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Dr. Magryta: Loneliness

Humans, like many animal species, like to live or interact in groups. The species in general has historically benefited from collective grouping behaviors. Safety in numbers and shared food collection has allowed humans to live and thrive. Human groupings are like social concentric circles with country at the large end and family unit at the small end. It is at the extended family-sized ring that people really benefit from psychologically through intimate love, education of values and elder wisdom and perceived safety.

Over the past half century, grouping behaviors have changed dramatically for many Americans. We are collectively more siloed in our activity and beliefs. We have no collective wars to fight or famine to ward off. The Greatest Generation grew up out of the ashes of World War II and learned that being in a group had major advantages. They also knew how to compromise. Crisis has a way of uniting disparate groups for the common good.

Fast forward to 2018: the majority of Americans have very little to truly worry about except what we introspectively dream up as our issue of the day.

Mazlow’s hierarchy of needs are met for most. Many have turned to isolation because they either can, have to or prefer to, in modern society. Jobs take us farther from extended family. Schools are far from one’s home. Children in a neighborhood may go to five different schools, making the play experience weak.

What are the negative consequences of this behavior? Are people more lonely? Most people will tell you that times are different. Are they worse? Are we truly lonely?

In an article in the January 2018 Scientific American, author Francine Russo discusses the toxicity of loneliness.

Loneliness, to me, is defined as an emotional sadness based on a real or perceived social isolation, or the experience of being separated from others for a defined period of time.

Loneliness can be the product of a choice or an event thrust upon us. Either way, the effect can be negative.

What does research say? Is our response evolutionary?

Being excluded from a social group causes one to feel less safe from threats, according to researcher Dr. John Cacioppo. He notes that the pain of loneliness motivates a human to reconnect with others. He calls this the RAM, or reaffiliation motive. During this time, humans and animals will become hyper-vigilant to social threats and undergo neural changes that increase physical stress. These changes are believed to be survival mechanisms.

Statistically, the highest risk group for loneliness is the group that is less than 25 years old. The biggest predictors of loneliness are a lack of social engagement, number of friends and the frequency of these contacts.

There are two schools of thought on why some children end up lonely. The first is obvious. They lack the natural skills or training to interact socially. The medical diagnosis of Social Communication Disorder, seen often in children with Aspergers syndrome, fits this mold.

The second group is the group that I call the Eeyores of the world. They have a persistently negative self view, perceiving that their interactions with others are of poor quality — despite the reality from the other side’s view of the interaction.

For both groups the cycle of negativity in relationships and interactions can go on indefinitely, causing the person to develop depression, disease and unfortunately on occasion, suicide.

Humans that struggle to find inclusion may try to avoid these loneliness events by joining any group that will accept them. Witness the worlds of gang tribalism, cults or terrorism ideology.

Sebastian Junger is a writer and filmmaker who is known best for his work chronicling war in the documentary Restrepo. He shows the reality of war and the group mentality that pervades it on both sides.

Watching this movie and living through junior high and high school, it is clear in wartime and during adolescence that men and boys thrive in a pack mentality, and will seek it out. If you are in the pack, then you are good. Being outside can be a mess for one’s psyche. Ditto for young girls. Lonely.

Modern families are increasingly challenged with large numbers of single parents or two working parents, making parenting difficult and time-honored meal times a rare event. Extended families are ever more likely to be separated by hours of driving time, blocking the passing of the natural wisdom and warmth that the older generations give to the young. The time families spend involved together has significantly eroded over the last 50 years.

These changes can increase a child’s risk of loneliness and increase the potential desire to find inclusion anywhere. They will become physically and mentally stressed. Often, they will show signs of depression with isolation at home, increased sleeping behaviors, lack of desire to be involved in things that previously brought happiness. They may start to show increasing anger and hostility. This is the point at which we need to be present and aware in order to intervene when a soul is wavering toward the dark side.

Dr. M

Dr. Chris Magryta is a physician at Salisbury Pediatric Associates. Contact him at newsletter@salisburypediatrics.com

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