Loneliness, A Health Hazard
"I am a lonely person
I have many people around me
But the feeling of loneliness
Its deeply seated in me
The birds are chirping
I can hear the voices
My kids are chatting around
But I feel lonely,
I am a lonely person......"
Poem by Asma Khan
What is loneliness? How is it defined?
As the word, lonely, is used here, it has nothing to do with being alone. In fact, as the poem above states, it's possible to be surrounded by people, even loved ones, yet, still feel lonely.
In reality, loneliness is actually a state of mind. In that state of mind, people feel empty, alone and unwanted. People who are lonely often want human contact, but their state of mind makes it more difficult to form connections with other people. Loneliness is a damaging state of mind. It damages one's mental and physical health.
John Cacioppo, PhD and clinical psychologist, has studied loneliness for the past twenty years. He is the coauthor of a recent book, "Loneliness: Human Nature and the need for Social Connection." The main theme of the book is that loneliness causes all types of physical illness. For example, studies show that social isolation and loneliness increase the flow of stress hormones. Stress hormones are those that make us alert when danger is present. When someone is lonely they are producing stress hormones in the absence of any real threat. As a result, the immune system is damaged, causing a vulnerability to viral diseases, and the cardiovascular system is impacted, leading to stroke and heart attack because blood pressure is increased, sleep is disturbed and the aging process is speeded up. The chronic stress caused by loneliness can even hasten the onset of Alzheimer's disease.
According to Dr. Cacioppo, some of the negative affects of loneliness are:
* Depression and suicide
* Cardiovascular disease and stroke
* Increased stress levels
* Decreased memory and learning
* Antisocial behavior
* Poor decision-making
* Alcoholism and drug abuse
* The progression of Alzheimer's disease
* Altered brain function"
James J. Lynch, Ph.D. published a brilliant book a few years ago called, "A Cry Unheard." What is particularly significant about the message Dr. Lynch conveys is the fact that loneliness is caused by a failure to communicate, engage in discourse and be committed to each other and to the community. In addition, he makes it very clear that it is not merely talk that constitutes communication but the type of talk that is vitally important to human health. He coins the phrase "toxic talk" to describe a type of speaking that destroys the self-esteem and well being of the other person. It is the destruction of that self-esteem that leads to loneliness and early heart disease and death. Criticism, negativity, lack of praise, lack of warm feeling, rejection and other factors that increase alienation and distance between people characterize toxic talk. According to Dr. Lynch, toxic talk increases social isolation and leads to early death.
Listed are a few suggestions that Dr. Cacioppo provides on how to overcome loneliness:
1. Recognize that loneliness is a sign that something needs to change.
2. Understand the effects that loneliness has on your life, both physically and mentally.
3. Consider doing community service or another activity that you enjoy. These situations present great opportunities to meet people and cultivate new friendships and social interactions.
4. Focus on developing quality relationships with people who share similar attitudes, interests and values with you.
5. Expect the best. Lonely people often expect rejection, so instead focus on positive thoughts and attitudes in your social relationships.
How do you cope when you feel lonely?
Allan N. Schwartz, PhD