Loneliness: An Equal-Opportunity Debilitator

As I’ve described in my books and articles, cultural stress has become our #1 health risk, contributing to a host of conditions ranging from hypertension and heart disease to obesity and diabetes. Whether caused by fear, overwork, or too many options, causing conflict in decision-making, cultural stress ultimately leads to isolation. I believe isolation to be one of the most prominent diseases in today’s world. One of its saddest symptoms is loneliness.

Once a condition endured by the elderly who had lost partners, friends, and perhaps their mobility, today loneliness is debilitating people in all age groups. The problem has grown so large that, as a recent article in The Economist pointed out, Great Britain appointed its first Minister for Loneliness after it was revealed that as many as half a million Brits regularly go up to a week without seeing anyone.

According to the same Economist article, a study by the British Office of National Statistics found that people aged 16-24 were the age group most likely to report feeling lonely. Ironically, their online connections often make them feel isolated as a result of the comparisons they make with the lives that others appear to be living.

Loneliness not only causes emotional suffering; The Economist reported that it takes as large a toll on physical health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day and is twice as deadly as obesity. Not surprisingly, loneliness is also associated with anxiety, depression, and suicide; perhaps more surprising, it is even linked to hypertension and even dementia.

What to do about it?

Throw open the door!

In a world that is often mediated by technology, don’t forget the importance of a true social life that includes human contact and human touch. Our species evolved in close physical proximity to others who knew and loved us. We haven’t outgrown that need for physical connection.

Don’t allow social media to replace face-to-face social interactions and activities.

Don’t underestimate the effectiveness of contact as simple as a hug to combat the effects of loneliness. Studies have shown that hugs increase oxytocin production—one of the “feel good” hormones; relax tense muscles; reduce levels of the stress hormone, cortisol (and with it, blood pressure); and improve mental outlook.

Don’t have access to a human to hug? Consider a pet. The companionship of another being—even an animal, particularly one like a cat or dog that you can stroke—can have profound positive effects on physical and mental health.

Try a massage, facial, or pedicure. This is another way to avail yourself of soothing human contact.

Take time to nurture your friendships and real-life relationships. If you think you’re too busy; think again. Real-life relationships are investments in our collective health and well-being.

New to a job, or neighborhood, and feel as if you don’t have any proximal friends? Take the initiative to find a group activity you’d enjoy and make some. It could be anything from learning a new skill or activity like line-dancing; joining a recreation league to play softball, soccer, or other team sport; volunteering for a cause you believe in that enables you to interact with others; perhaps even volunteering to visit shut-ins—thereby relieving two people’s loneliness at the same time!

Loneliness is a debilitating consequence of cultural stress, but it doesn’t have to be. Throw open the door!


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