Are you alone? I don't mean "alone" in the "are you single" kind of a way, although that way might very well apply here too. No, I mean are you alone in an existential way, the kind of way where no matter how many people you've surrounded yourself with, you still feel the crippling burden of solitude, a burden that weighs down on you until you feel driven to drink and make superficial connections with whoever is nearby, in a pathetic and futile attempt to keep the infinite darkness at bay. That's the kind of alone I mean.
Well, if that kind of loneliness sounds at all familiar to you, I've got some news that won't exactly lift you out of whatever existential angst-y mood you're probably already in at this very moment. That kind of loneliness isn't just in your head, it's also in your body. As in, that kind of loneliness is slowly killing you. The New Republic reports on "The Lethality of Loneliness" and delivers the unwelcome, although not exactly surprising, news that "long-lasting loneliness not only makes you sick; it can kill you. Emotional isolation is ranked as high a risk factor for mortality as smoking. A partial list of the physical diseases thought to be caused or exacerbated by loneliness would include Alzheimer’s, obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, neurodegenerative diseases, and even cancer—tumors can metastasize faster in lonely people." Ominous.
But what exactly is "real loneliness"? It's not simply a question of solitude. I mean, I don't know about you, but the loneliest I've ever felt is when I've been surrounded by people that I just don't relate to, by which I mean, yes, I've been to many New York media parties. But even that loneliness was just a passing feeling, not a chronic condition. In that same way, loneliness in a romantic relationship is not about temporary dissatisfaction. That's normal. That's human. No, real loneliness in a relationship is about constant, foundational unease, that nagging certainty that you chose the wrong person. This type of real loneliness, if not addressed, can manifest itself in many destructive ways, including, I guess, death. This is mainly because real loneliness—"and this will surprise no one—is the want of intimacy." Humans are social creatures—evolution has consistently favored those of us who seek each other out, so that we can work together in order to increase our odds of survival. But for those who lack the ability to feel like we are part of a larger group, those who move through life without forming many deep personal relationships, those are the people who will never be able to shake the pervasive feeling of being alone in this world. And it is those people who are more susceptible to stress-related diseases like those listed above.
Is there any way to remedy this condition? Well, there's good news and bad news. The good news is that we can work on promoting positive social reinforcements for people starting at a young age, so that individuals have a less likely chance of feeling shunned from society. The bad news is that this sounds easier than it is, because our society's fundamental inequalities inhibit adequate progress in this realm. In other words, it's next to impossible to make the people who live on the fringes of society due to class, racial, and income inequalities feel like they belong, when they're explicitly made to feel like they don't belong in countless ways. But perhaps with the introduction of hard data demonstrating that not only do people afflicted with loneliness face problems in the mental health sphere, but also in the physiological one, the government and society in general will be convinced to support programs that can help make a difference in the lives of those who feel alienated from the get-go. After all, anything we can do as a group to prevent people from ruining their health in fits of despair would be a good thing. Loneliness manifests itself as so much more than a feeling, but that's ultimately what it starts off as—a feeling. Feelings ruin everything.
Follow Kristin Iversen on twitter @kmiversen