In clinic, I sat down with a man from Serbia with Rheumatoid Arthritis. He said his belief in a holistic approach to health was his main reason for establishing care today. He brought in with him a bag full of supplements, his prescription medications and cut outs from magazines and articles regarding foods, herbs, vitamins etc. looking for my input. He was seemingly doing ‘everything’ right so why was he not better? As we continued our conversation, he mentioned that his disease started a few years after moving to the U.S. His eyes lit up when he talked about his life in Serbia. He shared stories about his strong connection with his people and a sense of belonging. He expressed the loss of leaving his friends, community, culture and food. He had not made any meaningful relationships since his move and missed his life in Serbia. He spent most of his day, watching YouTube videos of Serbian dances, music and people. We talked about the importance of connection and community and how loneliness can lead to chronic illness. I would like to share our conversation as loneliness affects us at some time in our lives and this information may just help someone you know.
WHAT IS LONELINESS?
Our need for human connection is ingrained in our DNA. Loneliness is a lost sense of belonging and not having meaningful contacts. 40% of Americans report they are lonely. It is an emotional state when we feel disconnected. We all desire to be seen, heard and valued. We crave authentic relationships and look for a tribe to create a sense of belonging. Lack of human connection signals the autonomic nervous system that something is wrong and it activates the fight or flight or stress response. A loss of human interaction and social support can lead to chronic stress which leads to chronic illness. Studies show loneliness is linked to an increased risk of heart disease, stroke, anxiety, depression, insomnia, elevated inflammatory markers, infections and shorter life spans. A meta-analysis of 70 clinical studies showed the negative health effects of loneliness was equivalent to smoking fifteen cigarettes a day. It is found to be more harmful than obesity and being sedentary.
HOW DOES LONELINESS AFFECT HEALTH?
For many people, there is a stigma to admitting that you are lonely. Sharing that you are lonely is admitting you are not worthy of being loved. Loneliness is the consequence of having a gap between the interactions and social support you would like to have and those you have. So, human touch is often replaced by maladaptive coping mechanisms. We substitute real connections with working longer hours or virtual activities like watching television, news channels, social media, online sites and gaming. Increased stress leads to more impulsive behaviors and addiction to alcohol, drugs, and high risk activities. We may find ourselves working more, sleeping less, become less social, less physically active, eating poorly and isolating ourselves further from friends, family, co-workers and people. The age of technology, television, transportation and communication has changed the fundamental nature of our relationships and we have to figure out ways to reconnect with others.
HOW DO WE RECONNECT?
- Don’t reinvent the wheel. Pay attention to the connections you already have. Start with one person. Find a family or friend and make a ritual to meet and connect regularly. This can be a lunch or dinner date, movie or game night, a walk with a neighbor, a regular phone call or travel plans with good friends.
- Join group activities with an education or discussion focus like book clubs, taking a language class, learning a new skill, belonging to a social or religious organization.
- Participate in volunteering, doing good deeds or charity work.
- Find people with similar interests like pet rescue causes, health and fitness, hiking clubs, cultural organizations , gardening, wood working or cooking activities.
- Connect to social media platforms with people of similar interest and create authentic, positive connections.
We are interdependent on each other. When an emotional storm hits like losing a job, getting diagnosed with a serious illness, divorce or death, making real human connections allows us to lean inwards to our communities where we can connect and belong. We each bear the responsibility to reach out to each other and seek meaningful connections. Make eye contact, smile and take notice of anyone who may be lonely in their lives and you may just save a life by reaching and connecting.