Loneliness is a public health crisis of greater consequence than obesity and heart disease that is often overlooked and poorly understood. Fortunately, that’s changing. In this excellent article in Psychology Today, author Jennifer Latson describes the affects of loneliness on both individuals and society and offers some clues on how we can prevent and treat it.
Loneliness isn’t simply being alone, it’s when we don’t have subjectively adequate authentic connections with others. Counter-intuitively, perhaps, people with a small number of close confidants may be far less lonely than those of us with large networks of mostly casual “friends.”
[Loneliness] doesn’t just make people yearn to engage with the world around them. It makes them hypervigilant to the possibility that others mean to do them harm–which makes it even less likely that they’ll be able to connect meaningfully.
Without being aware of it, they sabotage their own efforts to connect with others.
Hugging, holding hands, or even just patting someone on the back is powerful medicine. Physical touch can lower our physiological stress response, helping fight infection and inflammation. And it cues our brains to release oxytocin, which helps strength social bonds.
The basis of a meaninful bond is reciprocity. A lonely person can’t just answer a lot of questions for an hour and feel connected. He or she has to do something.
Feeling disconnected from the people we rely on for help and support puts us on high alert, triggering the body’s stress response. Studies show that lonely people, like most people under stress, have less restful sleep, higher blood pressure, and increased levels of the hormones cortisol and epinephrine; these, in turn, contribute to inflammation and weakened immunity.
The more I learn about the affects of cortisol on the body system, the more I feel badly for Kirsten. Because her pituitary tumors were constantly pumping out ACTH, her adrenal glands were constantly pumping out massive amounts of cortisol. She was chemically stressed thousands of times more than an average person, with devastating affects both physical and emotional.
A Cure for Disconnection
Jennifer Latson, Psychology Today, March/April 2018 p. 42
Photo: Flavio Spugna