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Shedding the Shame: Egyptian Youth Fight Loneliness in a City of 20 Million

August 14, 2020
Image courtesy of Arifur Rahman Tushar from Pixabay.

“You can be surrounded by the entire world but not having the only person you want with you can make you lonely. It’s not about the number of people, it’s about the quality of the connection, and our connection was one that I don’t think I’ll ever have again,” Ramy Ahmed*, 22, said.

Ahmed is among countless young Egyptians who have struggled with loneliness. He told Egyptian Streets about what triggered the emotion for him.

“I was never really lonely before, this is somewhat new to me. I was in a 5-year relationship that just ended a month ago. It started out in my first year of university and ended a month after graduation. It’s been the first time I’ve felt alone and lonely in such a long time,” Ahmed said.

He added that being extremely close with his significant other led to a devastating separation that took a toll on him, leading him not to feel like himself.

Loneliness is an emotion that most people have experienced at least once in their lives, and likely more often. Statistics worldwide show that young people are more likely to experience loneliness than those who are older.

Multiple studies have linked the trend to social media use, citing that loneliness is found more often in youth that use social media for longer hours. In 2015, a study on 300 Tanta University students proved a direct correlation between internet addiction and loneliness and depression. A secondary cause for loneliness in the youth demographic was found to be family and social relationships, especially romantic ones.

Given the unique cultural environment of Egypt, a 1995 study titled “Loneliness Among Young Egyptian Adults” found that causes of loneliness included strong “social” themes and a sense of dejection and depletion.

These findings along with general worldwide statistics suggest that there is likely a large portion of the young Egyptian population that feels lonely, and those who Egyptian Streets spoke to seemed to feel that their loneliness did not necessarily correlate with the population of the area they live in, but by their social relationships.

Loneliness can manifest itself in multitudes of ways. While some people feel it emotionally, some also feel it physically. An article in the Amherst Student described different people’s experiences of loneliness as “tightness in the stomach, panicked feelings of I’m not good enough and why doesn’t anyone want to talk to me, a deep pit of blackness gaping open somewhere in your chest cavity.”

Aside from its emotional impact, it has been found that loneliness can also have adverse health effects as well. Harvard Medical School’s 2016 Study stated that loneliness poses the same risk as smoking for heart diseases. It has also connected loneliness and social isolation with many health problems, including heart attacks, strokes, drug abuse, alcoholism, anxiety, and depression.

Amherst Student Author Yelim Youm elaborated that when the feeling strikes, people tend to march on with their lives, pretending to be okay in the presence of others, but later withdrawing into oneself, “sitting alone in [their] rooms watching Netflix and eating copious amounts of candy.”

In an article from University Affairs, Andrew Wister, director of the Gerontology Research Centre at Simon Fraser University, said that for young people, loneliness is often a product of the failed expectations of relationships, especially with the involvement of social media. When people substitute online connections for actual relationships, he said, they may experience a lack of fulfillment.

“Facebook can create the illusion that one has a large number of friends when in truth many of these relationships are quite superficial. The social media platform may also induce a sense of failure when your friends’ postings suggest that they are living much more interesting and exciting lives than you are,” Wister added.

In contrast, people can also be lonely whilst being in long term relationships, though that is more likely to occur in older ages, according to a 2012 study.

Heal Counseling Center Founder Noha El Nahas told Egyptian Streets that younger people inherently like to be surrounded and are more prone to enjoying and desiring socializing, so they are more likely to experience loneliness as a result of not having the social life they desire.

However, loneliness is not as simple as being surrounded by people. In an area like Greater Cairo, with a population of 20 million people, it may be difficult for some to imagine loneliness in the traditional sense of the word, as it is almost impossible to be “alone” in such a condensed area. However, it is important to note that feeling lonely is not synonymous with being alone.

Especially during the pandemic, stress and depression are increased, says O7 Therapy Psychiatrist Mohamed Farouk, and with them, loneliness can be triggered.

“Being in a big city as Cairo doesn’t really help, it’s a big city and to see it empty during quarantine hours was daunting. People can feel more lonely, estranged, and detached in bigger cities,” Dr. Farouk said.

It is also not necessarily only the physical presence or touch that is missing due to the pandemic, visible social queues that facilitate conversations are also lacking when chatting on online platforms.

“Maybe if it wasn’t for quarantine, friends would see it on my face that I was upset and make me talk, but since that’s not the case, it doesn’t happen. This in turn has made me lonely because when I’m going through something, I feel like I can’t talk to anyone about it,” said Laila Youssef*, 21.

Person alone. Photo courtesy of Iman Bahati.

People tend to associate loneliness with geographic isolation, Clinical Psychologist Ami Rokach said, however that is an inaccurate correlation.

“Someone can be surrounded by people on a city bus or at a concert and still feel disconnected from others,” Dr. Rokach added.

Other attempts to explain the emotion described “being hungry when everyone around you is readying for a feast,” as Olivia Laing says in her book The Lonely City.

It feels shameful and alarming, Laing said, with the feelings radiating outwards over time, making the lonely person increasingly isolated and estranged.

Nesrine Talaat’s* sentiments echoed this statement. The 19-year old shared that the moments she remembers feeling loneliest where in public, where she was in the presence of many other people, with the inability to connect with them.

“I would see all these people at university or in a coffee shop while I’m alone, and I would honestly get jealous of the intimacy they have with their friends or romantic relationships. But then again, when I’m at home alone in bed I would still feel the same loneliness,” Talaat told Egyptian Streets.

She pondered over the thought that it may have been the lack of a romantic partner in her life that led her to feel this way, and she was not the only one to say so.

“I keep thinking that if I had one person that I loved very much, and I could say everything to them, that I won’t be lonely. But I’ve also accustomed myself in my head that I don’t want anyone, and I don’t want to fall in love. So, I feel like by default I’ve now decided that I’d rather be lonely. If I did have that person, I wouldn’t be lonely,” Youssef said.

People bonding. Photo courtesy of Taylor Hernandez.

Whether in Cairo, other large cities, or abroad, loneliness is unrelated to location for most people, unless the location is what is indicative of their social relationships. For Egyptian expats, though, loneliness has been a common experience during the pandemic, according to a Daily News Egypt article. Egyptians expressed that being stuck away from home in cities like Dublin or Washington made them miss their families, and the human interaction that came with being home with them.

“You could feel alone surrounded by people because there’s no synchronization between you and them, or you just don’t belong, or you could be sad, they could be treating you badly. It’s never about the number of people, it’s about the amount of harmony and the quality of people that you have,” Dr. El Nahas added.

Human beings are social animals, Dr. Farouk said, so it helps them to be around each other, but it is not a must that being surrounded by people will make them happier.

Expressing loneliness can often be a very difficult task as it is a vulnerable emotion. Unlike anger, which is a powerful emotion that allows people to really express how they feel, loneliness is an emotion that people shy away from showing because it may indicate that they are not popular or loveable enough, Dr. El Nahas said.

Some have even said that loneliness is a taboo emotion to express. Dr. Rokach said that there is a stigma attached to loneliness, from her experience working with clients.

People would rather admit to being schizophrenic than admit to suffering from loneliness. In almost 40 years of counseling I’ve only had one patient – just one – come in because they said they were lonely,” she said.

Laing’s book touched on this issue where she expressed how loneliness, to her, felt like a shameful experience, counter to the life one is supposed to lead – “a taboo state whose confession seems destined to cause others to turn and flee.”

Most psychologists agree that expressing loneliness often leads to some comfort towards the negative feelings caused by the emotion. As loneliness is a feeling triggered by a lack of human connection, the element of shame undeniably leads to it becoming a vicious cycle; if one is ashamed of being lonely, one will not express their emotions, and therefore continue to deprive oneself of human connection, perpetuating the negative experience.

However, discussing one’s loneliness is not a one-size-fits-all solution, especially with the importance of choosing who to open up to.

“I know I can reach out to my friends or my family, but the fact is that I don’t reach out to them. I feel like some of the conversations I have with my closest friends became very superficial. And often when I bring up something sad, someone suggests changing the topic because it’s too “depressing”. This happening over and over has stopped me from reaching out,” Youssef told Egyptian Streets.

Youssef felt rejected when trying to vent, leading her to choose not to anymore, which is a common experience. Others feel that while discussing their emotions is the best decision, it still does not remove their loneliness.

“I don’t feel like it’s a taboo, I feel expressing it is the appropriate thing to do if I’m feeling down and lonely,” Ahmed told Egyptian Streets.

He shared that when he is trying to overcome the feeling, some of his coping mechanisms include expressing his loneliness to his family and talking with those he is not as close to as well, in addition to cooking and exercising.

Intimate discussion. Photo courtesy of Priscilla Du Preez.

Loneliness can be dealt with differently according to each person’s situation. Dr. El Nahas recommended a first step of understanding and identifying what kind of loneliness one is experiencing to then be able to deal with it – whether it is being around people but being unhappy, or actually not having satisfactory friends. If it is the former, she recommends discovering and learning more about oneself, so that they can choose and find friends that suit their interests more.

“The same goes for those who are physically lonely, those who do not have anyone around them. They won’t have anyone around them as long as they’re not moving and exploring new areas. I would tell them not to be afraid. There are many self-help books that help you on how to start conversations and make friends,” she added.

However, she notes that this does not include those who have disorders preventing them from being able to take these actions.

“Reaching out is an obstacle you need to overcome, pride and whatnot, but after that it can be worthwhile to be comforted by your loved ones. If you ticked the above, and you’re still feeling lonely then you might want to consider professional help. Depression is one illness that can disguise [itself] as loneliness and prove difficult to shake off without the proper help,” Dr. Farouk added.

Loneliness can be a very difficult emotion to endure, and causes stress to those who experience it, especially for young people who may not have the guidance to navigate it on their own. Psychiatrists reassure that loneliness does not mean one is lost or alone, and loneliness is normal and common among youth in Egypt as well as abroad. With the proper help and management, loneliness can be limited one honest conversation at a time.

*Names were changed for privacy purposes.

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