Loneliness, A Health Hazard
“Its deeply seated in me
The birds are chirping
I can hear the voices
My kids are chatting around
But I feel lonely,
I am a lonely person…… “
Poem by Asma Khan
What is loneliness? How is it defined?
The word lonely, is used here, has nothing to do with being alone. As the poem above states, it’s possible to be surrounded by people, even loved ones, and yet feel lonely.
In reality, loneliness is a state of mind. In that state of mind, people feel empty, alone, and unwanted. Lonely people want human contact. Yet, their state of mind makes it more difficult to form connections with other people. Loneliness is a damaging state of mind. It damages one’s mental and physical health.
For twenty years, John Cacioppo, Ph.D. and clinical psychologist, has studied loneliness. He is the co-author of a recent book, “Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection.” The book’s central theme is that loneliness causes many physical illnesses. For example, studies show that social isolation and loneliness increase the flow of stress hormones. Stress hormones are those that make us alert when danger is present. When someone is lonely, they produce stress hormones with no real threat. As a result, the immune system is damaged, causing a vulnerability to viral diseases. The cardiovascular system rises, leading to stroke and heart attack because blood pressure increases, sleep is disturbed, and the aging process increases. The chronic stress caused by loneliness can even hasten the onset of Alzheimer’s disease.
According to Dr. Cacioppo, some of the adverse effects of loneliness are:
* Depression and suicide
* Cardiovascular disease and stroke
* Increased stress levels
* Decreased memory and learning
* Antisocial behavior
* Poor decision-making
* Alcoholism and drug abuse
* The progression of Alzheimer’s disease
* Altered brain function.”
James J. Lynch, Ph.D., published a brilliant book a few years ago called “A Cry Unheard.” What is significant about the message Dr. Lynch conveys is that loneliness is a failure to communicate, engage in discourse, and be committed to each other and the community. In addition, he clarifies it is not merely talking that makes up communication, but the type of talk that is vitally important to human health. He coins the phrase “toxic talk” to describe a speech that destroys the other person’s self-esteem and well-being. The destruction of that self-esteem leads to loneliness, early heart disease, and death. Criticism, negativity, lack of praise, lack of warm feeling, rejection, and other factors that increase alienation and distance between people characterize toxic talk. According to Dr. Lynch, unwholesome talk increases social isolation and leads to early death.
Listed are a few suggestions that Dr. Cacioppo provides on how to overcome loneliness:
1. Recognize that loneliness is a sign that something needs to change.
2. Understand the effects of loneliness on your physical and mental life.
3. Consider doing community service or another activity that you enjoy. These situations present tremendous opportunities to meet people and cultivate new friendships and social interactions.
4. Focus on developing quality relationships with people who share similar attitudes, interests, and values with you.
5. Expect the best. Lonely people often expect rejection, so instead, focus on positive thoughts and attitudes in your social relationships.
It is important to remember that loneliness is a state of mind linked to wanting human contact but feeling alone. People can be alone and not feel lonely, or they can have contact with people and still experience feelings of isolation.
Dr. Schwartz is available for consultation or psychotherapy at Email firstname.lastname@example.org