Lonely City

Even psychiatrists and psychologists,Weiss [Loneliness: The Experience of Emotional and Social Isolation] thought, were not immune to this near-phobic dislike; they too were liable to be made uneasy ‘by the loneliness that is potential in the everyday life of everyone’. As a result, a kind of victim blaming takes place: a tendency to see the rejection of lonely people as justified, or to assume they have brought the condition on themselves by being too timid or unattractive, too self-pitying or self-absorbed. ‘Why can’t the lonely change?’ he imagines both professional and lay observers musing. ‘They must find a perverse gratification in loneliness; perhaps loneliness, despite its pain, permits them to continue a self-protective isolation or provides them with an emotional handicap that forces handouts of pity from those with whom they interact.’

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According to work being carried out over the past decade by John Cacioppo and his team at the University of Chicago, loneliness profoundly affects an individual’s ability to understand and interpret social interactions, initiating a devastating chain-reaction, the consequence of which is to further estrange them from their fellows.

When people enter into an experience of loneliness, they trigger what psychologists call hypervigilance for social threat, a phenomenon Weiss first postulated back in the 1970s. In this state, which is entered into unknowingly, the individual tends to experience the world in increasingly negative terms, and to both expect and remember instances of rudeness, rejection and abrasion, giving them greater weight and prominence than other, more benign or friendly interactions. This creates, of course, a vicious circle, in which the lonely person grows increasingly more isolated, suspicious and withdrawn. And because the hypervigilance hasn’t been consciously perceived, it’s by no means easy to recognise, let alone correct, the bias.

What this means is that the lonelier a person gets, the less adept they become at navigating social currents. Loneliness grows around them, like mould or fur, a prophylactic that inhibits contact, no matter how badly contact is desired. Loneliness is accretive, extending and perpetuating itself. Once it becomes impacted, it is by no means easy to dislodge.

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At the same time, the body’s state of red alert brings about a series of physiological changes, driven by gathering tides of adrenaline and cortisol. These are the fight or flight hormones, which act to help an organism respond to external stressors. But when the stress is chronic, not acute; when it persists for years and is caused by something that cannot be outrun, then these biochemical alterations wreak havoc on the body. Lonely people are restless sleepers, and experience a reduction in the restorative function of sleep. Loneliness drives up blood pressure, accelerates ageing, weakens the immune system and acts as a precursor to cognitive decline. According to a 2010 study, loneliness predicts increased morbidity and mortality, which is an elegant way of saying that loneliness can prove fatal.

At first it was thought that this increased morbidity occurred because of the practical consequences of being isolated: the lack of care, the potentially diminished ability to feed and nurture oneself. In fact, it seems almost certain now that it is the subjective experience of loneliness that produces the physical consequences, not the simple fact of being alone. It is the feeling itself that is stressful; the feeling that sets the whole grim cascade into motion.

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The intensity of my reaction – sometimes a blush; more often a full-blown blast of panic – testified to hypervigilance, to the way perception around social interaction had begun to warp. Somewhere in my body, a measuring system had identified danger, and now the slightest glitch in communication was registering as a potentially overwhelming threat. It was as if, having been so cataclysmically dismissed, my ears had become attuned to the note of rejection, and when it came, as it inevitably does, in small doses throughout the day, some vital part of me clamped and closed, poised to flee not so much physically as deeper into the interior of the self.

No doubt it was ridiculous to be so sensitive. But there was something almost agonising about speaking and being misunderstood or found unintelligible, something that got right to the heart of all my fears about aloneness. No one will ever understand you. No one wants to hear what you say. Why can’t you fit in, why do you have to stick out so much? It wasn’t hard to see why someone in this position might come to mistrust language, doubting its ability to bridge the gap between bodies, traumatised by the revealed gulf, the potentially lethal abyss that lurks beneath each carefully proffered sentence. Dumbness in this context might be a way of evading hurt, dodging the pain of failed communication by refusing to participate in it at all. That’s how I explained my growing silence, anyway; as an aversion akin to someone wishing to avoid a repeated electric shock.

-- Olivia Laing, "The Lonely City: Adventures In The Art Of Being Alone"
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