Is it okay to feel lonely? It could be in the genes

Some people see time alone as a positive thing, in others it triggers a feeling of loneliness

After a recent decline in health Barbara is struggling to keep up an active social life, and is succumbing to loneliness. Through the help of ALONE she's making connections with the world again. Video: Enda O'Dowd


“All the lonely people, where do they all come from?” So sang The Beatles five decades ago, but the answer might be a little less rhetorical today. New research has shown that some people have a predisposition to feeling lonely. It’s in their DNA.

Traditionally, we are reminded around Christmas time to look out for people who might be alone, but now research has shown it might not be the obvious people who are. Two people with the same circumstances might have very different responses to feelings of isolation. Most of us have probably experienced loneliness at some stage of our lives, either because of lack of company or because we feel disconnected to those around us. Chronic loneliness though is a more permanent type of loneliness, when a person feels lonely regardless of where they are.

Loneliness is a silent killer, with physical as well as emotional implications. Some studies show it is a more accurate predictor of early death than obesity and is linked to conditions including dementia, depression and poor sleep. With loneliness so detrimental to health, it is important to figure out who is susceptible.

While environment is still the most powerful influence on our feelings, one of the largest human genetics studies undertaken yet has found that loneliness is also can be inherited, although no one gene is responsible. The study by the University of California San Diego, which involved more than 10,000 people aged 50 and older, reveals some people are genetically programmed to get depressed when they feel neglected. The study accounted for gender, age and marital status, as married people tend to be less lonely than unmarried people.

The research team looked at loneliness as a life-long trait, rather than a temporary state. The results revealed that up to 27 per cent of people who reported loneliness had the same genetic predisposition.

According to Dr Abraham Palmer, the lead researcher of the study which was published in September by Neuropsychopharmacology, what was intriguing about the results was the discovery that our brains react to loneliness in the same way that that they respond to pain. Just like physical pain warns us of potential tissue damage and motivates us to take care of our bodies, so loneliness also alerts us of damage to our “social bodies”. Each individual has a preferred social situation that they compare to their actual life, which is different for everyone.

“For two people with the same number of close friends and family, one might see their social structure as adequate while the other doesn’t,” Dr Palmer says, “and that’s what we mean by ‘genetic predisposition to loneliness’.”

Dr Jonathan Haverkampf is a psychotherapist with Mind and Body Works in Dublin, and sees this regularly with his clients. “First of all, loneliness is an emotional response. It is a feeling rather than a fact, while studies with twins also showed a genetic link. The key here is we cannot change the genetics but we can do something about the psychology or the environment.”

What this means is that being solitary is not the same thing as loneliness. While some people will see time alone as a positive thing, in others it will trigger a feeling of loneliness.

Our emotional response to isolation is determined by past life experiences and genetic make-up. “Feeling lonely is a learned response to a degree,” Dr Haverkampf adds. “It is merely how we interpret a situation. If you are depressed you might interpret a situation negatively while someone else would interpret the same situation positively.”

So, for those who have a predisposition to feeling isolated in a given situation, is it possible to train ourselves to respond differently and unlearn that feeling? “Absolutely,” says Dr Haverkampf, who adds there are two main approaches in psychotherapy that would help with feelings of loneliness – cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT), and psychodynamic therapy.

The CBT approach looks primarily at the present. How we feel is determined by how we think, which in turn determines how we behave. How we behave then, in turn, determines how we feel. CBT helps a person try to modify the thoughts and in doing so, modify our behaviour and that changes how we feel.

“The first step is how you interpret the present,” Dr Haverkampf says. “CBT helps someone see the reality differently. It’s not just motivation talk, you have to develop a shift in perspective. That’s the C part – cognitive.” The B part – behaviour – is about changing learned behaviour so you react differently. It takes time to practise and hone these social skills but, once done, it can transform someone’s life.

Psychodynamic therapy looks at the experiences of the past that might be making you feel this way today. “You might experience loneliness more intensely than someone else,” Dr Haverkampf says, “but once you realise why you do, it often helps diminish the feeling. It’s about developing an awareness of where the loneliness belongs to.”

Loneliness isn’t just for Christmas. It can happen to anyone at any time, but for some, those feelings might be more likely. Thankfully, there is something we can do to change it.

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