There was a deadly silence in my university dormitory; an unpleasant feeling crept into my mind. It was as if nobody was around me.
Most of my housemates had either gone home or were busy studying. I looked out the window and saw cars driving by, no pedestrians on the sidewalk. The campus seemed empty and eventless. I had homework to complete and lectures to review, but I was craving something else: human connection. Being alone was unsatisfying and meaningless.
This was how I experienced loneliness.
A recent health survey showed that two out of every three Canadian post-secondary students have felt “very lonely” in the past year. This is especially an issue considering that loneliness has multiple detrimental health effects.
Research suggests that loneliness can increase the likelihood of premature death by 26 per cent. A 2011 report by Science showed that socially isolated people are more vulnerable to viral infections and cardiovascular diseases. Besides physical health issues, people who experience loneliness are more likely to eat poorly, consume more alcohol and exercise less.
University students are more susceptible to feeling loneliness because they experience a big transition coming from high school.
“There are many new academic and social challenges, including making new friends and building new social bonds,” says Brett Ford, a psychology professor at the University of Toronto Scarborough Campus (UTSC). “This is exactly the type of situation where loneliness can become quite common and so it’s particularly important to help university students find ways to manage this loneliness.”
Tony, a UTSC graduate, says he experienced loneliness in university when he fell behind other students in a course.
“If I didn’t quite grasp the contents in a course as many of my classmates (did), I would feel lonely and isolated for a time until I started understanding the material at the same level as my classmates.”
He felt lonely despite being alongside other classmates. The loneliness grew as he was performing worse academically compared to his peers, despite his persistent effort.
“Sometimes even though they accept you within that group, you still personally feel isolated by not achieving the same excellence within the courses that they did,” Tony says.
Lilly, another student at UTSC, experiences loneliness in a different way. She didn’t constantly feel lonely, but had experienced moments of loneliness whenever she was unable to relate to some hobbies, values, lifestyles or experiences of people she met on campus. A feeling of loneliness washed over her whenever she perceived herself as being different from a group of people she wanted to be part of.
“Talking to certain groups of people but not belonging to any one group exclusively makes me feel like I don’t have the ‘it’ factor for each group, which can sometimes make me feel like a failure,” Lilly says.
Although those moments of loneliness were unpleasant for Lilly, they had some positive effects. The experience taught her to concentrate more on her school work, spend more time at home with family and take up some more volunteering hours.
Jessica, also a UTSC student, experienced loneliness that impacted her mental health. After starting university, she faced the challenges of adjusting to the new environment and getting used to the workload. She experienced a period of loneliness where she had difficulty making friends and experienced being “alone in a crowd of people.”
“Whenever I feel disconnected or stressed out, I also feel vulnerable and insecure,” Jessica says.
Her feelings of loneliness worsened after she compared herself to others through social media, which made her more self-critical of her own worth. This in turn caused her to feel more insecurity and loneliness.
“During a dark period, loneliness significantly touched upon all aspects of my life both academically and personally,” she says.
Loneliness reduced her productivity for university-related work; she constantly felt like shutting down, which affected her social life on campus.
“I was less motivated in school, I pushed everyone away, refused to talk about my struggles and felt so burned out,” she says.
The loneliness experienced by students varies vastly as some students deal with it occasionally, others chronically. The causes of their loneliness also vary. But they all experienced unsatisfying academic achievements, difficulty relating to others’ experiences, interpersonal relationship issue and lack of meaningful connections. For some students, a combination of these factors amplified their own feeling of loneliness.
“Loneliness is challenging because it can perpetuate itself over time,” Ford says. “As an individual feels lonely, they may also become more sensitive to cues of social rejection and interpret social situations more negatively, which may increase feelings of loneliness as time passes.”
John Cacioppo, a psychology professor at University of Chicago, suggested a few steps to follow when we experience loneliness:
First, you need to recognize the signs. You need to avoid being in denial about the fact that what you’re feeling is loneliness, as it indicates that there is an issue that needs to be resolved. You must find out what has caused you to feel this way.
Second, you need to recognize how loneliness can affect your thoughts, body and behaviour as it makes you more sensitive to feelings of rejection. Being aware of these affects on our minds enables us to monitor our thoughts, as well as take responsibility for our actions towards others.
Third, we should respond to the adverse effects. Cacioppo suggests a few ways to combat the effects, including building high-quality relationships, sharing good times with others and volunteering.
But some research shows that many plausible strategies to beating loneliness may not work well, according to Ford. She says increasing social contact might help some and not others, because interaction does not guarantee a sense of belonging. Similarly, being more social may not work for all, as it is more important to have meaningful interactions than more interactions.
According to a larger study comparing the effectiveness of different loneliness treatments, addressing one’s own maladaptive thoughts and beliefs is more successful in reducing loneliness, compared to improving social skills and increasing social contact.
The study concluded that the root cause of loneliness might be within ourselves and the key to reducing loneliness is to monitor as well as change how we think about ourselves and others. Try asking yourself questions, such as:
“Is it helpful to always ask myself to achieve the same excellence as my classmates?”
“Does not being able to relate to other people’s experiences/lifestyle directly prevent me from understanding them better?”
“It is scary not having friends on campus, but what actions can I take to begin meeting people here?”
By asking myself similar questions, I managed to find the faults within my own mind.
I moved to Toronto and started volunteering in hospitals, labs, cultural centres and museums. I started making more friends in my program and I found many with common interests. I took social and cognitive psychology courses and started to understand myself and others. I talked to people in different professional fields and I set up new goals related to my personal development.
I had an epiphany and realized that I caused some of my own loneliness. By keeping my life fulfilled and connected, I rarely experience loneliness now.
By Steven Gu
Image by Rimsha Aziz