The feeling that nobody is catching you can be linked to stubborn thoughts of death.
People who often feel estranged are isolated and misunderstood, more often than others have thoughts of death and dying, as new research shows. It is not yet clear whether these feelings of isolation are the cause of these pathological thoughts, though there is some tantalizing evidence for this.
"This is an experience that some people really have, and some people have that experience all the time," said Peter Helm, a student of social psychology at the University of Arizona, who led the study. "Unless we study or even acknowledge it, we can not begin to develop interventions for it."
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Terror and death
The new research builds on the field of terrorism management, which states that people have meticulous barriers between them build their own and their mortality awareness. Research that supports this theory has shown that people remembered to be more attached to their values or cultural characteristics, perhaps to find meaning in the face of their own mortality.
Helm and his colleagues wanted to explore how a particular experience, that of existential isolation, can be associated with thoughts of death and mortality. Existential isolation is associated with loneliness, but it's not the same thing, Helm told Live Science. Loneliness is a feeling of lack of contact with others, whereas existential isolation is the feeling that other people just do not understand you basically. Socializing while feeling existentially isolated can actually make the problem worse, Helm said.
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Helm and his colleagues conducted a series of four studies to determine if existential isolation is associated with the idea of death. In the first two, researchers asked college students (932 in the first study and 61
These studies have reported that people who felt themselves to be existentially isolated were more likely to use deadly words than those who were not very existentially isolated. This suggests that thoughts of death were closer to the top of the heads of these isolated individuals. The connection between existential isolation and thoughts of death can not be explained by loneliness, the strength of a sense of belonging to a group or the self-esteem of a person, Helm said. In contrast, loneliness, which was also associated with the idea of death, lost this connection as the effects of group identity, self-esteem, and existential isolation were considered.
"It's further proof that these are two different concepts," Helm said.
The researchers next tested whether existential isolation actually makes thoughts of death bubble up. The scientists gathered 277 participants and divided them into three groups. One group wrote about memories of the sense of being existentially isolated, about the feeling of being lonely, and about a neutral experience of waiting for something. In this study, those who wrote about existential isolation were later more likely than the other two groups to fill the word completion task with deadly words.
In a follow-up study with 334 participants, however, similar results were not achieved when writing about existential isolation.
"It raises some questions about methodological concerns about how we should conduct this type of study," Helm said. The second study consisted in part of online participants who may have been more distracted or more comfortable than participants in a psychology lab. Alternatively, he said, the failed replication could mean that the first study was wrong and existential isolation does not directly trigger thoughts of death.
Another possibility, Helm said, is that remembering existential isolation has a major impact on the thoughts of death only for those who already feel existentially isolated.
"We are studying how this experience affects campus student veterans," he said. "We see so much that they tend to isolate themselves more existentially."
The researchers are also investigating how feelings of existential isolation could be related to depression and suicidal thoughts, Helm said. Psychologists have been dealing with loneliness for decades and found that this emotion is related to poor mental and physical health, he said. But existential isolation has not received nearly as much attention, though it seems to be a shared experience. The new study, published in the October issue of the Journal of Research in Personality was recently published by Reddit, Helm said, and since then it has received emails from people who have read and said it The description of the experience was correct: they did not feel lonely, they told him, but they felt invisible.
"It seems they do not have the vocabulary to describe their experiences," said Helm.
Originally published on Live Science .