How do you stay hopeful during the loneliness pandemic?
A lovely and aware client, who is living very alone in the midst of a huge city on lockdown, asked me the other day, "Is loneliness really deadly?"
The answer is clear. Yes. It is deadly and here are the facts: the increased risk of dying from loneliness equals that of smoking 15 cigarettes a day or of being an alcoholic, and it exceeds the health risks of obesity. Forced isolation, which many people are experiencing during COVID, increases the chances of experiencing deadly loneliness.
As researchers explore the effects of loneliness on health, they are focusing on the relationship of loneliness with chronic inflammation. Chronic inflammation, low-level fight or flight, leads to an inflammatory response that damages healthy cells and organs, and is associated with heart disease, diabetes, cancer, arthritis and the list goes on. Not what anyone welcomes into their life.
And here is the good news... we can make conscious, value driven choices to "reframe" and lessen our loneliness. Even during a pandemic.
Consider implementing these three value-driven behaviors to ease your loneliness. Today. As in right now.
Own it and speak it out loud. Recognize what you are feeling and own it, just as you would if you had other needs. While it may be easier to say "I am hungry and I need something to eat" or "I am cold and I need a jacket," it is just as important and critical to be able to say "I am extremely lonely and I need to spend time with another human." We are all wired for connection, it is a basic part of being human. Speak it out loud to your adult child or a trusted colleague or to me. Then, actively partner to create ways to increase your time interacting with other people. Create a pod, ask others to join you online to discuss a book, have virtual coffee with three new people next week. Focus on speaking your truth so others can hear and notice what happens.
Get off of most social media. Social media is created to take you down the rabbit hole of mood-modifying experiences - outrage, annoyance, shock. And it can also create an image of the world that isn't reality - for you or for anyone else. Photos can be staged and manipulated, families can be posed and told to smile, the holiday matching PJ pics can make it seem like everyone else has it together. But that's not usually the full story. Turn off social media and instead make a phone call to someone you haven't spoken to in a while, or send an email of gratitude to someone from your past. Make actual connections and notice what happens.
Go outside. Notice that when you go outside, your thought patterns shift almost immediately. Stress is relieved, anger lifts, boredom abates. You may see other people from a distance and can wave or exchange a smile. Or you may be reminded of some familiar things that bring joy - like the architecture of that wonderful bridge or the effort that went into the lovely community garden. If you allow it, you will be able to feel the spirits of people, present and past, all around you. Walk, bike, ski, sit and drink tea. Just go outside. Notice how it feels when you do.
Loneliness is an important signal that something isn't right. Listen. And realign your behaviors to create a more hopeful framework for your week.
Actions, aligned with values, support optimal health.