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Part of why lonely people remain alone is because the physical impact of loneliness — inflammation, in particular — makes them irritable and hard to get along with, researchers suggest. Image by Free-Photos from Pixabay

Some of you know I’m working on a book for Herald Press about best ways for Christians to support people (like me!) who live with mental health diagnoses. I keep running across fascinating stuff in my research. This week: a report by AARP that describes using painkillers to assist people who are lonely.

Loneliness is epidemic in the US, and was long before COVID forced many of us into physical distancing from each other. It seems that the psychic experience of loneliness shows up in the body as inflammation and a surge in white blood cells seeking to attack the loneliness threat. But when the body reads “threat!” the psyche is less able to do relationships effectively.

The report quotes UCLA geneticist Steve Cole saying that the physical threat response “feeds back to the brain and makes it irritable, suspicious, prone to negative emotions and fearful of meeting new people and making new friends.”

In other words, “loneliness makes people more irritable and defensive,” says Stephanie Cacioppo, director of the Brain Dynamics Laboratory at the University of Chicago Pritzker School of Medicine.

“Loneliness makes people more irritable and defensive. If you put two lonely people together, they’re going to hate each other after two minutes.”

Stephanie Cacioppo

That makes some of the standard strategies for supporting isolated people ineffective from the start, Cacioppo tells AARP. “If you put two lonely people together, they’re going to hate each other after two minutes,” Cacioppo says.

So how to approach the problem? The report I read points to some research suggesting that painkillers might reduce the inflammatory effects of loneliness sufficiently to allow for more normal social interactions. Or at least to reduce inflammation enough that people could focus on cognitive behavioral therapy about their social interactions. The hope is that they then could train themselves to behave more normally so others will be less likely to respond badly.

Hmmm … What do you think?

I can say: For me, that learning social skills (as an adult) has been the key to overcoming my loneliness. Counseling strategies for revising my thoughts about social interactions have been much less useful.

  • I felt lonely (and rejected) in every large business networking event until someone taught me how to recognize which groups of chatting people were open to being joined. That gave me the skill to maneuver around the “closed” groups into the groups where I’d be welcome.
  • I felt frequently overwhelmed and overrun by other people’s agendas until I learned the skills of negotiation. That freed me to interact as a peer instead of running from those people, which had protected my interests but increased my loneliness. Negotiation is a core social skill in our culture, as it is in many, so this is basic to relationships.
  • I felt like I would never have good friends until someone taught me the overall framework and timeline for friend formation. (Surprisingly, in a culture where we move residence every three years or so, it takes two years for women to build a decent circle of friends.) That gave me the skill to plan my social interactions and monitor my progress toward a solid network of friends.

None of that skills building came from working with a cognitive behavioral therapist. None came, in fact, from any professional counseling setting. After 40 years under the guidance of professional counselors, I finally started to learn how to be less lonely from

  • a random presentation on networking at a Chamber of Commerce breakfast,
  • an audiobook on negotiating strategies from my public library, and
  • a couple months of online coaching about women’s friendships.

Counseling and medicine are familiar tools, but they don’t work for every purpose. I use a hammer and nails to hang most of my wall art. I used a drill, a screwdriver, and toggle bolts to hang my gigantic office whiteboard. And if my experience is representative, it’s going to take more than pills and counseling to get us through the current epidemic of loneliness.

I hope the conversation about loneliness goes past pills and counseling rooms to more appropriately individualized supports.