Podcast: Is Loneliness a Mental Health Issue?
America is facing a loneliness epidemic, according to research. But what exactly is loneliness? Is it social isolation? A lack of intimacy? And importantly — is loneliness a choice? In today’s podcast, Gabe and Jackie tackle these difficult questions and share their own thoughts on loneliness and how it relates to mental health. Gabe also unveils the 7 different types of loneliness — one of these being “no-animal loneliness.” But is there really such a thing? Jackie is doubtful.
Tune in to hear a thoughtful and nuanced discussion of what it means to be lonely, and see if you can relate to one or more of the 7 types.
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About The Not Crazy Podcast Hosts
Gabe Howard is an award-winning writer and speaker who lives with bipolar disorder. He is the author of the popular book, Mental Illness is an Asshole and other Observations, available from Amazon; signed copies are also available directly from Gabe Howard. To learn more, please visit his website, gabehoward.com.
Jackie Zimmerman has been in the patient advocacy game for over a decade and has established herself as an authority on chronic illness, patient-centric healthcare, and patient community building. She lives with multiple sclerosis, ulcerative colitis, and depression.
Computer Generated Transcript for “Loneliness- Mental Health” Episode
Editor’s Note: Please be mindful that this transcript has been computer generated and therefore may contain inaccuracies and grammar errors. Thank you.
Announcer: You’re listening to Not Crazy, a Psych Central podcast. And here are your hosts, Jackie Zimmerman and Gabe Howard.
Gabe: Hello, everyone, and welcome to this week’s Not Crazy, I’d like to introduce my co-host who lives with depression, Jackie Zimmerman.
Jackie: And I’m going to introduce my co-host, Gabe, who lives with bipolar disorder.
Gabe: Jackie, people find it hard to believe that I am a lonely guy. And I think the reason that people find it hard to believe is because I’m surrounded by so many people. I’m married. I have a great co-host and friend in you. Whenever I’m seen out in public, I’m onstage or I’m giving speeches. They see my social media presence, which is really, really filled up. And they think there’s a guy that has a lot of people in his life, ergo not lonely.
Jackie: Well, I think that we live in a really interesting time right now, at a time when we are more connected than ever with social media, texting, video chats, all of these things, we would think that the opportunity for loneliness would be much smaller now. Right? We can connect anywhere at any time to anybody. But that’s not the case. Right? The stats about loneliness are kind of overwhelming right now.
Gabe: I have a saying that I can feel alone in a crowded room and I’m surprised at how often I say that, and people were like, me too, because again, we tend to think of loneliness only as not being surrounded by other people.
Jackie: I think this is a good place to throw in maybe a little bit of a definition or an interpretation of loneliness, because when we were talking about this episode and talking about like what is loneliness, what does it feel like? It’s really hard to define loneliness without saying lonely. It’s really, really hard to define exactly what it is. So this definition, I think is great, which says it’s the discrepancy between one’s desired level of connection and one’s actual level of connection, which I think is a really brilliant way to frame what loneliness is.
Gabe: That is a really brilliant way. But, Jackie, what’s your definition of loneliness?
Jackie: Ok, so full disclosure, I wrote this down and
Jackie: I wrote it down. I
Jackie: Wrote it down because.
Jackie: Ok. I wrote it down because when I tried to talk about loneliness, I run out of words, I can’t describe it. It’s very sort of like it’s an emptiness in my brain that I just can’t, like, get out. So I wrote it down. And I think loneliness is like ultimate despair. It’s having so many thoughts and feelings that are desperate to get out of you, but feeling like you have to keep choking them down over and over. Loneliness is looking everywhere, anywhere for a helping hand, but keeping your eyes closed while you spin around feeling like nobody wants to help you. You can feel the presence of their hands, but can never feel their actual touch.
Gabe: I listened to everything that you said and I can acknowledge its beauty and I can hear the pain in your voice, and it has like a symbolism to it that maybe as a writer or a content creator, I just really, really respect. But I’m not connecting to you — like to you, Jackie. My definition of loneliness is that I feel that people don’t connect to me. I can be in a room with so many people, but I don’t feel like any of them like me. I don’t feel like any of them understand me. I don’t feel like any of them want to like or understand me. I think people are just kind of bouncing around my orbit, getting what they want for me and then moving on. In short, my definition of loneliness is a complete disconnect from the people around me. And my definition of extreme loneliness is a disconnect from the people around me who I should, in fact, not feel disconnected from. Like family or friends or my wife.
Jackie: Do you feel like if you reached out to those people, though, and you were like, hey, I really need to talk to you, they would listen?
Gabe: Oh, yeah. That’s what sucks about loneliness, right? It’s not about not talking to people. I think that there is this misconception that loneliness is social isolation. That’s nonsense. If loneliness was social isolation, every single person could defeat loneliness simply by leaving their house. Go to Burger King, go to McDonald’s, go to Starbucks, go to a restaurant. There’s gonna be people everywhere. Some of the loneliest people that I have ever talked to are surrounded by dozens of people every day via their jobs. They have families. They have children. We have to get away from this idea that loneliness is social isolation. Social isolation can certainly lead to loneliness. But social isolation just means that you are socially isolated. There are many people like, I don’t know, my grandfather. He could not lay eyes on another human for a week and he would not be one iota lonely. In fact, he’s annoyed when other people show up. He’s the opposite of Gabe.
Jackie: But the reason I asked you that is because in my definition of loneliness, I’m surrounded by people who are actively trying to help, right. I have my sister reaching out. I’ve got Adam. I’ve got friends who are like, hey, how’s it going? And I want to tell them what’s happening. But I feel like I can’t. It’s like I desperately want to share these awful feelings that I have, but I just feel like I can’t. And to me, that’s what loneliness is, is this wanting to share yourself with somebody and not being able to.
Gabe: I can agree with that. But let me take it a step farther. Do you feel empowered to tell them? No. Like you said, they’re reaching out and they want to help and you feel guilty for not letting them. But clearly, you don’t want their help. Isn’t that the ultimate in disconnect? I want to be so connected to somebody that when they say, oh, my God, Gabe, you’re so anxious and you’re so depressed and you’re clearly crying. What do you need? I can look up and say nothing. Please go away. And they say, I understand. I’ll come back in a couple of hours. Like, that’s the level that I want. What I have now is. What can I do to help you? Nothing. Are you sure? Let me do all of these things that you clearly don’t want, because I have no understanding of what you’re going through. So I’m just gonna do a whole bunch of Internet meme things to make you better. They’re trying to help. And now I feel guilty that I’m not accepting their help. But clearly, that’s proof. They don’t understand me because I don’t want their help and they don’t understand that.
Jackie: See, but I don’t feel guilty. Everything that is wrong with my brain is rooted in worth. So I feel like if they ask me how they can help. And I’m like, Oh, well, you could help me with all these things. Then I become a burden on them. And then they’re gonna be annoyed with me. And then they’re never going to ask if I want help again because they just wish that I would stop calling them. So it’s a lot of self isolation for sure, because I’m purposely pushing them away and purposely saying, I don’t want your help, but I don’t want their help because I’m afraid that by accepting their help, I’m going to eventually push them away. You know, it makes a whole lot of sense.
Gabe: One of the things that you’re describing there is a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Gabe: You’re afraid to go down the road that might help you because it could push them away. But by refusing to go down that road, you’re just pushing them away sooner. The pushing away in the scenario that you described is actually on you because you’re just like, I don’t want to risk it. So I’m going to push you away now rather than potentially I could push you away later by accepting your help. Am I describing this correctly?
Jackie: Oh, 100 percent, and this is not a rational thought process. How many times we talked about like anxiety or depression? None of it makes sense. It’s not something that you’d go, Oh, yeah, I totally understand that. It just is completely irrational. But it brings me to a question that I think is really important based on this conversation and our differing experiences. Do you think loneliness is a choice?
Gabe: This is a really tough question for me to answer because here’s why… Yes, I absolutely think loneliness is a choice. Now, I can already hear the counter argument to that. Nobody understands me. I’m alone and people aren’t giving me what I want. I’m isolated. I don’t have the ability to make friends. I’m on and on and on and on. Oh, my God. That’s a really good point. So, no, no. Loneliness is not a choice. Now, I can already hear the counter argument to that. Well, you’re invited to parties and you don’t go. You get on dating apps to look for love. And you’re just you only will date supermodels who are 30 years younger than you and have PhD’s. You’re just not willing to accept anything. You literally shove people away, like in the example that you gave Jackie and then say, oh, I’m so lonely. In that case, it is a choice. So what do I do with that?
Jackie: You give me your opinion on whether or not loneliness is a choice.
Gabe: I think that loneliness can be a choice. I do. But here’s the thing that makes me not popular at parties. I think that depression can be a choice as well. And now everybody freaks out like, oh my God, depression is a medical disease. You don’t choose it. Who would choose this? Well, right? I completely agree with that. But there are things that you can do to make it better and you have a choice. People are like, well, it’s a really, really hard choice. I never said it was an easy choice. I said that there are things that we can do to improve our circumstances. Loneliness works that way, too. There are things that we can do to improve our circumstances. But man, I do have a really, really hard time looking at somebody like myself and being like, oh, you choose to be this way. That just sounds really fucked up to me. Like in a really, like, mean way. But at the same time, I want to tell Gabe 2.0, listen, you need to. You need to get out of the house. You need to accept the invite. You need to be open to the ideas. You need to have difficult conversations with your loved ones and tell them in no uncertain terms what you need and what you want. And if they don’t understand, you have to work harder to make them understand you have a choice to do that. So now I don’t know what to do. It’s empathy versus empowerment.
Jackie: I am in the camp that you always have a choice in everything, and a lot of people told me like, no, I didn’t have a choice to be chronically ill or I didn’t have a choice to get a flat tire or whatever. I don’t know. But I think you always have a choice. Sometimes your choices are two really shitty options, right? But you still get to pick one of them in most scenarios. In my version of loneliness, it almost always is a choice. It’s not a conscious choice. I’m not like actually saying like, yeah, this is better for sure. Let’s sit at home and not shower and hide under blankets for 10 days. I don’t really choose that, but subconsciously I am choosing it because I am not doing those things that I know will make it better. I’m not accepting invites. I’m not returning phone calls. I’m not getting the mail. You know, I’m just like existing quietly in a really awful way. And I think that if you experienced loneliness the way that I do, you being our listener, not you, Gabe, because you already said that you’re different. But if you, listener, experience loneliness the way that I do, I feel like you take part of the onus of this type of loneliness. You have to choose how to deal with it. And some days it might be being lonely and feeling awful and other days it might be going out of your comfort zone and returning a phone call.
Gabe: One of the things that I was surprised to learn in preparation for this show is that loneliness is not this all encompassing thing for everybody. Like it is for me. When I first heard about loneliness becoming like a chronic health issue, I was just like, wow, are there really that many Gabe Howards out there? And the answer is no. No, there’s not. And it’s certainly possible that you can be very satisfied and fulfilled in your home life, but feel very lonely at work, or you can feel very satisfied with your friendships and your family, but feel very lonely when it comes to romantic relationships.
Jackie: We’ll be right back after these messages.
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Gabe: And we’re back, and the researchers have laid out seven different types of loneliness to kind of break it down into things. And Jackie, with your support and permission, I would love to read them.
Jackie: If you do it quickly, nobody got time for you to take a long time to read seven different types of loneliness.
Gabe: Seven is my favorite number, I’m always thinking of the number seven, so I feel like this is just really this is really set for me.
Jackie: It’s meant to be?
Gabe: It’s meant to be.
Jackie: You’re meant to read the types of loneliness?
Gabe: Yes. Here are the seven in no particular order and we’re going to discuss a couple of them when we’re done. Jackie, you pick. We have new situation loneliness, I’m-different loneliness, no-sweetheart loneliness, no-animal loneliness, no-time-for-me loneliness, untrustworthy-friends loneliness, and quiet-presence loneliness.
Jackie: So. Oh, I’m going to say a real asshole thing, which is some of these feel like very valid to me, like new-situation loneliness, right? When you move somewhere and you know, nobody that seems valid to me. No-animal loneliness seems like bullshit. ‘Cause, go get an animal or go volunteer somewhere. Go stand on a street corner and be around animals. So maybe I’m not the most empathetic person to be choosing these.
Gabe: This goes back to the conversation that we were having earlier about choices, right? Because in your mind, no-animal loneliness is bullshit because you can just go get an animal. But this assumes many things. This assumes that you live in a place where you’re allowed to own an animal. This assumes that you have the money to properly afford, take care, feed and get good vet care for an animal. And while these are things that Jackie Zimmerman and Gabe Howard may be able to afford, they’re not things that say a first year college freshman living in the dorms and valuing her education over the three animals that are currently living in her parents’ house.
Jackie: But nay, I also said if you can’t afford them, are allergic, don’t have space for them. You can volunteer at a shelter.
Gabe: But is that enough? Is that what you want out of your animal? Listen, for me, I am not an animal person, but I love my dog. But I got to tell you, if somebody told me that my dog could not, like, cuddle with me anymore, like I just had to give that up, like I’d be allowed to pet my dog. I’d be allowed to throw the rope with my dog, play tug of war, feed my dog. But listen, Gabe, no cuddling. I would go through no-animal loneliness, even though my dog would be right there because it turns out that I’m a mad cuddler when it comes to Schnauzer.
Jackie: See, but there’s still a choice in there. Right? If you are a broke college student who can’t afford it, your choice is either wait until you can’t afford it or go get one and then not be able to take care of your dog. Right? The choices are not great, but they are there.
Gabe: I just. I don’t even know what to say to that. Your choices are to get an animal and not take care of it well? That is not a good choice.
Jackie: No, it’s not.
Gabe: In this scenario that I use, I don’t know why I picked it, I just came up with it. The 18 year old is valuing their education over the animals and they’re fulfilled in every other area of their life. We’re going to pretend that they didn’t even go through new-situation loneliness. Being a freshman in a dorm like that was no problem for them. They don’t feel different. They feel connected. They have time for themselves. They love their friends. Everything is going fine. But they grew up with animals and now they don’t have animals except during spring break and Christmas. And they feel lonely about it. There’s nothing wrong with that. So now you have to decide, like, hey, is this reasonable? I do have to say that acknowledging that not having an animal makes you lonely and then acknowledging that the reason that you don’t have an animal right now is because you’re putting your college career, your future, your ability to earn money, buy a house, and then have 30 animals, including a horse and a zebra. In 10 years when you’re established, I think that those are ways to ease the loneliness. Right? To understand why you’re making the decision. But I think that feeling lonely that you don’t have an animal and this is coming from somebody that is just as not an animal person, I can kind of dig it. And I think that acknowledging it helps, even though, like you said, it may be the right decision.
Jackie: So I have four animals, I experience animal loneliness the moment I’m not in my house. I get it. But I feel like this kind of loneliness, these, I guess I’m going to call them surface level lonelinesses, is which I might get some shit for that, but I feel like almost the loneliness severity is a choice in my opinion. I know we’re harping on this animal thing, but is the no animal loneliness really affecting your life so powerfully that you are so sad and you’re isolating? You’re doing all these things that are feel awful because you’re so sad about not having an animal? If that’s the case, go find an animal. Pet sit. Walk dogs. Do whatever. Get paid to walk dogs, do whatever. But if you’re just like, man, I really miss my dog at home, then maybe you just gotta wait till you get home and see your dog.
Gabe: I think that everything that you said is fantastic and I can’t disagree with it. And I think that that’s really healthy to understand cause and effect, to understand prioritizing things in your life. And it doesn’t have to be on animals like you said. Let’s not harp on the animals. You can make this about, you know, your new situation, your job or feeling different or not trusting friends. You can go out and make new friends. You can, you know, just whatever. I think there is a path out of loneliness. I think that the reason people feel so lonely and isolated is because they don’t understand that there’s a path out of it. And when they talk to people about being lonely, they get dismissed so quickly. Oh, you don’t have a dog. Who cares? That person does. End of conversation. We just do this a lot where we decide that it’s not important. And the number one way that we do this in America is every single 30-year-old up completely dismisses the loneliness that a teenager feels about not having a significant other. Because once we hit 30, we realize that your 16 year old significant other is nonsense. It’s just nonsense. You’re gonna be in love so much in your life. You’re gonna love everybody. You’re going to date a million people. It’s gonna be fine. You’re going to realize how insignificant this relationship is. The key word there is you’re gonna realize it. It’s a future thing for them. So when every 30, 40, 50, 60 year old looks at the 16, 17, 18 year old and says, oh, you just broke up with your boyfriend? Yeah, who cares? That’s a meaningless relationship. I don’t care. That exacerbates the loneliness. It exacerbates the disconnected feeling because it really, really, really, really matters to them. Even though in the words of the great Jackie, it’s surface. It’s surface loneliness. Who cares?
Jackie: I know it’s dismissive and I think that you’re right that the worst thing you can do to somebody who’s feeling any form of loneliness is to just dismiss their feelings and be like, yeah, but like get over yourself and move on. Which is totally what I did about the animals. But I still maintain, regardless of the type of loneliness you have. There are choices in there. And what the person who is dismissing you is trying to say is choose something different. And I’m not defending that person at all. I’m not because dismissive people suck, myself included. But they’re trying to say there is an alternative option here to what you’re feeling and maybe they’re doing it the wrong way. Maybe they don’t really see what the alternative option is, but they don’t see what you see.
Gabe: I point out the way that adults treat children’s romance on purpose because we’re all guilty of it. Even people who feel dismissed and isolated and incredibly lonely, they’re all going to turn around and do that to their 16-year-old nephew. Their 18-year-old niece, their 12 year old child. They’re just going to completely just blow the whole thing off as if it’s not important. And then when somebody does it to them, they’re like, oh, my God, how could this happen? So I just want to point out that we’re all guilty of it. So that way when somebody does it to you, you can realize that they’re not being malicious. The reason that they’re blowing off, the thing that’s important to you is probably a lack of understanding, not this desire to be mean to you or to dislike you or to hate you. And that helps me get over it faster when I realize that the reason my wife doesn’t understand me is simply because she doesn’t understand me. That makes me feel a whole lot better than when I think that the reason that she doesn’t understand me is because she hates me.
Gabe: And as somebody with an anxiety disorder, I can jump to the worst conclusion in a single bounce and I need to get over that. And to your point, Jackie, there are choices in there. And I think that choices are very, very empowering. As long as we understand that sometimes just because we make the choice doesn’t mean we’re gonna get our way. I mean, I made the choice to be a millionaire, but I’m not one. So my choice is largely irrelevant in that. However, I do have the ability to work hard, to save money, to make good financial investments. And while I probably will never be a millionaire, I have a better shot at it than if I ran up all of my credit cards and refuse to work. And I think that’s kind of what you’re getting at. Right? It’s understanding what you can control, what you can’t control, and understanding why people relate to you in the way that you do and how you can not internalize other people’s misunderstandings.
Jackie: Exactly. Yes. And part of what you dabbled in there is one of these things that I don’t want to spend a ton of time on, but it’s the I’m-different loneliness. And I think that is the thing that any listener of this show has experienced, whether it be because of mental illness or things that maybe we have made up in our head of things that we think make us different. I know I do that all the time. The I’m-different loneliness is very real because maybe you are very different. There is a good example here of maybe you are really, really tied to your faith, and it’s really important to you and you’re in a new place where nobody shares the same faith as you. That’s something that could be really detrimental to your social life and even your types of conversations you have with people. And I’m-different loneliness, whatever you are feeling different about, is hard to kick. It’s hard to be like, yeah, I feel different. But everything’s cool anyway. But I still feel like there’s a choice in there. You can actively pursue people who are similar than you. Actively pursue more education about what makes you different and why it makes you different. You can fill a gap if there’s not a thing for people who are different like you. Maybe you need to create it.
Gabe: My takeaway from all of this, Jackie, is that I do think that people have choices. But I want to be clear that just because somebody has choices to improve their situations doesn’t mean that the rest of the world can be a jerk to them. So what, they have choices. Maybe you could be empathetic and understanding and help them realize those choices and make it. You know, so often these people are just like get better, do better, be better. You could go for a walk. That’s not helpful. I also want to say to the people like Gabe, the people who have the choices, maybe don’t wait around for people to be understanding and empathetic. As much as I hate to say it, I am my own biggest fan and my own biggest cheerleader. And getting off my own ass and doing things is something that I had to learn early on. I believe that you can do it. Jackie believes that you can do it. And there’s a whole community of people who have done it. And I just want you to know that, because we can move forward in meaningful ways and that means you, you can move forward in meaningful ways.
Jackie: Wow, Gabe, that was beautiful.
Gabe: I feel like you’re mocking me, but I’ll allow it.
Jackie: I am mocking you, but I actually believe that was beautiful. Because the root of that is you are your best advocate as somebody who has been sick for a really long time. You are your best advocate and at times you’re your only advocate. So if you’re not advocating to make your life better or to change your situation or to change your circumstances, you can’t really expect other people to do it for you.
Gabe: Jackie, as always, it’s fun hanging out with you, I want to leave our listeners with this quote that I read doing research for this episode. It’s that if you’re ever feeling lonely, go outside and look at the moon because chances are somebody somewhere is doing it as well. It’s not the kind of gushy stuff I normally like, but that one spoke to me. But listen, and this is very important. Don’t stare at the sun because nobody else is doing that. Thanks, everybody, for listening to this week’s episode of Not Crazy. Did you know that Jackie and I will live podcast wherever you are? Email us at show@PsychCentral.com for details. And hey, we could show up in your town. Wherever you downloaded this podcast, please rate, review, and subscribe. Share us on social media and use your words. Tell people why they should listen to the show. And finally, stay tuned after the credits for our outtake of the week. They’re always awesome, although sometimes they’re more awesome than not. Thanks, Lisa.
Jackie: Make good choices.
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Podcast, N. (2020). Podcast: Is Loneliness a Mental Health Issue?. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 24, 2020, from https://psychcentral.com/blog/podcast-is-loneliness-a-mental-health-issue/