By Yulia Federov
It all started in 1981, during a psychology conference that Ami Rokach attended in Ottawa. Awaiting a flight home the day after his colleagues had left the conference, Ami recalls: “I remember standing on the centrepiece of my hotel, looking out, not knowing anyone in Ottawa, and there was a thick glass between the world and myself. I couldn’t feel or hear anything, and suddenly it dawned on me—that’s probably how loneliness feels.”
Rokach developed a curiosity on the subject that day—but upon realizing that there were hardly any books or articles examining loneliness, it spurred him to take action. “I thought, since I can’t find it, I’ll produce it.” And that’s how Rokach, a Clinical Psychologist and Professor of Psychology at York University, got started. Since then, he has written multiple books on the subject of loneliness, and continues to research the subject.
Rokach understands the complexity of loneliness—it’s not merely the experience of solitude, and it can take on many forms. “When we talk about loneliness, most people think about being geographically alone—and that’s only one way of being lonely. But we could also be with many other people, like in a subway, in a theatre, or even in a family, and still feel lonely.” Yet another type of loneliness is that which is experienced in a romantic relationship, which as Rokach puts it, is the most painful to undergo. “Relationships are supposed to be the opposite of loneliness—they’re supposed to help us not to feel lonely.”
Some people may not experience loneliness itself, but may actually be plagued by an intense fear of it, which Rokach terms, ‘loneliness anxiety.’
“Loneliness is very painful, so some people become very anxious about it. They do whatever they need to do in order to not feel anxious about their loneliness,” he explains. People who experience this type of anxiety will do anything and everything just to not feel alone. “Some people tell me that they turn on the TV, just to hear noise in the background. They do that just to calm and quiet their fears about loneliness.”
But avoiding fears about loneliness, or the experience of it itself, isn’t the answer. “We know that if lonely people don’t get some help, they will be under stress forever,” Rokach says. “And we know, from decades of research, that stress produces all kinds of health problems.”
Most of us associate loneliness with familiar tropes—the crazy cat lady, the widowed old man, and other such archetypes. We don’t think of loneliness as a problem that plagues young, healthy people in their teens or 20s. But in actuality, emerging adults, people between 18 and 25 years of age, are at a very high risk of becoming lonely. Part of it has to do with their being at a crossroads in their lives. “It’s being in between parents and their influence and being influenced by peer groups, having a partner or not having a partner, going to school or not going to school, having a job and having a future…” explains Rokach. “There are many questions, and all kinds of self-esteem issues which contribute to loneliness at that age.”
Another part of the millennial loneliness equation is social media, which many amongst us rely on for communication. Rokach says that while posting and messaging via the net can have some benefits, those benefits pale in comparison to real, face-to-face conversations. “Research that just came out several months ago indicated that when people meet face to face, there are specific pleasure cenres in the brain that come alive, which do not when they communicate through social media. That’s because we’re programmed, since the beginning of time, to have face-to-face interactions.”
Social media is also an incredibly inaccurate portrayal of others’ lives—everyone seems to be ‘hashtag-blessed,’ living a life full of trips abroad, extravagant dinners, and romantic rendezvous’ with their significant others. “99.9% of what people put on social media are of the most glorious, and colourful moments that they have. So it’s easy to look and think, ‘aw shucks, look at his life and look at mine.’ And that enhances the feeling of loneliness.”
Few people openly discuss their loneliness, on social media as well as in real life interactions, and that has a lot to do with the stigma that it holds. Because of that stigma, Rokach says: “I see many people walking around feeling lonely, and dying to talk about it—and they can’t because they’re afraid.”
That’s why, in order to start treating one’s loneliness, the first step can sometimes be the hardest. “The first thing you need to do is acknowledge to yourself, ‘I am lonely.’ If you try to disregard and repress it, you’ll never get out of it.”
The next thing you need to do? Seek help from a professional, pronto.
Ami Rokach recently released his latest book “The Psychological Journey To and From Loneliness” and you can find his previous works here.
And for immediate assistance or advice, call a toll free mental health crisis line, such as:
Toronto Distress Center – 416-408-4357
The Gerstein Centre – 416-929-5200