The health problems correlating with loneliness seem to begin here. Studies of college students found that immune response and total peripheral resistance were greatly affected in students with higher degrees of loneliness (Pressman, Cohen, & Miller’s “Loneliness, social network size, and immune response vaccination in college freshmen”, Cacioppo 106).

Have a read of this: “…Lonely young people perceive themselves to be having a tougher time, and, over time, the stress of that subjective sense of being under the gun can create wear and tear throughout the organism. By the time they reach middle age, people who are chronically lonely have more divorces, more run-ins with neighbors, more estrangement from family. By middle age, the tougher time they may have perceived themselves to be experiencing has become a reality” (Cacioppo 35, Steptoe & Owen’s “Loneliness and neuroendocrine, cardiovascular, and inflammatory stress responses in middle-aged men and women” – 2004). Young adulthood is where most of us begin to gather without treating stress related to loneliness – and this leads to problems down the road.

MIDDLE AGE ADULTS

By the time we get through the teenage and younger adult years, we’ve conditioned ourselves to live within some fairly negative perceptions. This is why it is so important to count our blessings, to practice positive thinking, to get to know ourselves, and to be with others. All of these – treating our feelings – are important to staying healthy longer.

But, statistically, lonely adults drink more alcohol, exercise less, eat more fatty foods, and have a lower quality of sleep even though they get the same amount of sleep as everyone else (Cacioppo 30). These are symptoms of what is happening inside. The cardiovascular system can be damaged (106) and the chemicals associated with feeling unwanted or isolated “act as a corrosive fore that accelerates the aging process”, much like stress (32). Serious loneliness can seriously mess up vital cellular processes (34). Loneliness does make us sick, and the older we get, the more we’re able to see its ugly head.

All the more reason to take care of ourselves now.

OLDER ADULTS

In the United States, there are over 2 million more people living alone than there were fifteen years ago. About 40% of those are over the age of 65 (Hobbs & Stoops’ Demographic trends in the 20th century). Our cat is old and lives outside, alone. He’d probably make a really good friend to an older adult, and our landowner has thought about donating him at times.

Here is something quite interesting from a 2006 study: “…When we drew blood from older adults and analyzed their white cells, we found that loneliness somehow penetrated the deepest recesses of the cell to alter the way genes were being expressed. Loneliness predicted changes in DNA transcription that, in turn, made changes in the cell’s sensitivity to circulating cortisol, dampening the ability to shut off the inflammatory response (Adam, Hawkley, & Kudielka’s “Day-to-day dynamics of experience: Cortisol associations in a population-based sample of older adults”). Whoa. That is crazy, right? Loneliness was also found connected to the stress hormone epinephrine, as well as daytime fatigue, and lower quality of sleep (Cacioppo 10, Hawkley & Cacioppo “Aging and loneliness: Downhill quickly?”). If you feel like there is no one around to listen to you, to sit with you – to care about you, then that will hurt you. That is why it is so important to visit people in nursing homes, or even just people who live alone. It’s hard to be alone.

There are more and more older adults having to live the last part of their lives alone, and there is so much that loneliness can destroy. And that is sad, isn’t it?

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I know that there are a lot of statistics in here, but I think it’s really important to understand the process loneliness takes to beat us down, from childhood to old age. We can combat it now for the future, and we can help those in different age groups when we understand a little of what is happening in their body, mind, and soul.

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Catch up on our other “Loneliness” posts here:

1.        Loneliness: It’s All of Us

2.        Loneliness: The Problem, the Paradoxical Virus, and a Cure

3.        Loneliness: Finding the “Inner” Person

4.        Loneliness: Finding the “Other” Person

5.        Loneliness: Finding Meaning in What you Do

6.        Loneliness: For the In-Between

7.        Loneliness: Understanding Loneliness in All People

 

And these are coming soon!

11 July        Loneliness: Helping Others Helps Yourself

13 July       Loneliness: Finding the “Upper” Person

15 July       Final Thoughts on an Un-Final Topic

Loneliness: Finding Meaning in What You Do

Loneliness (2)

Happy Independence Day, everyone in the States! This is my second 4th of July in New Zealand, and there are no fireworks… or American flags. But I’m looking forward to the 5th of November – when Kiwis set off fireworks all across Auckland on Guy Fawkes Day. None of them know why (none that I have found). They say it’s just fun. I feel like Kiwis will do anything for fun’s sake. They don’t really need a reason.

It’s good to do fun things for fun’s sake; it’s a part of being happy and boosting serotonin. But, I really think that sometimes in life, it’s useful to have a reason for doing things. Americans celebrate their independence as a reminder of the freedom gained from an oppressive nation. In New Zealand, they celebrate Waitangi Day to remember the unity and promises made between the colonists and the Maori people. We need to find meaning in the fun.

finding meaningAnd we need to find meaning in the not-fun. In the horrible. In loneliness.

This blog was a project that I have been wanting to do for a long time, but it was when I needed it that I finally cracked down and made it a reality. I felt, sometimes, like life had no meaning.

In your loneliness, do you sometimes feel like there is no meaning or purpose to your life?

I think it’s hard to talk about, and honestly, I try and forget that I ever think those horrible thoughts. And I usually do well until the next time I experience extreme loneliness or even depression.

And so, I found myself in a new country with a bunch of strangers – in a new suburb, just married, with a husband in his last and most difficult semester of nursing school. And I yearned for purpose. I cried a lot. With almost every other adventure in my life, God had told me to go or do, and it often happened pretty much last minute. I chose New Zealand because, I believe, God has plans for Mark and I as a couple, but I never thought about what I might do in the in-between – on my transition.

And so I say to you: Sometimes in life, you have to create purpose.

How? By taking what you have and applying meaning to it.

Cacioppo says that “loneliness may damage the cardiovascular system not just by inflicting stress, but also by promoting passive coping in the face of stress” (Cacioppo 106). He says that, often, lonely people will act “with pessimism and avoidance” (103). This means that us lonelies are more likely to just let whatever situation we are in keep us from doing positive things. But, I think, we can create positive things.

One day when I needed to get my mind out of my negative-lonely-world, I just coloured in one of those adult colouring books that are pretty popular right now. I chose one that had words that would encourage me – with some of my favourite animals on it or something. It was an easy way to think of something else, but still get my happy hormones up.

I had a colouring book. I applied meaning to it. I used it to re-focus my mind on the positives.

In this book called Wired to Create by Kaufman and Gregoire, they talk about how we are naturally creative beings. Children left to their own devices will play and imagine and make up stories. Adults will do this, too, and the adults that have continued to “play” do well. Their idea is that we should “play with what you do”- integrate the idea of enjoyment and fun, in effect, with seriousness. This increases endorphins, making you feel good, while doing what you have to do.

You have to work. Apply meaning to it. Find fun in it. Enjoy what you can, because sometimes the stress of work can overwhelm.

You go to school. Apply meaning to it. It is making you a better human being, preparing you for who you are meant to be.

I live in New Zealand and I have no job. I need meaning, so I take what I have – a laptop, a library, a love for writing. And I create a blog with the help and support of a few people. This gives me something that I can see as being important, gives me meaning in how I spend my time. I feel better, and I even feel like I look better. I’m out of bed more, and able to do more.

How can you apply this idea? It can be as simple as drawing or colouring, or as dramatic as a job change. I’d love to hear!

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Missed something? We don’t want you to feel left out. 🙂

Check out the rest of the “Loneliness Series”:

 

1.        Loneliness: It’s All of Us

2.       Loneliness: The Problem, the Paradoxical Virus, and a Cure

3.       Loneliness: Finding the “Inner” Person

4.       Loneliness: Finding the “Other” Person

5.       Loneliness: Finding Meaning in What you Do

6.       Loneliness: For the In-Between

7.       Loneliness: Understanding Loneliness in All People

8.       Loneliness: Helping Others, Helping Yourself

9.       Loneliness: Finding the “Upper” Person

10.     Loneliness: Final Thoughts on an Un-Final Topic

Loneliness: It’s All of Us

10 daysversuslonely ness

 My husband is from New Zealand, but I am from Texas. We got married at my grandparents’ house last Thanksgiving, and now we have been living in Auckland for a few months. I cannot work because we don’t have immigration consent as I am writing this post, so I have had little to do while my husband is in his last semester of nursing study.

Loneliness.

I feel like I say that word a lot lately. Yet, somehow, even the word doesn’t carry the weight of the emotions conjoined into those three simple syllables.

We all feel lonely. And that is part of why this site exists – so that we know that we are never really alone. Thanks for that.

Part of my coping with this new time of my life – starting off in a new country with new people and foods and ways of joking and teasing – is by writing. Writing this blog, for example.

But in the last few weeks, loneliness has integrated itself into worthlessness and a lack of purpose. I had purpose when I was teaching English literature to teenagers. I had purpose when I was helping youth at my church community back home. I had purpose when I was planning a wedding. I had purpose when it was only me and I could dream of travelling and wandering and going wherever I wanted – whenever I wanted.

I’m learning something new. Life changes and sometimes purpose changes with it.

So how do I cope with this?

How do I get back to a life of purpose in the middle of so much change?

Through life, I have learned that when negativity floods in – whether it’s self-doubt, being fired from an easy job, or just someone looking at you the wrong way – immediate action is required. If not dealt with and changed to a positive, the negative thought or feeling seems to compound itself and leads to other negative thoughts and feelings.

EUGENE (1)My theory in working through loneliness is, at the present, largely based on the same skills we learn in counseling to combat depression. Both loneliness and depression can be debilitating, and one can lead into the other if the dice lands a certain way on the table of brain chemistry.

As someone who believes in Jesus, I have the ever-present peace of knowing that my faith is giving me purpose. That is more helpful than anything. I daily thank my God for the purpose and plans that he has for all of his children. That is my number one.

And so, here, I write my list of what I do (or try to do) to refocus and balance:

  • Be in the light – both physically and spiritually.
    • The sun not only gives us Vitamin D, it boosts serotonin, increasing mood. On cloudy days, my husband whips out this handy “lightbox” and turns it on right in front of my face. It helps me.
    • The son of God is the light of the world. Without this source of light going into the deepest parts of my soul, I am empty. He fills voids created by loneliness. And I’m not even just saying that.
  • Draw. Or Colour.
    • Get an adult colouring book. Or a kid’s one. Create your own. Colours can be oddly therapeutic. So is colouring.
    • Sometimes, I draw myself how I want to be – happy, peaceful, thinking good thoughts.
  • Go to school. Any school. (Today, I’m sitting in a university library. I don’t attend here. 😉 )
    • This may not be useful for many people, but I freakin’ love to learn. So I sit and I learn whatever I want to learn.
    • Research your interests. I’m very interested in the subject and science of “loneliness” right now, as you can see. So I spent three months finding everything I could on the subject. I’ve also been studying pet therapy… because I want a dog. 🙂
  • Teach.
    • This is something I enjoy, partly because I learn so much myself through teaching.. So I’ve created a blog where I can do something like teaching while I’m unemployed!
  • Socialize. Find the “Other” Person.
    • Join a club, a church group, a gym. Be with other people. I joined a gym, and even though I don’t talk to anyone there, it’s nice just to be with people. The same goes for the library or a café!
    • Our landlord has an 18 year old deaf cat at our house. I pet it when my husband is studying or at his clinicals. It’s just an animal, but being with something else that is alive and breathing is comforting. If you have an animal, cuddle it. If not, hamsters are cheap in the States. 🙂
    • Be with your family, if you can. I can skype my parents. I can go to my in-laws’ house. I, personally, always “leave” feeling better.
    • Tell your best friend, your husband, your wife, your kid – whoever – that you want to spend time with them. Make a plan, set a day, and enjoy every moment. One day when I was at my loneliest, Mark stayed home with me and took me to the wharf. A week later, I was still looking back to that day, feeling the good feelings over and over. Count the blessings of those days as hope during the bad days.
  • Write.
    • Writing has always been my favourite thing to do, even though I’ve been shy and embarrassed to do it as much as I like. It’s therapeutic to write in a journal. It feels good to write a card to people I am thankful for.

What is your list? How do you deal with your lonely times? If you can’t think of anything, try to concentrate on what has always made you happy. Most of the things on my list fit into everything I wanted to be when I was a child: an author, an artist, and an adventurer. Look back at your childhood self. Where do you find joy? We all find joy in being with people on some level. How can that help you in your loneliness?

If you don’t have an answer, yet, then I hope and pray that by the end of this series, you will have one. Or two. Or many.

Over the next few weeks, I’ll be posting a series of, what I believe, will be useful articles on the problem of loneliness, solutions to help you through the loneliest times, and the hope that you can have within yourself to make it. Stay tuned for:

 

24 June       Loneliness: It’s All of Us

 

27 June       Loneliness: The Problem, the Paradoxical Virus, and a Cure

19 June       Loneliness: Finding the “Inner” Person

1 July          Loneliness: Finding the “Other” Person

 

4 July         Loneliness: Finding Meaning in What you Do

6 July         Loneliness: For the In-Between

8 July         Loneliness: Understanding Loneliness in All People

 

11 July        Loneliness: Helping Others, Helping Yourself

13 July       Loneliness: Finding the “Upper” Person

15 July       Final Thoughts on an Un-Final Topic

Loneliness is not something you alone feel. Everyone feels lonely. Many people feel chronically lonely. You are not alone in the fight to be with others and feel whole. It’s not just you. It’s all of us. Let’s take it head on – together.