Are you dying from loneliness?

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Here are ways you can better connect with others

Loneliness can be defined as a painful emotional response to being alone or isolated. It is a very subjective experience that is related to one’s sense of connectedness to others.

People vary widely in terms of their need for human contact. You can be in a room full of people, including friends and family, and still feel lonely. Conversely, just because you are alone, that does not mean that you are lonely.

Our need for social connectedness or a sense of belonging is embedded in our biology and begins at birth. The term “social brain” has been used to refer to the network of parts of the brain that are involved in the development of our understanding of human interaction. These areas of the brain usually are developed by the early 20s.

Cigna, a national insurance company, assessed 20,000 of its members and found that almost half of adults report that they experience loneliness. Over 10% of youth report feeling lonely and isolated and that zero people know them well.

Loneliness can make you sick, and the former Surgeon General, Dr. Vivek H. Murthy, reports that “Loneliness is a growing health epidemic.” Biologists have shown that feelings of loneliness trigger the release of stress hormones that are associated with higher blood pressure, decreased resistance to infection, and increased risk of cardiovascular disease and cancer.

There’s even evidence that a perceived sense of social isolation accelerates cognitive and functional decline, which can serve as preclinical signs for Alzheimer’s disease. A study by Brigham Young University found that loneliness shortens a person’s life by 15 years and has the same health impact as being obese or smoking. Some may turn to drugs, alcohol, or binge eating as ways to cope with loneliness.

Factors contributing to loneliness

  • Not spending enough quality time with family
  • Work demands
  • Fatigue and irregular sleep schedules
  • Limited social contacts or friends socializing
  • A lack of “me time”

There are several self-report assessment tools available to evaluate your loneliness. The UCLA developed a three-item questionnaire to assess one’s sense of loneliness on three dimensions: relational connectedness, social connectedness and self-perceived isolation. The questions are as follows:

  1. How often do you feel that you lack companionship? 
  2. How often do you feel left out?
  3. How often do you feel isolated from others?

To score each item, give one point for never or hardly ever; two points for some of the time, and three points for always. The higher your score, the greater your risk for loneliness.

Combating loneliness

In order to combat loneliness, you need a plan. The first step is to identify your “trigger” times. It could be on weekends, in the evening or during holidays. Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s Day and Valentine’s Day can be times when some experience an increased sense of loneliness.

Internet dating sites report increases of 20-60% during the time period from January to Valentine’s Day. These sites are used by 50 million users in the United States alone. Before using these sites, it is important to learn about the dangers of these dating apps.

Not everyone is who they say they are in their profile. There have been some incidents of sexual predators and other offenders using some of the dating apps.

Identification of some of your “lonely” thoughts can also be important. Some examples of thoughts that perpetuate loneliness include: “I will always be alone and lonely”; “If I am alone, I am unhappy”; “There must be something wrong with me because I am alone”; and “I can’t stand being lonely.”

Some of those thoughts may be fueled by beliefs that you need to rely on others to feel whole, worthy and accepted. It can be quite empowering to realize that you do not have to rely on others to enjoy yourself.

Identifying and making a list of activities that you can enjoy without others is another way to combat loneliness. Examples could include going for a walk, exercising, going to the library or museums are just a few options.  For additional support in developing your personal plan, “18 Ways to Overcome Loneliness” can be found at psychologytoday.com.   

There are some ways that you can use your alone time to your advantage. When you are alone, you can spend time getting to know yourself without the outside distractions of being around others. You can explore your values, emotions, and identify personal priorities and goals.

Practicing self-care is an activity that you can engage in when alone. Taking time to de-stress and engaging in mindfulness, meditation or prayer are some of the ways that people practice good self-care.

With loneliness, feelings of depression or despair may be associated. If you feel you need counseling or support, please reach out to NorthPoint Health and Wellness Behavioral Health Clinic. In addition to appointments, we have walk-in clinics for new or returning clients Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday, 1-3 pm.

About Dr. Deirdre Golden

Dr. Deirdre Golden, director of behavioral health at NorthPoint Health & Wellness, welcomes reader responses to 612-543-2705.

View all posts by Dr. Deirdre Golden →

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