Loneliness is the inability to have satisfying, intimate relationships. It is an unpleasant feeling when an individual desires to have relationships and be with others, but is unable to do so. In other words it can be said that loneliness is a disturbing feeling that results from a need for intimacy that is unfulfilled.
It is disturbing and unpleasant in the sense that the individual may feel unwanted, disliked, and worthless. It, usually, develops into a trait (trait loneliness), in such that it is a feeling that is stable and enduring. Depending on the severity, it may cause the individual to have inferiority complex, stress, depression, suicidality, and a number of other varying psychiatric illnesses.
Loneliness may occur at any time in the lifespan of an individual, but it is most likely to develop during adolescence. The high prevalence of loneliness in adolescence is worrisome as this is the stage that is said to shape the rest of the life of an individual. The experiences of an individual during adolescence may have long lasting effects. Loneliness during adolescence may lead an individual towards a wide range of negativity in later stages of life. It is these implications of loneliness that make it imperative to look into many of its major causes.
Some characteristics related to loneliness develop in an individual right from birth or very nearly from birth. These characteristics include shyness, timidity, and melancholia. It is these characteristics that become a hindrance in developing satisfying interpersonal relationships. Being shy, timid, and melancholic makes an individual to be hesitant in taking the initiative of seeking people and trying to have a close relationship with them.   
Research shows that the brain and neural circuitry of these individuals is built in such a way that they are like this. They are designed or predetermined to have these characteristics.
The center of emotions lies in a small part of the brain called amygdala. People who are shy have a neural circuitry built in such a way that their amygdala gets easily aroused and they become prone to fearfulness. Thus, they face discomfort in unfamiliar situations. Also, timid people have chronically high levels of a brain chemical (neurotransmitter) called norepinephrine. This and other brain chemicals activate the amygdala that leads to too much of excitement. Their amygdala gets easily triggered and leads them to avoiding social situations, which, consequently makes them feel lonely.
The same goes for people who are melancholic. It has been found that those who have relatively greater levels of brain activity in their right frontal lobe, the front-right side of the brain, experience negativity and sour moods. They are easily fazed by life’s difficulties and are generally suspicious. People who are usually depressed have lower levels of brain activity in the left frontal lobe and higher on the right frontal lobe compared to those who are not depressed. Depression also results from a lower level of a brain chemical called serotonin. This negativity and sour moods inherent in their brain structure leads to an inability to have meaningful relationships, causing them to feel lonely.
Although these brain patterns are from birth or very nearly from birth, they do not necessarily remain the same for the rest of the life. With a proper upbringing and the right kind of circumstances, things can change. For instance, a timid child with a proper parental care and going through the appropriate happenings in life can grow into a confident person.
In addition to abnormalities in the brain structure, parental care, in the period of childhood (infancy), becomes important as it determines the attachment style that a child may develop. This attachment style that a child develops may play a significant role in loneliness.
Attachment is a strong emotional bond to a significant other person. For an infant, the parents/caretakers become an attachment figure. There are three different types of attachment styles that an infant may develop – secure attachment style, avoidant attachment style, and ambivalent attachment style.
The secure attachment style occurs when the parent is generally available and responsive to the child’s needs. The child with a secure attachment style feels supported and secure. The avoidant attachment style occurs when the parent is generally cool, unresponsive, or even rejecting. The infant due to this becomes detached from the caretaker. The avoidant attachment style makes the child to suppress feelings of vulnerability and neediness. The ambivalent attachment style occurs when the primary caretaker does not respond consistently to the infant’s needs. This makes the child to be vigilant for threats and feel anxious or angry.
The attachment style developed in childhood determines the interaction patterns for future relationships, when the child grows up and may consequently play a role in loneliness. A child with secure attachment style grows up into an individual who seeks closeness with others, and thus becomes friendly and sociable. In contrast, a child with avoidant attachment style grows up into an individual who becomes fearful in relationships and tends to avoid closeness with others in order to avoid social rejection. This avoidance in closeness may lead to an unfulfilled need for intimacy, which in turn, causes loneliness.
Likewise, a child with ambivalent attachment style grows up to be a person who is emotionally distressed in social interactions and expects the worst from others. Due to this the emotional needs of the individual are not fulfilled and brings about a feeling of lack of intimacy. A lack of intimacy, very likely, leads to a feeling of loneliness. Children with avoidant attachment style or ambivalent attachment style, therefore, are more likely to become individuals who are lonely.
These attachment styles could further determine four adult interaction patterns. These four interaction patterns are based on two underlying dimensions, which are positive versus negative evaluation of self and positive versus negative evaluation of others.
People who have a positive evaluation of the self tend to assume that others will respond positively, expect to be liked by others, which makes them feel comfortable with others, and thus have satisfying relationships. People with a negative self evaluation makes them expect that others will be rejecting, which makes them feel anxious with others, and therefore tend to avoid others.
Individuals who have a positive evaluation of others expect that they will be comforting and supporting, and thus will they will seek close relationships. Individuals who have a negative evaluation of others will expect them to be unavailable and non-supportive, which will make them tend to avoid people. It is evident that people with a negative evaluation of self and others tend to keep distance from people, and therefore develop a likelihood of feeling lonely.
Childhood experiences playing a major role in feeling lonely is represented in a plausible manner in the concept of basic anxiety given by the psychoanalyst and personality psychologist, Karen Horney. Horney suggests that children naturally experience anxiety, helplessness, and vulnerability. If children do not get proper guidance to help them to cope with societal threats, they may develop basic anxiety.
Basic anxiety, according to Horney, refers to the feeling a child has of being isolated and helpless in a potentially hostile world. This insecurity is produced in the child by a wide range of environmental factors such as direct or indirect domination, indifference, erratic behavior, lack of respect for the child’s individual needs, lack of real guidance, disparaging attitudes, too much admiration or absence of it, lack of reliable warmth, having to take sides in parental disagreements, too much or too little responsibility, overprotection, isolation from other children, injustice, discrimination, unkept promises, hostile atmosphere, and so on.
This basic anxiety that a child may feel marks the beginning of loneliness. It makes the child distrusting of others, and is thus, unable to develop satisfying relationships. Horney suggests that this state can be resolved by several neurotic needs that can be classified under three categories – moving towards people, moving away from people, and moving against people.
Moving towards people, also called compliance or self-effacing solution, represents the attempt to deal with insecurity by reasoning, if one is loved, one will not hurt. Moving away from people, termed withdrawal or the resignation solution, represents the attempt to solve the insecurity by reasoning, if one withdraws, nothing will be hurtful. Moving against people, termed aggression or the expansive solution, represents the attempt to solve the insecurity by reasoning, if one has power, one cannot be hurt.
To successfully overcome the basic anxiety, the individual has to integrate all three of these solutions. Due to greater basic anxiety, the individual may focus on only one of the solutions, which will not lead to any resolution. If the individual specifically focuses on the solution of moving away from people, then it is very likely that he/she will experience loneliness in a more pronounced manner.
Loneliness could also be rooted in the vulnerable stage of individuals making a transition from childhood to adolescence. In the later stages of childhood as the individual sets out to form relationships outside the family, they have a lot of expectations regarding intimacy, emotional bonding, trust, and support. At times these expectations may be unrealistic and therefore not be fulfilled.
Even if the expectations are not unrealistic, they may also be unfulfilled due to various other circumstances. This can be a big setback for the individual. The phase after this setback becomes very crucial and vulnerable. If the individual is unable to overcome and cope up with this phase, then it marks the beginning of loneliness, which may keep getting exacerbated. After that it becomes difficult to get out of this phase.
The factors determining loneliness, therefore, are specific brain structure, infant attachment styles, early interaction patterns, basic anxiety, and vulnerability during the transition from childhood to loneliness. The major causes of loneliness, evidently, stem from childhood. Brain structure or the immediate environment of the child shapes the individual to experience loneliness, right from the beginning of life. It, therefore, becomes important that the earliest signs of loneliness be identified as soon as possible. The role of parents and teachers become very significant in such instances.
An early identification of such symptoms can turn out to be fruitful in order to introduce measures that may help in preventing the exacerbation of loneliness. It will help the child to lead a happy and joyous life that will further lead to a number of positive experiences.
Loneliness is a lot more common than it is believed to be. It is highly prevalent. The distress associated with loneliness is also much more than it is believed to be. It is due to this that loneliness should be taken as something that is very serious. It should not be taken as a phase that will just pass away. If the right measures at the right time are not taken, then with the passing of time loneliness becomes exacerbated and its effects become more and more pronounced.

PS: To read more about loneliness, refer to the following articles on this blog:

Saif Farooqi

A PhD in Psychology (from the University of Delhi). I have been blogging about psychological issues for more than ten years. I am extremely passionate about teaching psychology. I'm a writer, podcaster, and TEDx speaker. I also conduct workshops and awareness programs in schools and colleges. Currently, I'm also working as an Assistant Professor at the Department of Psychology, Faculty of Social Sciences, Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi, India


Namrata said...

You write so well. Thank you for sharing such facts.

Saif Farooqi said...

Thank you for the appreciation Namrata :)

Savas Papadopoulos said...

I would be interested to read your opinion about the famous dispute of the so-called "cry-out method" a.k.a "baby sleep training"
and the repercussions it may have later in life. Especially since you mention in this article how loneliness unfolds...

Saif Farooqi said...

Well, there has been quite a lot of debate on the "cry-it-out". On the whole it has been found to be beneficial. Being able to have a sound sleep is important for mental health, and this is what it does for children who are abnormal sleeping patterns.

It may involve stress on part of the child, but if done properly, it requires just about 3 days. 3 days is not too much of a time. The stress that may be involved is not strong enough to have any negative effects on development. And it lasts for just 3-4 days.

Initially it might seem that due to this a child might develop an avoidant or ambivalent attachment style as the child would perceive this to be neglected by the parents. But this does not really happen. When we talk about a secure attachment style then it means that the majority of the times the parents are supportive. So, again 3-4 days of the cry-it-out method will not be perceived as being neglected by the child. Even if it lasts for more than 3 days, it will not have a negative effect if the parents on the whole are caring, supportive, and comforting towards the child. Thus, it should not have any role to play in an individual to end up being lonely.