Feeling lonely is a normal human emotion, but a sustained sense of loneliness is not. Studies have found that chronically lonely people suffer from high blood pressure, are more vulnerable to infection, and run a higher risk of developing dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.
But feeling lonely and being alone are two different things. Rosanne Ritchie, a Toronto-based psychotherapist, says the distinction is important.
“Being alone is a state that can offer mental and physical freedom. A lot of people enjoy being alone,” she says. “But actual loneliness is a feeling of isolation and emotional abandonment. It feels as though nobody’s there for you, nobody understands you and your feelings are not being considered.”
The list of physiological risks linked to loneliness seem to continually increase. In a 2012 study published in JAMA, Harvard researchers found that participants aged 45 to 65 who suffered from heart disease were 24 per cent more likely to die prematurely if they lived alone, and those aged 66 to 80 had a 12 per cent increased chance. In another study conducted by the University of California, San Francisco, it was concluded that lonely seniors were at a higher risk for developing mobility issues and more likely to lose the ability to perform daily tasks.
There are some actions lonely people can take to combat their feelings and reconnect with the world around them. In severe cases, always seek the help of a professional.
“Ask yourself what you’re missing, what you need and what you want, and put those feelings down on paper,” Ritchie says. “This will help you determine the source of your loneliness.”
There’s scientific evidence to support the benefits of writing out feelings, too. University of Texas at Austin psychologist and researcher James Pennebaker found that regular journal writing strengthens immune cells by helping you cope with stressful events. In addition, writing accesses the left side of your brain, which is the logical side, thus opening the way for the creative right side of the brain to experience emotions. This removes any mental blocks, and allows you to process and understand what’s going on around you.
Find something creative and productive to do to occupy your time. But this is not about being mindlessly busy, Ritchie says. Rather, it’s an opportunity for you to nourish yourself with something that makes you feel better. Maybe cleaning out your closet will help you feel more in control, or rearranging your furniture will help you flex your creative muscles.
“One of the worst things we do is mindless consumption, where our brains get into a negative loop about everything that’s wrong,” Ritchie says. “Replace that with a creative engagement and put it into action.”
Humans are social creatures, Ritchie says, and therefore require contact with other humans. Staring at a screen and flipping through photographs of other people engaging in what seem to be happy activities will only make you feel sad and unworthy.
A 2016 University of Copenhagen study that examined 1,000 participants (mostly women) concluded that “regular use of social networking such as Facebook can negatively affect your emotional well-being and satisfaction with life.”
Plus, Ritchie points out, those smiling pictures are often misleading.
“You’d never know the people who suffer from depression and suicidal thoughts by looking at their Facebook page, because they’re the happiest looking ones,” she says.
It seems simplistic, but a walk or bike ride in the park can do wonders for your state of being. It’s the ideal time to look around and truly appreciate the nature around you, and it increases your chances for human contact.
“Go to a playground and watch the kids play or go to a dog park — it’s a very social environment,” Ritchie says.
Mindfulness and meditation are words that have been bandied about with increased frequency lately, and for good reason: it’s the best way to calm your mind.
“It’s about coming back to the core of who you are, and getting away from the drama and chaos,” Ritchie says. “When you first wake up in the morning and just before bed, find a comfortable spot, take a deep breath and enjoy the stillness. It’ll take you to a more peaceful and accepting place.”
The obvious benefit of gratitude is that it helps put your life in perspective and gives you the chance to appreciate all the things you have, which you likely don’t consider on a daily basis. But it isn’t just about what the world has given you, it also opens the way for you to make changes.
“The book, The Five Minute Journal, advises you to take time at the end of the day to think about all the things that made your day great, and then think about how you could have made it better,” Ritchie says. “It’s a great question because it empowers you and gives you agency, and that’s a great way to combat loneliness.”
It’s perfectly natural to feel lonely when your child has gone off to kindergarten for the first time or if your partner is taking a long trip — it’s a balance of togetherness and separateness.
“Every human has a need to be separate and together, and sometimes we can feel lonely in that separate experience, but we have to learn to be okay with that and move on,” Ritchie says. “We have to normalize those feelings of loneliness, and detect when they become unhealthy.”
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