Something funny happens to people who are lonely. The lonelier they get, 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 isn’t easy to dislodge. When I think of its advance, an anchoress’s cell comes to mind, as does the exoskeleton of a gastropod.
This sounds like paranoia, but in fact loneliness’s odd mode of increase has been mapped by medical researchers. It seems that the initial sensation triggers what psychologists call hypervigilance for social threat. In this state, which is entered into unknowingly, one tends to experience the world in negative terms, and to both expect and remember negative encounters — instances of rudeness, rejection or abrasion, like my urn brew episodes in the café. This creates, of course, a vicious circle, in which the lonely person grows increasingly more isolated, suspicious and withdrawn.
At the same time, the brain’s state of red alert brings about a series of physiological changes. Lonely people are restless sleepers. Loneliness drives up blood pressure, accelerates ageing, and acts as a precursor to cognitive decline. According to a 2010 study I came across in the Annals of Behavioral Medicine entitled ‘Loneliness Matters: A Theoretical and Empirical Review of Consequences and Mechanisms’, loneliness predicts increased morbidity and mortality, which is an elegant way of saying that loneliness can prove fatal.
Monday, December 31, 2012
Loneliness Feeds on Itself