Jul 23, 2020


In the seven domains of women's health, does the problem of loneliness fit into the physical domain, the emotional domain, the social domain, or the spiritual domain, or maybe all of the above?

Well, how is loneliness defined? Merriam Webster's dictionary says being without company, cut off from others, sadness from being alone, producing a feeling of bleakness or desolation. Ouch. Great Britain decided it was a major health problem and created a minister of loneliness, and several large organizations involved in health here in the U.S. have commissioned very large studies of Americans, young and old, to find out how many people considered themselves lonely.

A neuroscientist at the University of Chicago observed loneliness is the discrepancy between what you want from your relationships and what you actually have. Now is this a problem? It's a problem because it's common and it's painful, and it has social and health consequences. Loneliness carries a stigma that hampers efforts to help people who are lonely because being lonely implies that you're a social failure.

So how big is this problem? Nearly half of Americans are lonely according to a study of 20,000 people across the country. Loneliness peaks as women age and men age into their 80s and 90s. Losses of friends and family add up, and the resilience that comes with the ability to get out to social events and family declines. Loneliness is common.

So is loneliness a physical health domain problem? Well, there are many indications that people in poor health are more likely to experience loneliness. But does loneliness cause poor health? We are an intensely social species, and all studies in other species, like primates and dogs, show that isolation is stressful and causes inflammation throughout the body, and the socially isolated animals are more likely to get sick and die.

One neuroscientist found significant inflammatory responses in human white blood cells in lonely people. Long-term inflammation can lead to tissue breakdown, decreased immunity, increased heart disease and hypertension, and diabetes and cognitive problems. So yes, loneliness is a physical problem.

Is it in the domain of emotional health? Well, people with anxiety and depression are more likely to experience loneliness probably because anxiety and depression can lead people to withdraw from social contact which can lead to loneliness. And sometimes treatment for anxiety and depression in people who are anxious and depressed can decrease loneliness, but treatment for anxiety and depression for people who aren't anxious or depressed, just lonely, isn't usually very helpful.

Loneliness is an emotional feeling, and it helps to use emotional intelligence to make it better. Recognize the feeling of loneliness, feeling alone, wishing other people were around. Understand the feeling and label it. Express it. Tell people you know and love that you're feeling lonely. Reach out to them if you can, or reach out to engage in social activity so you can regulate this emotion.

Separate this emotion from feelings of unworthiness or depression or anxiety. I'm lonely because I'm unlovable, or nobody likes me because I'm not likable, that's more a depression thing. Loneliness can be wrapped up in a number of emotions, but being able to separate out the lonely part can help you contact other people.

Yes, loneliness is an emotional problem. Is it a social problem? Well, yes, yes, and yes. We are at our core social creatures. When people aren't around, we may get lonely. Often a social solution may be the best. Now rural communities may have the answer to engaging people who might feel lonely. You may know the postman, the people at the local coffee shop. People are more likely to look out for you than in big cities where you may be more anonymous. And yes, loneliness is a social problem.

Is it in the domain of spiritual health? Well, yes, mostly because an active spiritual life helps you feel like you're part of something bigger than yourself. You may be by yourself, but you're not alone. Trying to find a place for your spiritual life when you're feeling lonely can be difficult, but for some, it may be the answer. For those who share a spiritual tradition with others, belonging to a religion or joining a religious faith, the fellowship that comes with joining others in a spiritual path can be helpful. For some, listening to their inner positive spiritual voice can relieve some of the stress of loneliness.

So what to do? What works? Volunteer. In a recent study of over 10,000 people in the UK, two-thirds reported that volunteering helped them feel less isolated.

Could the end of loneliness be found in the drugstore? Well, that loneliness causes pain comes as no surprise to its sufferers, but it's become increasingly clear to the medical professionals that the pain is real pain and might be treated like real pain. But maybe if loneliness causes inflammation, if you took some Advil or some ibuprofen, maybe that would make you feel less lonely and there are some research going on about that.

Also one research team is testing a neuroactive steroid derived from progesterone, yeah, progesterone, the hormone of ovulation and pregnancy, a hormone that may make us feel, meaning us women feel, more social, a hormone right in my wheelhouse. The research says that it isn't a cure, but it quote "may help silence the mind that sees threat everywhere so therapy can work with a malleable and open mind."

But the answer to the issue of loneliness and isolation is to go back to our roots as a social species. If you can get out, get out. If you can't get out, invite somebody in. Move away from your screen after you've finished listening to this podcast. Get away from your phone unless it's actually to call a friend or family member with a real voice, not a text. Get away from your computer, get away from your television. These can be hard habits to break.

For all of us I think of Mr. Rogers, who said, "Won't you be my neighbor?" And thanks to all of you for listening and joining us on The Scope. While we're here in the studio, we can imagine you all out there and we don't feel so lonely.

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