We all have moments where we want to be alone. Many older women have built defenses around feelings that are painful or things that they don’t want in their lives. They know themselves well enough to know when to shut the door and be alone.
Solitude can be healing and positive. But there’s a difference between solitude (enjoying your own company and feeling comfortable being alone), and loneliness (feeling a painful longing for intimacy and the company of other people).
Loneliness can lead to depression and stress – resulting in serious illness. Everyone feels lonely now and again. But sometimes with the way we live now in the modern world, people get stuck in certain patterns of behavior where they become lonely to a negative, self-destructive extent. If you don’t watch for the warning signs of loneliness, you might be exposing yourself to the health risks without even fully realizing it.
Where does loneliness begin? Our fifties are a time when a lot of trigger events take place that can lead to feelings of isolation and lack of purpose. Wanting to be alone to regroup and reinvent one’s life is a defensive response to these painful triggers. These can include things such as losing a job, experiencing age discrimination, going through a divorce, parents getting sick or dying, kids leaving home, and other unsettling life challenges.
Our 50s and 60s is a time to reflect and transition into a new lifestyle and new relationships – and this can naturally make you feel alone and lost. At the extreme, it can be threatening and overwhelming.
Most of the time, people know when they are feeling a little lonely, but here are some warning signs not to ignore.
Research suggests that people who are lonely tend to not get good solid sleep – their sleep is “fragmented,” and the lonelier the participant, the higher the levels of fragmented sleep they seem to experience.
Apparently lonely people tend to take longer baths and showers in hotter water. Researchers have studied the links between physical warmth and social connection, and have concluded that some people use physical warmth as a substitute for warm social ties.
There’s an old saying that “you can’t buy love,” but according to other research, it appears that people who buy lots of stuff suffer from a lack of social connection and they start having an intense emotional connection with their material possessions. Black Friday, anyone? This research is very interesting, because it make me wonder if the reverse is true – if being lonely makes us buy more stuff, does that mean that people who downsize and give things away are NOT lonely?
Or better yet – wouldn’t it be great if giving things could help people feel less lonely? Instead of trying to comfort ourselves by buying things for ourselves, wouldn’t it be wonderful if being generous to others actively made us less lonely? Try it and see if it works!
Research by John Cacioppo, a social neuroscientist at the University of Chicago, says that loneliness can spread through social connections. This means that it is possible for you to feel lonely if someone you’re directly connected to is lonely. This is a fascinating finding, because it shows how interconnected we all are as human beings, whether we realize it or not – and whether we even want to be or not. Humans are social animals and we live in a complex ecosystem of interdependence.
What’s good (or bad) for other people in our group is often good (or bad) for us. So perhaps checking in on our friends regularly – whether we “need it” or not – could help us avoid loneliness in the future.
If you think that you are feeling lonely, don’t feel bad. Reach out. Try to get re-connected to the people you care about. Get out of the house and try something new. There is still so much to discover and enjoy in life, and so many people to share it with! Working together, we can fight back against loneliness and rediscover the warmth of human connections in everyday life.
Here are a few resources that you should check out if you are feeling lonely:
What are your thoughts on this? Do you sometimes worry that you are showing some of these warning signs of loneliness? How do you keep from feeling lonely? Please add your comments below.
Watch my interview with loneliness expert, Kory Floyd on the topic of fighting loneliness after 60.