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The Roots of Loneliness


By Jude LaClaire, Ph.D.


This time of year when daylight is scarce, the weather is colder, and true connections are few, we may find ourselves felling lonely. Some describe themselves as feeling rootless with little sense of belonging. The growth of social media, people moving more frequently, and the polarization of people around social and political issues has contributed to disconnection and loneliness.

 John Cacioppo, co-author of Loneliness:Human Nature and the Need for Social Connections, began studying the neuroscience of loneliness over two decades ago. He theorized that the brain is the organ for creating, monitoring, nurturing and retaining social connections. The important thing, he tells us, is not whether you actually have these connections but whether you felt that you had them. He found that about 26 percent of the population regularly feels lonely.

 A number of different research studies have found that loneliness can cause sleep disturbances or unrestful sleep, raise levels of stress hormones and inflammation, which can increase the risk of heart disease, Type 2 diabetes, dementia and even suicide attempts. Lonely people are often depressed, anxious and have poor self esteem. According to the American Foundation for Suicide prevention forty-five thousand people committed suicide in 2017 and the National Institute of Drug Abuse reported that seventy-two thousand people died from drug overdoses in the same year.

Dr. Cacioppo, in testing various approaches to treating loneliness, made an interesting discovery. He found that social engagement doesn’t work because it confuses the idea of loneliness and being alone. Social skills are often lost due to loneliness rather than causing it. Social support doesn’t work because it is one-directional and not mutual. He says, “The last treatment we looked at is changing how lonely people think about other people, having them understand what happens when their brain goes into this self-preservation mode.” His research now focuses more on ‘maladaptive social cognition”-helping people re-examine how they interact with others and perceive social cues.

The two groups more prone to loneliness are young people from early teens to twenties and seniors. Young people are going through a huge life transition from being a child to assuming the responsibilities of adulthood. Social groups are increasingly important as the child separates from family. Older adults are often experiencing the loss of spouses, friends and colleagues. They have a strong probability of losing support systems or moving to unfamiliar places.

In today’s world where much of the interaction is via social media, there is often an increasing sense of isolation. People may be working at home or in small isolated cubicles. Other factors are poverty, unemployment, and immigration or displacement.

The question is how can we facilitate mutually reciprocal connections and also assist people in learning new ways of perceiving social cues. It would seem that learning to trust helps to re-establish one’s ability to read social cues differently. In counseling, we think of those behaviors that miscue us as ‘triggers.’ When one experiences discomfort, pain or trauma the stimuli that are part of the experience become embedded as reminders.  We then carry those forward.

To counter loneliness and learn healthier social cue recognition Jane E. Brody in the New York Times article (June 25, 2018) suggests doing creative activities with others like writing, music, visual arts, gardening, textile arts like crocheting, knitting and needlework, and even culinary arts. She quotes Dr. Nobel, “Creative arts expression has the power to connect to yourself and others.” 

A creative Physical Education teacher at Indian Hills Middle School in Prairie Village, KS, Kathy Kreamer, has her students and residents of Brighton Gardens experience a fitness class together. The students are asked to create activities that can be enjoyed by someone in a wheel chair, a walker or other disabilities. The students have been impressed by the life experiences shared by the residents. While the students are walking or playing they get a chance to socialize with the seniors. The students and the seniors are socializing, connecting with each other in a reciprocal relationship.

 If you are experiencing loneliness or know someone who is, think about how you can change this process by engaging in activities that encourage a reciprocal experience. Think about how you read or misread social cues. Perhaps you will be less lonely, enjoying others and your healthy solitude.


Evolving Magazine

Kansas City

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Jude LaClaire, Ph.D., LCPC, is a counselor, educator and author. For counseling appointments, seminars, training, speaking engagements or information on Neurobehavioral Programs or Imago Couple therapy call 913-322-5622. For more information about Jude LaClaire or the Kansas City Holistic Centre go to


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