Do you ever feel lonely? Disconnected? Depressed? How often? If the answer to this question is yes, sometimes, or even always, then you may not be as alone as you think.
In today’s interconnected world it is difficult to look up from our devices. We are constantly distracted by an endless stream of comments, likes, pictures, updates, and notifications which demand attention and draw our focus away from each precious moment. Digital connection has begun to replace real, in-person, face-to-face interactions, and so loneliness has taken root and started to spread like a virus.
There is a term in Japanese culture known as hikikomori, which refers to a state of severe social withdrawal and self-isolation. The term comes from the verb hiki which means “to withdraw” and komori “to be inside”. Meaning “to withdraw inside” and is used to describe a culture-bound syndrome common in young Japanese adults.
Individuals described as hikikomori shut themselves off from the world and choose to remain at home with their parents. Often avoiding school or work. Such individuals can grow increasingly reclusive over time and in many cases are unable to re-enter society. Sometimes exhibiting extreme and persistent withdrawal that can last for decades.
These patterns of isolation within Japanese youth began to emerge aroun the 1990s. During rhis time Japan experience a prolonged recession accompanied by a financial crisis. Their Markets collapsed, financial institutions faced downturns, stock prices plummeted, inflation hiked, and jobs as well as other opportunities began to dwindle. These circumstances made it difficult for young people to acheive their goal. Resulting in widespread apthy and depression. .
In other words, in response to their environment (and the resulting psychological toll), many people began to conceal themselves from the world as a means of coping with their perceived or real failures. A sense of shame took hold and motivation all but evaporated.
Today it is estimated that more than a million young people live as modern-day hermits. A recent government survey found that roughly 541,000 (or 1.57% of the population) struggle with this condition. Some experts even suggest authorities may be undercounting. The real figure is probably closer to 2 million.
What is more, in recent years cases of this kind have begun to increase across the globe. For example, in 2005 it was estimated that 33, 000 adolescents in South Korea exhibited this type of social withdrawal. Similarly, in Hong Kong, a survey revealed that 1.9% of the population struggled with the condition.
These trends aren’t contained to Asia either. Similar patterns have been noted all over the world, in places such as the US, Spain, Italy, France, and even South Africa. Concern around social isolation is on the rise globally. Many have dubbed this new phenomenon “an epidemic of loneliness” as it becomes increasingly recognised as the next big public health issue.
More than ever before today's population is leading solitary lives. In recent years, there has been rapid growth in single-person households across the developed world. For example, in 2016 it was revealed that one-third of households within the European Union consisted of just one person. And these numbers are projected to increase. By 2030, we expect single-person households to account for more than a quarter of the population in a multitude of places like the US, Australia, and New Zealand. In Japan and other Asian nations, this will be true for two-fifths of the population.
Such trends are seemingly spurred by sociocultural changes. People have begun to marry later in life, or not at all, and more marriages now end in divorce, while birth rates have dropped. In addition, technology has enabled us to work and meet our needs from home. We can contact people through emails, or over zoom, and do our shopping online. Potentially never having to leave the house. Most of our needs for contact are also attended to through the digital sphere.
Emerging trends point to the isolating influence of modern technology which has fundamentally changed how we relate, communicate, and function as a society. In essence, while using Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram, and other social media platforms to forge connections, can add a sense of vibrancy or belonging to life, most research reveals that this type of communication does not appropriately address our need for connection. In fact, it may actually exacerbate feelings of disconnect and loneliness.
Several studies have found a correlation between the frequent use of social media and feelings of unhappiness, dissatisfaction, and social isolation. However, we do not know yet whether this is cause or correlation. For instance, whether people who feel unhappy or isolated are more likely to use social media as comfort or if their media consumption leads to such feelings. But this does tell us there is a link and that social media is not an effective remedy for loneliness.
By spending hours every day on social media as a substitute for real connection, your feelings of loneliness and inadequacy are likely to worsen. Why? Because it leaves little time for meaningful, face-to-face connection. Human beings are social animals, we rely on relationships as much as food or drink.
So much so, that loneliness can harm your health. Feelings of isolation and disconnection are associated with a string of psychopathologies and severe health consequences. It can affect your physical and mental well-being. In terms of mental health feeling lonely can trigger or exacerbate psychiatric disorders. Increasing your risk of depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, sleep problems, and stress. Especially, when these feelings are prolonged.
Studies have also shown that loneliness is linked to problems with memory and attention, as well as cognitive function, and executive function, and in addition puts you at a greater risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease. A study following 12,000 participants over 10 years found those who reported being loneliest had a 40% greater risk of developing dementia.
On top of the psychological toll, loneliness affects our physical health. Research has found that it can be just as harmful to your health as smoking and has been described as deadlier than obesity. Chronic loneliness can cause high blood pressure, and heart disease, weaken your immune system, affect your diet and lead to poor sleep.
Lonely people are fifty times more likely to die early, much sooner than individuals with well-formed social networks. Your mortality risk might generally be around 26%, however social isolation and living alone increase this risk by 32%.
The global trends we see today and the increase in isolation are thus understandably worrisome. However, understanding this is the first step towards improving your life and combating these trends, ensuring you don’t become just another statistic. There are a range of tips and tricks, as well as coping strategies one can utilise to effectively manage lonely feelings and ensure they don’t get too out of hand.
Firstly, acknowledge that you feel lonely. Avoiding your problems and attempting to suppress your emotions doesn’t make them go away. Rather, it is beneficial to be in touch with what you feel so you can respond effectively. Studies have found that by recognising and labelling our feelings we can reduce their intensity.
Secondly, reaching out to people from your past is another effective stagey. At times it is easier to rekindle old bonds, rather than establishing new ones. A good starting point might be to get in touch with an old roommate, estranged family members, or connect with a former classmate.
If that isn't an option, however, you can always join a group or club. You can start by looking for activities in your area or nearby. This can be anything from a book club to a hiking club. It may even be as simple as joining the gym, volunteering in your spare time, or finding a support group. Whatever helps you get out and interact with others.
If that seems like too big a step, then how about performing an act of kindness. You can wave to people you see at your local store, strike up a conversation with a retailer or maybe contact local charities, hospitals, nursing homes, or animal shelters to see how you could volunteer or offer assistance.
If all else fails, pick up a book. This can be a useful distraction or means of coping. It also allows you to enter the minds of the characters helping you understand how other people think. It's also a valid means of communicating with another person, even if it's through writing or from a distance.
In a similar vein by engaging in your hobbies and interests you can boost your mood and create a sense of purpose for yourself. Doing this can also distract you from overthinking and negative thoughts which may be unproductive. Besides if you don’t have hobbies, you can always make it a priority to find one. Experiment with different activities, from fishing to pottery, until you discover things that you love.
The point is to put your phone down, give the internet a break and explore the world and all it has to offer. Maybe then, we might see that we don't have to feel lonely, disconnected, and depressed. That everyone feels this way at times, but it doesn't have to be the world's next disaster.
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