By Dr Erica Lam
Loneliness is a state of mind that causes people to feel empty, alone, and unwanted. It results when one perceives a gap between one’s desires for social connection and the actual experiences of it. Even people who are surrounded by others throughout the day or in a relationship may still experience a deep and pervasive loneliness. Research suggests that loneliness poses serious threats to well-being and is associated with social isolation, poor social skills, introversion, and depression.
How we perceive our peers when we’re lonely
The state of loneliness can lead to heightened anxiety and turn on the “threat brain”, making you more hyper-vigilant as a way to protect yourself from perceived threats. This increases the risks of misreading your peers’ neutral expressions as being hostile. The prolonged exposure to this state of hyper-vigilance and “threat brain” will desensitise the stress system, making you more prone to anxiety and mood dysregulation difficulties.
How we perceive our peers when they’re lonely
In turn, a person might start to interpret an anxious person’s isolated feelings as them being cold or defensive, and therefore may struggle to connect or engage with that person. This can lead to a vicious cycle of feeling rejected and rejecting others, maintaining the state of fear and loneliness.
Staying present and patient
While good-intentioned, checking in or asking “are you okay?” may lead to misinterpretations of your concern as hostility. Instead, young people have recommended reaching out by initiating conversations about present and everyday topics, by asking questions like: “Who made you laugh today?”
Other ways to begin a conversation are by asking a classmate: “How did you find the homework for yesterday? Did you have a hard time with that math problem, too?” Or offering to assist a colleague with: “Can I help out on that project in any way? I would love to get involved.” Or placing the onus on yourself by asking for help: “Hey, can I sit here with you for a moment? I don’t want to eat alone.”
Breaking the ice with someone to discuss topics unrelated to their well-being establishes a connection for a lonely person to confide in you later on.
Reframing our perspective
Similarly, we encourage young people to try reframing their perspective when they believe someone dislikes them or they read someone as unapproachable. Ask yourself: are they actually mad at me? Or am I projecting my fears and misreading their expressions and non-verbal cues? Check in with yourself to assess if you are using your “threat brain” or your “rational brain” to read the situation.
Neither person’s expressions or responses make them at fault, though. Rather, simply being aware of these unique perspectives allows us to better understand each other and to reflect on our assumptions of other people.
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