An Epidemic of Loneliness

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These days, no one likes to admit they’re lonely.   The world has become hyper-connected, over-stimulated, and increasingly extroverted.  If you still feel lonely in a busy environment like this, there must be something wrong with you, or so the thinking goes.  But don’t give in to that thought.

Part of the problem with loneliness is that it not only feels awful, but also carries a strong social stigma.   It’s assumed that if you feel lonely, you must lack the necessary social skills to make friends. Yet, studies show this isn’t the case.

According to John Cacioppo, director of the University of Chicago’s Center for Cognitive and Social Neuroscience, loneliness is part of being human.   Everyone feels lonely from time to time – even people with strong social skills.  Like hunger or thirst, it’s merely a signal that alerts us to our need for companionship.  If you feel lonely, it doesn’t mean you’re a failure.  It only means that you need to take some steps to alleviate that feeling.

Addressing your feelings of loneliness would not only be good for your emotional well-being, but may also essential for your physical well-being too.  A recent study done by the AARP concluded that feelings of social isolation and loneliness carry an identical health risk to smoking 15 cigarettes per day.   Researchers suspect this is because loneliness increases stress, and increased stress causes inflammation.  Chronic inflammation is a big problem, known to contribute to a host of different health conditions, including heart disease, diabetes and cancer.

Yet, this is not the only reason why loneliness might increase your chance of dying.  People who are lonely also tend not to take as good care of themselves.  When you know that someone cares about you, you tend to eat better, exercise more regularly, and see a doctor when unusual symptoms start to appear.  Lonely people lose these advantages.

Despite our unwillingness to admit to it, feelings of loneliness have doubled over the last thirty years.  Researchers blame, in part, an increasingly disconnected world, where families move from place to place, rather than staying in the same town or village throughout their lives.  Additionally, the rise of social media has caused today’s youth to have higher levels of loneliness and anxiety than ever before.  Elderly people also endure increased feelings of isolation and loneliness due to reduced mobility from illness, or the loss of friends and family through death.

So, what can you do if you’re feeling lonely?  Activity of any sort is good because it increases levels of dopamine in your body, the feel-good hormone.  Even a brisk walk can make a significant difference, if only because it takes you outdoors, where you are more likely to make contact with other people.

Also, get to know your neighbours.  Invite them over for tea.  One study found that living in a neighbourhood with strong social cohesion lowered the risk of heart attack in and of itself.  And while the use of social media can be helpful for some,  only face-to-face contact can create the deep and lasting feelings of love and value that we most crave.  If you’re still physically able, volunteer for a worthy cause.  Better yet, make that worthy cause the drawing out of shut-ins in your own neighbourhood.  Visit them regularly, talk to them.  In doing so, you’ll not only be curing your own loneliness, but that of another as well.


About the Author: Rebecca Wong has a BA in English Literature from the University of Waterloo and has been working in the herbal business since 2000. She studied at the Ontario College of Traditional Chinese Medicine under respected authorities Paul Des Rosiers and Vu Le, and graduated from the East West School of Planetary Herbology under Michael Tierra. She received training as a yoga teacher at The Branches in Kitchener/Waterloo, and therapeutic yoga teacher training from the School for Somatic Soulwork under Deniz Aydoslu. She now teaches yoga for anxiety, depression and burnout at Rebecca's Restful Yoga Studio in Toronto.

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