A Counselor’s Review on Loneliness—What can you do?

When my monthly magazine subscription of Psychology Today came in the mail, the main title stood out to me more than others—The Loneliness Cure—How to Make Connections That Count, by Jennifer Latson. I have seen my clients go through divorces, grieve losses, end long-time friendships, feel alone in their struggles, and also have desires to make more meaningful connections with others.  I also thought--I am a counselor, but now also am a business owner and an entrepreneur. The old adage of, “It’s lonely at the top.” can ring true at times. This is why the title stood out to me personally.

Many business owners are busy building and maintaining our visions.  We use our creativity.  We use our resourcefulness.  Some of us connect with people daily.  But, some of us work a lot from our computers and phones, and we also keep up on our paperwork, and all of the, “behind the scenes” work that gets us where we are, yet much of the time in solitude.  I thought sharing what I read in this article would be valuable for many.

As a mental health professional, I know how loneliness can affect both your mental and physical health. I always have in the back of my head how your health can be affected when you are feeling down.  I know from my studies that women tend to be affected more somatically when they are feeling depressed or upset.  I know men find divorce a harder experience to cope with than women.  Those are the statistics I last learned.  The article starts with the words from a gentleman named Mark, age 59.  Mark states, “I was lonely when I was 40 and going through a divorce.  I shut myself off from everyone, ashamed that my marriage had failed.  It wasn’t until I had a conversation with a friend who’d gone through the same thing that I finally opened up.  Just talking about it helped me.”   

With the advent of social media, we are suffering from new levels of isolation, and alienation.  Researchers are now finding us in the middle of a loneliness epidemic. Not having as much social connections, loneliness is a bigger predictor of premature death—more so than obesity, or smoking 15 cigarettes a day; and it is only getting worse.  Lonely people are more likely than non-lonely to die from cardiovascular disease, cancer, respiratory illness, and gastrointestinal causes—and also cognitive decline and dementia--pretty much everything.

Loneliness acts on the same parts of the brain as physical pain. No matter your marital status, your age, or where you live; more and more of us are feeling the “sting” of loneliness. The article called for a commercial being made like the older one of the egg frying, signifying, “This is your brain on drugs.” to showing, “This is your brain on loneliness”.  Loneliness can also, besides leading to symptoms of depression, cause increased stress, anxiety, and anger.  A 2017 study by Yale researchers found that the biggest contributing factor of veteran suicides—on average, 20 a day—was not war-related trauma, but loneliness.  Even soldiers who never saw combat are susceptible.

Have you ever heard how you could be in a crowd of people, and still feel all alone?  Being rejected, or socially excluded, feels like an actual wound. We are social beings.  Love and belonging are human needs.  Our unmet needs can kill us slowly.  Loneliness depends more on the quality of your relationships, than quantity.  When we feel disconnected from people we have relied upon, our bodies stress response is triggered.

There are 7 categories of loneliness.  Once you can see what’s going on for you, it can give you a good place to start. 

The 7 categories, according to Gretchen Rubin, are:

·       New-situation loneliness

·       I’m different loneliness

·       No-sweetheart loneliness

·       No-animal loneliness

·       No-time-for-you loneliness (involving people not willing to be “real” friends in a meaningful way)

·       Casual friends loneliness (where there is no depth or trust)

·       Quiet-presence loneliness (where you miss having someone just being around the house)

Now that we have a picture of the strain loneliness can have on our mental and physical health, what can we do about it?  Jennifer Latson has some tips that are worth sharing.

Do talk to strangers.  Small talk isn’t so small. To talk to someone next to you while in line at the grocery store, for example, can help.  We can feel better after talking with someone for 30 seconds in person, where we do not get that same benefit from online interaction.

Give it seven minutes.  It takes seven minutes to tell if a conversation is going to be interesting.  It can be hard, but it’s when we stumble, hesitate, and have those “lulls” in conversation, that we reveal ourselves the most.  Try reading more about being vulnerable here:  https://www.amyenklingcounseling.com/blog/2018/3/1/relationshipscounselors-inspirational-on-being-vulnerable

Schedule FaceTime.  Face-to-face contact with family and friends boosts our production of endorphins—the chemicals in the brain that ease pain, and enhance well-being.  Researchers say that is one reason why in-person interaction improves our physical health. 

If you can’t get Face Time, get Facetime.  In person is always best, but platforms like Skype or Facetime can help maintain bonds already built in person.  Phone calls are the next best thing, as hearing the other person’s voice is a connection—while relationships based primarily by text and email tend to whither the fastest.

Use Facebook wisely.  Social media is not permanently alienating, but it is better used purposefully to create sustainable connections.  For example, if  you’re just using Facebook to show pictures of yourself smiling on vacation, you will not connect authentically.   Instead, creating smaller social networks, like an online book club, can allow you to share meaningful personal interactions with a select group of people.  I remember a professor in a grad school class citing a study that said it was unsure if more time on the internet made people lonely, or loneliness caused people to spend more time on the internet.  Social media has only gotten bigger since then.

Be a good neighbor.  Getting to know your neighbors has more benefits than borrowing a cup of sugar (or sharing starfruit in my case).  A study found that when there is higher social cohesion within your neighborhood, your risk for having a heart attack is lowered.  So, get to know your neighbors.  Invite them over.  Offer to help them out, or feed their cats when they are on vacation.  My neighbor is going to help me plant bamboo trees in my yard, and helped me hang my Christmas lights.  It feels good to just wave “hi” when we see each other coming and going.

Throw a dinner party.  Eating together is a good way to connect socially.  Communal eating dates back almost 12,000 years.  Sharing food way back when was a way to resolve conflicts, and create a group identity amongst hunter-gatherers.

Get creative.  Participating in the creative arts, especially in our artsy St. Petersburg neighborhood, helps us to connect in a deep way without having to talk directly about ourselves.  When you find it tough to find the words to express your feelings, you can draw, write, dance, sing, paint or sculpt them.  You do not have to be an expert.  When someone else pays attention to however you choose to express yourself, and allows you to resonate in your own experience with it, it all seems to come together in a connection.  This is why I enjoy my favorite yoga instructor, who always reminds us that it is our own practice, and we don’t have to try to balance on our heads just because the person next to us is.

Talk about it.   Someone named Julia Bainbridge struggled with loneliness as a single New Yorker.  She decided to start a podcast, sharing her feelings of loneliness.  The result was that she felt less lonely, as she found people responding felt the same way.  Whether it’s a podcast audience, a friend, or a therapist, we can benefit from talking about our feelings of isolation.

Reach out and touch someone—literally.  Hugging, holding hands, or even patting someone on the back is good medicine.  Physical touch can lower our bodies stress response, and tells our brain to release the hormone oxytocin, which helps strengthen social bonds.

If you’ve been lonely for a long time, it can make it tougher to engage in situations involving creating intimacy in your life, especially when you do not get the response you want when you do muster up the courage to reach out.  You first have to realize your engrained biases that do not allow you to engage in situations where you could be vulnerable.  Identifying what is going on for you may be a good place to start in order to ease yourself into trying the above ideas.

Connecting with others in person requires us to be ourselves, openly and genuinely.  Consistently connecting in some way, finding a feeling of a sense of community that is reciprocated back to you can help your health, and therefore your longevity.  So, for a long, happy life, do your best to stay connected to others that add to your days, and your days will be added to. 

1.   Do talk to strangers. 

2.   Give it seven minutes. 

3.   Schedule Face Time. 

4.   If you can’t get Face Time, get Facetime.

5.   Use Facebook wisely. 

6.   Be a good neighbor. 

7.   Throw a dinner party.

8.   Get creative. 

9.   Talk about it.

10.  Reach out and touch someone—literally. 

If this resonated with you, and you feel you need assistance moving forward, please do not hesitate to reach out. Please also feel free to share with someone you think could benefit from these words.