Loneliness is harmful to your health.
Loneliness is a difficult emotion to sit with and if not addressed, can lead to problems such as anxiety, depression, illness, cognitive decline and even early death. Being lonely causes stress on the body, which triggers the release of stress hormones, particularly cortisol. When the loneliness continues for an extended period of time, the constant release of stress hormone leads to problems — systemic inflammation, depressed immune system, high blood pressure, blood sugar dysregulation.
As humans, we evolved being part of a cooperative group, and isolation from our group was considered punishment. Unfortunately, because of the structure of our modern world, loneliness has become an epidemic because so many of us are living in isolation (or FEEL isolated) from our groups. One of the problems with loneliness is that it is difficult to acknowledge because it makes us feel vulnerable.
Studies have indicated that over 50% of people in America today feel lonely. Why?
Traditionally extended families would have lived together, providing social support for both men and women. Mothers of young children had the support of other women in both raising the children and social connection, and were not expected to “go it alone”. Men would have hunted together during the day and socialized with the extended family campfire style in the evenings. There was face-to-face and physical connection.
One of the loneliest periods of my life was while I was a stay-at-home mom for 2 ½ years after my oldest son was born. We moved to a rural area of New Hampshire from California shortly after his birth.
My husband traveled a lot for work. We lived in an area that was mostly seasonal homes that were empty most of the year. The closest grocery store was nearly 30 minutes away. The winters dragged on, which made connecting with other people even more difficult. Every phone call was long distance and cost money at a time when we had little and cell phones were not the thing. It wouldn’t have mattered anyway since there wouldn’t have been cell phone reception in that location.
Loneliness and guilt
The loneliness I felt during those 2 ½ years was accompanied by immense feelings of guilt. I should have been overjoyed to have the opportunity to stay at home and raise this miracle that I had been given, right? Instead, the isolation was all-encompassing. I was alone most of the time. I was living in a new place and learning an essentially new culture. I had no family or long-term friends nearby.
Today, we are given the message as moms that we should just suck it up. To deny the feelings of loneliness and just be happy. Be grateful. Oh how I tried.
At the time I just felt like something was wrong with me for being incapable of being satisfied for the blessing of my secure life with a warm roof over my head. I didn’t know how to communicate my feelings of loneliness and how those feelings were impacting my emotional wellbeing.
Living in isolation is not how we evolved to live.
It wasn’t until fairly recent history during the Industrial Revolution that we began living in isolation as humans in small family groups containing only parents and their children without an extended network of family support. This way of life has become the norm, but it is certainly not normal from a biological perspective.
As I tell my clients, in regards to symptoms…just because something is common, doesn’t make it normal.
As humans, we are just not biologically designed to be alone. It is a biological need to connect with others. I learned as a young mom just how important connection with a support network of loved ones is.
Today, loneliness has become epidemic in our culture, and is a true health crisis. Not only are we living in isolated family units, but even within those family units we are connecting less than we were in the past. We have overly-scheduled busy lives, and then when we are home together we are often interacting with our screen instead of each other. Social media fear of missing out (SM FOMO) has become a thing.
Why so much loneliness?
- No longer are couples living with or close to extended families as we did in the past.
- More people are working from home without face-to-face interaction with colleagues.
- People are getting married and having kids later in life.
- Families are smaller.
- Divorce is more common leaving people without companionship in their older age.
- Studies have shown that loneliness has increased, not decreased since the invention of the internet and social media, especially among young people.
Loneliness in times of transition
Times of transition in a person’s life are particularly common times for loneliness to set in.
- the death of a loved one;
- the “empty nest” for parents;
- moving to a new city or state;
- starting a new job;
- being the caretaker of a chronically ill loved one;
- an illness or injury that prevents one from participating in physical activities
Everyone will experience loneliness from time to time, which is fine as long as the loneliness doesn’t go on for long periods of time. Studies have shown that prolonged periods of loneliness can be as damaging to your health as heart disease and smoking and can lead to self-sabotaging habits and behaviors.
My recent experience with loneliness
During the past three years, periods of loneliness have been very real for me during a time of significant transition and change in my life. Of the things that might trigger loneliness, I had them pretty much all at once:
- The dog we raised our kids with died.
- I left a career of 18 years to start my own business and work from home.
- My oldest son graduated from high school and flew the nest.
- We sold the house we raised our kids in.
- My youngest son was in high school and his social life kept him busy outside the home.
- My husband was dealing with chronic pain and withdrawing into his own isolation
- My husband’s suicide death in December 2017.
How Loneliness Impacted Me
The feeling of sadness surrounding my loneliness during this time was sometimes overwhelming, leaving me feeling like a small fish in a big sea. It was uncomfortable to sit with to say the least, and I noticed the effects on my physical and emotional health:
- Focus: I found myself unable to focus on simple tasks and being unproductive with my time.
- Withdrawal: Wanting to isolate myself from others (even in the presence of others), leading to more loneliness.
- Low energy & motivation
- Bad habits: staying up late because I just couldn’t give myself permission to go to bed at night, drinking alcohol more frequently than my normal, eating foods I would normally avoid
- Lack of hunger: skipping meals because I just didn’t feel like eating or wasn’t motivated to cook for myself.
When I recognized that loneliness was negatively impacting my wellbeing, I knew I needed to take action. I had learned, from my experience as a stay-at-home mom many years prior, that lack of connection was the cause of loneliness.
I began to really pay attention to the loneliness as it reared its ugly head, and when it did, I found ways to actively overcome it:
- I reached out to my amazing network of friends and family that I had cultivated over the years.
- I left the house, even if it was to take a short walk outside with my dog.
- I found tasks to keep myself busy around my house to take my mind off my loneliness.
- I worked out and coached at the gym, surrounded by my CrossFit family.
- I scheduled day trips and hikes with friends and family for connection.
- I practiced gratitude publicly by sharing something I was grateful for on my Facebook page daily for a year. There is no better way to overcome feelings of lack than by showing appreciation for what you already have.
Loneliness will come and go.
Last weekend was Mother’s Day, and loneliness once again reared its ugly head. My youngest son had very recently flown the coop, and having relocated from NH to CA in November, I felt very isolated from the tribe I’d built over the last 20 years. Once again, I felt like a small fish in a big sea.
When I noticed the difficult emotions around loneliness creeping in I took action. I called a local friend and went to dinner, talked to loved ones on the phone, went for a hike and enjoyed nature and the sunshine, and cleaned the carpet in my home to keep my mind distracted from my loneliness. I continually reminded myself that the loneliness would pass, and sure enough, it did.
Can I be the bad guy for just a minute here? As humans, sometimes we like to wallow in self-pity when things are hard. Wallowing in self-pity is a self-sabotaging behavior that ain’t gonna get you nowhere! Change is the only guarantee that life has for us, and each of us will be dealt the shit-storms of life from one time to another. The beauty is, we always get to choose how we respond to adverse situations, and how long we stay with our difficult emotions.
As Brian Tracy says, “You are the architect of your own life. You are the master of your own fate, and accepting responsibility for your life is the key to improving it.”
With every adverse symptom in the body, there is an underlying root cause. When I work with my clients, we seek to find the underlying causes of dysfunction in the body in order to find the path to healing. If you are feeling lonely, anxious or depressed, instead of heading to the doctor and the pharmacist for a prescription bandaid for your feelings, seek to uncover the root cause. Ask WHY you are feeling lonely, sad, or depressed. Then, seek to solve it.
You own the responsibility to take action on reaching into the abundance of the universe to find meaningful connections. They are everywhere, you just have to be open and willing to be vulnerable to find them. Deeper relationships decrease stress and create the connection we are biologically designed for as human beings. So where can you look, and what action can you take to create them?
If you are lonely, ask where the connection is missing in your life and seek to find it. And, if you know that someone in your life is having a hard time, what can you do to provide loving support to help that person feel more connected and loved?
There is no greater fulfillment than that which comes from enriching the lives of others.
In fact, if you are feeling lonely, perhaps finding a way to enrich the life of another could be part of the cure for your loneliness.
Here’s a video I made to discuss the topic of loneliness.