Here’s how to break out of it…
Oh, those long, lonesome days…and nights! Most of us occasionally feel that way. But what if you are lonely more often than not? Plenty of people are.
Why loneliness deserves our attention: While loneliness has long been known to exact a psychological toll, studies are increasingly showing that persistent loneliness also has a profound effect on one’s physical health.
Important new finding: Persistent loneliness is being linked to a growing list of health problems, including insomnia, cardiovascular disease and Alzheimer’s disease. Even more startling is the fact that loneliness raises the risk for premature death among adults age 50 and older by 14%.
So for the sake of your health—and happiness—here’s what you need to know about loneliness…
ARE YOU LONELY?
While it’s easy to assume that anyone who is struggling with loneliness would know that he/she is lonely, that’s often not the case. For many people, that extreme sense of social disconnection—the feeling that no one really knows you and what your life is like—is so familiar and constant that they don’t even realize that they’re lonely. And friends and family might not necessarily recognize that a friend or loved one is lonely.
Of course, most of us do need some time by ourselves, and solitude—the opportunity to think and feel quietly without the distraction and demands of other people—is rightly valued. But loneliness is very different.
Here are some red flags that you may be lonely: You spend hours of alone time on the computer (perhaps surfing the Internet or following the activities of “friends” on social media sites)…you have pangs of anger or envy when others around you are happy…and/or you feel a vague sense of dissatisfaction even when you are spending time with other people.
But just as you can be alone without being lonely, you can be lonely without being alone. Someone who looks happy and well connected from the outside—the person who invites 20 of his/her closest friends to a party—may still feel empty and isolated inside. Nor are romantic relationships or marriage a surefire defense against loneliness. Feeling uncomfortably alone and alienated is a frequent complaint of troubled couples.
WHY it’s BAD FOR YOU
The connection between loneliness and depression has been established for quite some time. People who have depression often withdraw from social situations and have feelings of loneliness. But only recently have researchers discovered that loneliness itself is linked to elevated blood pressure, increased stress hormones and impaired immune function.
A new study has also found that the more lonely that people reported themselves to be, the more fragmented—and less restful—was their average night’s sleep.
Loneliness also exacts a huge toll when people turn to unhealthy behaviors to avoid the pain it brings—if we don’t try to drink it away, for example, then we might spend far too many hours at work to busy ourselves rather than face painful time alone.
HOW TO OVERCOME LONELINESS
Alleviating loneliness is like falling asleep or growing a garden—you can’t force it to happen, but you can create conditions that encourage it to unfold. Here’s how…
SECRET #1: Share more about yourself. Sharing the details of your life with others and showing vulnerability will foster deep connections and minimize loneliness. This may feel risky. After all, you might run up against rejection or disapproval, but such fears are usually groundless. Nothing ventured, nothing gained!
Example: You might ask a friend to have coffee and share with him/her discipline problems you are having with your teenage daughter.
SECRET #2: Make room for “small” connections. While quantity doesn’t replace quality in relationships, momentary contacts do add to your sense of being part of the social world around you.
Exchange a few extra words with the clerk at your local convenience store, and smile at those you pass on the street. These pleasant interactions will prime you for deeper, more meaningful ones with close friends and family.
SECRET #3: Be part of something big. Meaningful activity will bring you in contact with like-minded others. OK, so maybe volunteering in a hospital or soup kitchen isn’t your thing. Perhaps you would rather get involved with your local political party…tutor a child who is struggling in school…join a gardening club…or get involved at your house of worship.
Show up for whatever new activity you choose for several weeks, and if you’re not feeling more connected by the end of that time, then look for something else that might be more to your liking.
SECRET #4: Don’t hole up by yourself when your life changes. For most people, significant changes such as job loss, the death of a loved one, divorce or retirement provide a good excuse to shut out others—and the perfect setup for loneliness. But don’t let the natural tendency to withdraw at such times go on for more than a few months.
Challenge yourself to set up two outings a week with a friend, neighbor or family member to get yourself out of the house.
SECRET #5: Consider getting a pet. Pets are more than mere company…dogs, cats, birds and even guinea pigs are, after all, fellow creatures that have their own feelings and are often responsive to ours. These are real connections, too.
If you don’t have the time to care for a pet full time, consider sharing a pet. There are several sites (CityDogShare.org or PetsToShare.com) that enable you to meet people near you who are interested in doing this. Or volunteer at your local animal shelter.
Both of these activities are great ways to connect with animals and animal lovers.