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Alone together

We are social creatures. Our need to connect is hard-wired. But, by not being able to do so, are we headed for a loneliness epidemic? Shobhana Sachidanand attempts to find answers...

The World Economic Forum’s 2019 Report suggests that loneliness, and not obesity, cancer or heart disease, is our new foe.

Her ardent fans sat up in disbelief when actor Deepika Padukone said, “I have a lot of friends, but my biggest fear is loneliness.” Coming from a successful celebrity, it was indeed a shock, but if the World Economic Forum’s 2019 Report is to be believed, loneliness — and not obesity, cancer or heart disease — is our new foe. What is worse is that social media has fuelled this new-found love-hate relationship.

Strange as it may sound, in spite of there being 7.7 billion people in the world, loneliness is set to take epidemic proportions! “Fierce competition and an urge to stay ahead of others are making people move to greener pastures but a lack of community sharing and support in urban cities leads to social isolation and feelings of loneliness. In addition, technological addiction has reduced human interaction,” says Dr Vijay Mehtry, consultant psychiatrist, mindfulTMS Neurocare. That social network penetration is ever-increasing, and in 2019, it is estimated that there will be around 2.77 billion social media users around the globe, is perhaps not going to help the cause.

Ankita Sood, 28, an IT professional from Delhi now living in Bengaluru, thought she had it all... a great job, a loving family back home, and supportive colleagues. A workhorse, she loved her job, but in the absence of her family, she got hooked to social media as she believed it helped her stay connected. Too much social media, however, dealt a blow on her as she slowly became disconnected and lonely — basically the opposite of what she believed. Ankita says, she needed professional help as she was leading herself to depression.

“It was difficult for me to resist the temptation to look at everyone else’s life. I thought I was focusing on my life, working towards what I wanted to accomplish, but I realised that I was only wasting time comparing my life with others. In the process, I became hollow from within.” Ankita sought help to overcome her “self-inflicted loneliness”.

Not so social

Most social media users aren’t just posting, they are also viewing, and it is this voyeuristic curiosity about who’s doing what, and their near-perfect lives, that gets the better of them, as nobody wants to be left out. Akanksha Pandey, consultant psychologist, Fortis Hospitals, says one can be lonely even in the midst of people, or even in a relationship. The very thought of being around people, talking, hugging, or togetherness calms our senses and helps the body to release dopamine and endorphins which are feel-good hormones, say experts. The virtual world offers us none of these.

Studies show that heavy use of platforms such as Facebook, Snapchat and Instagram are associated with feelings of social isolation, especially among young adults. “Loneliness can affect both physically and emotionally as it triggers a chain of thoughts which increases our stress hormone, affecting the functioning of the whole body. This may further lead to cerebrovascular accidents, poor immunity, disturbed cognitive functions, and increase the risk of depression,” says Akanksha.

Typically associated with older generations who live alone, experts say that loneliness is alarmingly affecting young people. Youngsters are in fact the highest users of social media and some have raised concerns about the impact it might be having on their mental health. “Young adults are the latest victims of social media pressure as they are getting trapped in the vicious circle of a need to fake happiness,” Dr Mehtry adds.

Fifteen-year-old Akash’s mother Shalini Naidu had to take him to a counsellor as he had been overeating and sleeping too much because he was unhappy with his looks. “After Akash, an avid Instagrammer, began expressing his fears about issues related to his image and also started developing poor self-esteem and an inferiority complex, I thought it was best to reach out to a psychotherapist,” Shalini says.

When social technologies are used to connect with people and maintain existing relationships, they can reduce loneliness. But when internet use replaces offline interactions with others, it can increase feelings of loneliness. Social networking sites can fuel mental health problems among those who are already struggling with issues like social anxiety, depression and relationship difficulties as their vulnerabilities make them turn to virtual relationships as a substitute for the social connection in their lives, Akanksha says.

An escape route?

She adds that this social isolation causes them to be more engrossed in social media leading to a vicious cycle of social withdrawal. The internet becomes a new way of escaping without really dealing with the underlying problems. “The brain’s reward system, in fact, identifies it as a reward,” Akanksha says.

According to Dr Mehtry, loss of a life partner and a physical illness can make the elderly lonely. For such people, social media can offer some reprieve as 66-year-old Shanta Raman turned blogger to “bail herself out of her loneliness” when she lost her husband a few years ago. Shanta took to posting traditional recipes which not only kept her busy but also won her many friends in the virtual space.

Akanksha adds that negative emotional state is often stressful because the moment the brain perceives stress, it activates our sympathetic nervous system which prepares the body and brain to deal with it. If our sympathetic nervous system is triggered every now and then, it results in excessive wear and tear of the body leading to poor immunity, hypertension, psychogenic fever, cyclical vomiting and chronic fatigue,” warns Akanksha.

Fighting the warning signs of loneliness that vary from self-destructive behaviour such as alcohol or drug abuse, excessive smoking, social media or internet overuse, porn addiction or even suicidal tendencies can be an uphill task, but accepting the fact that one is lonely, and understanding the cause is the first step. Sharing one’s thoughts with friends and family members without the fear of being judged can be the next step to get out of the maze. Even finding a new social club or sporting group to join, or starting a conversation with neighbours would help.

According to Dr Sulata Shenoy, director of Turning Point, Centre for Psychological Assessments, Therapies and Counselling, virtual friends are no substitute for real friends. “We need to come out of the influence of gadgets and forge real relationships to overcome loneliness. Only when it is impossible to connect with others physically should technology be used. However, that must be the last option,” she avers.

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