The health risks of loneliness
Loneliness isn't only emotionally distressing. Research suggests it could impact your health and longevity. Unfortunately, while we're more connected to our devices than ever before, we seem to be disconnecting from each other. The solution: Cultivating social connections.
Social support not only boosts feelings of well-being and decreases feelings of depression, it also helps strengthen the immune system. More recently, there's evidence to suggest that socializing is good for brain health and that it may help reduce the risk of developing dementia and cognitive decline.
The risks of loneliness
Loneliness doesn't discriminate. It strikes every gender, ethnicity and age group. Still, some people are more vulnerable to the effects of loneliness than others. For example, men are more likely than women to have social engagement struggles. The elderly, too, tend to experience a greater sense of loneliness than children and adolescents.
In all cases, loneliness is a threat to your health and well-being.
The physical toll:
- Increased stress hormone levels that lead to inflammation
- Unhealthy behaviors, such as poor diet, inactivity, and even smoking and substance abuse
- Immune system suppression and increased risk of infection
The emotional toll:
- Increased risk of depression
- Increased feelings of anxiety (loneliness can be scary)
- Negative thought patterns
Get socially connected
When it comes to overcoming feelings of loneliness, developing friendships with people in different age groups can be a powerful antidote. Whether you join a church group, play a weekly game of chess or shoot hoops with neighbors, the key is to find ways to connect with others. A few ideas:
- Get support: If you're going it alone, it's important to reach out and find support. There’s no one way to get that support. Your support system may include a therapist, family members or friends you haven't seen in decades.
- Look for opportunities in your community: There are more opportunities than ever before to find groups and activities suited to your interests. Try sites like Meetup.com or search groups on social networking sites like Facebook.
- Take a class: Love art? Sign up for a painting class. Want to get your hands dirty? Visit your local farmer's market or gardening store. Need a more physical pursuit? Consider a yoga or Zumba class. Depending which activity you choose, you could get the benefits of exercise, too.
- Volunteer: Helping others not only feels good, it can cultivate feelings of connectedness. Not sure where to start? Think about causes you believe in and are passionate about. Then figure out how you can contribute. Love pets? Volunteer are your local animal shelter. Have a passion for books? Consider volunteering at the public library.
It's important to remember that the degree of loneliness you feel is correlated with how much it affects you. The lonelier you feel, the more likely you are to suffer from depression and anxiety.
If you are feeling isolated or lonely, talk to your primary care provider or schedule an appointment with a counselor or therapist. Any of these healthcare professionals can link you to appropriate resources and help you brainstorm strategies for becoming more socially engaged.
Jeffrey Devore is a clinical social worker who sees patients at Henry Ford Medical Center - Troy.
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