Everyone probably knows the feeling of isolation, when the entire world seems to be behind a glass wall: one can see people on the other side, interact and talk to them, live a more or less normal life—but feel alone and forgotten somewhere deep inside. In a world where communication is the new god, where extroverted behaviors are deemed healthy and normal, and where everything calls a person to belong to a certain group, being and feeling alone often seems wrong. There is nothing bad in needing solitude; from time to time, all of us need to spend some time on our own. However, solitude is rather a voluntary choice; when this condition becomes chronic and undesired, when a person feels the impossibility of establishing contact with others, this is already something many people around the world fear strongly: this is loneliness.
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What exactly is loneliness? A more narrow definition suggests that loneliness is the condition when a person is not surrounded by other people, spends most of his or her time alone, and maintains little-to-no social contact. However, anyone who had at least once experienced the condition of loneliness knows that it is possible to be surrounded by friends or family, stay in the thick of things, and still feel isolated. In fact, the statistics shows about 60% of people who feel lonely are married, which is a good illustration of the thesis that loneliness does not depend on the environment, that the amount and variety of social connections and\or relationships do not necessarily save us from it. (Psychology Today).
A better understanding of loneliness can be achieved from the analysis of the needs and desires standing behind it—or, to be precise, the impossibility to satisfy these needs. According to Baumeister and Leary, every person has a basic need to belong to a certain group; this need is as significant and natural as the need to eat, to sleep, or to feel safe. However, simply belonging on its own does not satisfy the need: it is important that a person can form strong, close, and stable interpersonal relationships, and maintain them: only in this case the sense of belonging will be full. This makes sense even from the evolutionary point of view: staying together with other people was a guarantee of physical survival in ancient times. Continuing the parallel between emotional and physical (or basic) needs, our bodies are often wiser than our minds: when there is a lack or a surplus of something, our bodies react appropriately. Sensations (such as hunger, heat, and so on) and emotions are the signals our bodies send to our minds in order to alert them about these shortages and surpluses. Respectively, loneliness is an emotion which signals that the need of belonging is not satisfied, or that we are not getting the relationships (or the quality of already existing relationships) that we want (Web of Loneliness). This often seems irrational: for example, a person can have a lot of friends and see them often, he or she can be married and have children, have no problems with colleagues at work—everything is seemingly fine, but the sense of loneliness is still there, and it is important to understand why it is present, what is lacking.
Being in strong and close relationships affects our mental health beneficially; being alone for a long period of time can lead to a number of negative consequences, both on mental and physiological levels. In particular, loneliness can lead to depression (which is a dangerous mental condition on its own), a feeling of hopelessness, low self-esteem, an impaired ability for social interactions and work, suicidal tendencies, poor sleep, the sense of defeat, and helplessness. These sensations form a vicious circle—nurturing each other, they aggravate the situation of a lonely person, preventing him or her from getting out of this span on his or her own. Not only the emotional sphere, but also bodily functions are affected by loneliness. Studies show that lonely people face cardiovascular diseases more frequently than those enjoying strong and stable relationships with other people; other effects include the loss of weight, hormonal imbalances, the inhibition of the immune system, low resistance to infections and inflammations, dementia (in old age), and the degradation of bones and muscle tissue (The Doctor’s Tablet). All this does not mean that a person starts experiencing all these negative effects every time he or she feels lonely; however, these effects accumulate during prolonged isolation, “chronic” loneliness; therefore, it is important to not try to deal with this condition on one’s own, and seek professional help.
In fact, there are many effective ways to treat loneliness. Many people think that it is enough to increase the amount of social contacts, go out more often, and loneliness will be dealt with. However, loneliness is more about a person’s ability to form close relationships and bond with others, rather than about how often one is exposed to other people. Similar to other negative mental conditions, the first important step is to let yourself feel loneliness, and admit that you would like to live differently than you do. People often try to overpower their loneliness; they either tend to not treat it as something significant, considering it to be a weakness, or even deny that they are feeling lonely. When the problem is accepted and defined, it is recommended to start attending local psychotherapy sessions; cognitive-behavioral therapy usually provides solid results in treating loneliness, although other psychology schools, such as gestalt therapy can also be efficient, try finding what suits you the best. If you cannot afford attending a psychotherapist, consider utilizing a variety of relaxation and stress-relief techniques such as meditation, muscle relaxation training, guided mental imagery, or comforting self-talk. Pet therapy can be helpful as well; in fact, many people intuitively feel the need to have a living being nearby, whom they would be able to take care of, so owning a dog, cat, bird, or even a lizard can be a nice way to cope with loneliness (Psychologist Anywhere, Anytime). In many western countries, especially in the United States, it is extremely popular to prescribe medicine in order to deal with mental conditions; however, it is important to remember that loneliness is rather an emotional condition, not a biochemical one, so if you decide to take pills, it might help you inhibit unpleasant and painful feelings, but it will not solve your problem. Pills might be helpful if you are already suffering from depression as a result of loneliness—and even in this case, you should consider going to psychotherapy sessions.
Loneliness is not the same as solitude. The latter is a voluntary act of isolation from a society in order to refresh oneself, sort out one’s thoughts, and take a break from intense social interactions. Loneliness, in its turn, is a chronic and undesired condition when a person is unable (due to a number of reasons) to establish and maintain contact and close, stable relationships with surrounding people. Prolonged loneliness can be dangerous, since it can cause a variety of emotional and physiological problems. However, the good news is that loneliness can be treated effectively, mostly with the help of a professional psychotherapist.
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“What is Loneliness?” Web of Loneliness. N.p., n.d. Web. 03 July 2017. <http://www.webofloneliness.com/what-is-loneliness.html>
Winch, Guy. “10 Surprising Facts About Loneliness.” Psychology Today. Sussex Publishers, 21 Oct. 2014. Web. 03 July 2017. <https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-squeaky-wheel/201410/10-surprising-facts-about-loneliness>
Kennedy, Gary J. “How Loneliness Affects the Mind and Body.” The Doctor’s Tablet. N.p., 07 May 2015. Web. 03 July 2017. <http://blogs.einstein.yu.edu/how-loneliness-affects-the-mind-and-body/>
“Loneliness and the Fear of Being Alone.” Psychologist Anywhere, Anytime. N.p., n.d. Web. 03 July 2017. <http://www.psychologistanywhereanytime.com/relationships_psychologist/psychologist_loneliness.htm>
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