Loneliness is killing us – literally. Feeling lonely or disconnected from your mates has been discovered to be bad for your health.
Dr. Julianne Hold-Lunstadt, a professor of neuroscience and psychology at Brigham Young University, has studied loneliness for years. “We’re social beings,” she’ explained, “and our bodies respond when we lack the proximity to others.” She estimates that feeling lonely harms our health as much as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. One study found that feeling lonely increases the risk of dying early by a whopping 26%. “Loneliness is about a person's dissatisfaction with the social contact they’re getting,” Dr Steven Cole, Professor of Medicine and Psychiatry and Biobehavioral Sciences at the University of California, explains. “Essentially it boils down to: Do you have a set of people who have your back, and a group of trusted others you can turn to in a time of need?” TIACS realises that for some of us its hard to connect, if you need support call on 0488 846 988.
The scientific establishment have been shocked with the affect loneliness can have on peoples health. Dr. Cole who has an extensive history in studying loneliness was actually stunned at his own findings. Not only does loneliness make us feel blue and cut off, it essentially changes cellular behaviour: feeling isolated deteriorates our immune response, which increases your vulnerability to viruses. Surprisingly it has been observed that a person detached from others have more inflammation. Dr Cole explanation for this was that our “human brain treats loneliness as a state of 'unsafety', loneliness turns on a set of cellular and molecular defences that might have made great sense thousands of years ago when the things we feared were something that was going to bite us or stab us – but that equation isn’t serving us so well now.” Unfortunately it doesn’t end there loneliness seems to trigger physical changes that make it harder to reach out and connect with your mates. You become more suspicious of your fellow man, and can even see them as a threat. This is more damaging as you get into a destructive cycle. How do your break the cycle you ask? Surprisingly, just simply putting people together with their mates doesn’t address the deeper feelings that underlie loneliness. The root causes of loneliness are hard to break even with psychotherapy.
A series of recent experiments has shown that giving your mate a hand is one of the key ways to break the cycle of loneliness. Today, as millions of people experience lock-downs and insecurity, these findings are more important than ever before. Those that have a strong sense of where they are going and have meaning in their life seem to be protected. Dr Cole and his colleagues spoke with people facing intense loneliness and other extreme hardships, including poverty, war and life-threatening disease. “We started looking at people who were doing well even when they were in this threat system,” he explains. The researchers made a startling discovery: “People who have a strong sense of purpose or meaning in their lives seemed surprisingly well protected. It’s not like they didn’t feel some objective sense of threat, but it wasn’t registering in their brains” in the same harmful ways that loneliness did. Hopeful, optimistic people – even when they faced grave problems – were “connected to something greater than themselves and their own personal well-being”.
A study by Dr. Sonja Lyubomirsky, a psychologist at the University of California, added to Dr Coles in a study that she finished in February 2020, before the pandemic shut down much of the world. Dr Lyubomirsky asked those that felt lonely people do simple activities to help other people, such as running errands for them or helping them solve a problem with their computers. What was interesting was that very quickly after helping others out, people described themselves as feeling significantly less lonely. Their blood cells also showed a decrease in the inflammatory responses that are typically associated with loneliness. “When it comes to the pursuit of happiness, popular culture encourages a focus on oneself,” Dr. Lyubomirsky concluded. “By contrast, substantial evidence suggests that what consistently makes people happy is focusing… on others.” Forcing ourselves to look beyond our own needs and focus on the needs of other people as well is a key way to fight feelings of loneliness and despair. Dr. Cole lists five central ways we can refocus our attention to others, and help alleviate the loneliness and worry that many of us are feeling right now in this perilous time.
Volunteering isn’t always easy when people are living under lockdown, but Dr. Cole explains that it’s a crucial first step to connecting with others in a meaningful way. “If you start working with others around some common purpose, then you start to learn that at least a few other people in the world see the world the way you do, and that there are some people you can trust.” He recommends signing up for a cause that reminds us of goals outside our own immediate well-being. Volunteering alongside others – even just discussing goals with them – “is surprisingly effective at buffering people against the adverse impacts of loneliness.”
2. Helping out your mates
Reach out to help your mates in any way you can. Run an errand for someone else if you are able to. As hard as it might feel, pick up the phone and call other people. “Don’t focus on the news; focus on what your mate is doing,” Dr. Cole urges. Send a simple message of “How are you going”. A key way to combat loneliness is to “give yourself reasons to get up and get dressed, because people are counting on you.” It’s not always easy, but remaining engaged is an important tool in the arsenal to fight loneliness and stress.
3. Go out into the great outdoors
Spending time outdoors “reminds you that the sun rose today, and the birds are still chirping This can work surprisingly well in connecting you with what’s enduring in the world. In addition, numerous studies have linked spending time in the sun to a range of health benefits from having more regular sleep cycles to producing higher levels of serotonin, the hormone our brains produce that’s linked to feelings of calm and well-being. Making time to get outside each day, even briefly, can lift our moods and help us focus on things other than ourselves.
4. Learn something new
This is a great time to sign up for a podcast or a class and spend time acquiring new skills or knowledge. In addition to taking our mind off our own personal circumstances and the news, learning new things and broadening our minds is empowering. “The process of learning new stuff and becoming stronger and more capable – that's a great neurobiological antidote to the free-floating anxiety of the pandemic era.”
If you are struggling please speak to someone at TIACS. TIACS Foundation support line gives blue collar workers the ability to reach out and get support when and however long they need it. TIACS employs mental health professionals to make sure the best care is provided. TIACS does not want those suffering from a bad week, month or even years to become another statistic to self harm. Quick chat or text – great; longer chat – cool; need a follow up – no problem. We’re here for as long as you need support. The service is not charged call 0488 846 988. Check the website at TIACS.org for operating hours.