Who are the healers of our day and time? In many countries, an image of physicians wearing white lab coats comes to mind. But, I’m here to tell you that if you’re exclusively counting on medical doctors and pharmacists to maintain your good health, you’re at a very big disadvantage. Optimally, healing and the promotion of wellness requires a much broader approach. From my vantage point, the person you see every time you look in the mirror is by far the most important contributor to your health status. But, eating right, exercising and managing stress is far from enough. While important, there’s more that you can and should be doing for yourself and those around you in the healing arena.
Common sense dictates that most negative emotions aren’t exactly good for your health. So, it may not come as a big surprise when I tell you that loneliness and a lack of social support contribute to a wide array of health issues. However, the extent that loneliness impacts the physical body may be more dramatic than you can imagine. In recent months and years, researchers have taken a keen interest in examining the physiological effects of feeling alone and socially isolated. The findings are nothing short of groundbreaking. Scientific inquiries reveal that lacking a sense of connectedness and social support hastens: a) the cellular aging process by shortening leukocyte telomere length; b) cognitive decline as evidenced by delayed and immediate recall and the onset of dementia, independent of other risk factors, including depression and vascular disease. Additionally, feelings of isolation increase the perception of depression, fatigue, pain and “enhances the risk for immune dysregulation”. For these reasons and others, perceived loneliness is now associated with heightened mortality rates among sick and well nursing home residents. This latter point is particularly vital to note. Seniors top the list of at risk populations that exhibit profound feelings of loneliness. They’re also the most vulnerable because they often have the least amount of choice and input as to how they can change their circumstances.
The good news is that there is a cure for loneliness. And, every healer that’s reading this (i.e. everyone who is reading this now), has the ability to intercede in the lives of those who feel alone. Perhaps, you even recognize that this is a more personal problem for you. If that’s the case, take this call to action seriously. You needn’t be alone. Researchers the world over have found that getting involved in programs such as group art or exercise classes, Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) or simply spending some quality time with animals (animal assisted therapy) can make a real difference on both physiological and psychological end-points. These suggestions may seem too simple to be powerful, but that’s not the case! In fact, engaging in such activities has lead to significant improvements in anxiety, cognitive functioning, depression, inflammation and beyond. What’s more, this data isn’t coming from some “touchy feely” guru or self help book. Every statement made above is based on peer reviewed publications in prestigious medical journals. So, take this potentially anti-aging, life saving information and apply it to the world around you. There’s no good reason for anyone to feel alone and isolated. After all, we are all the true healers.
Note: Please check out the “Comments & Updates” section of this blog – at the bottom of the page. You can find the latest research about this topic there!
To learn more about the studies referenced in today’s column, please click on the following links:
Study 1 – Low Social Support Is Associated With Shorter Leukocyte Telomere … (link)
Study 2 – Social Isolation and Loneliness: Relationships w/ Cognitive Function … (link)
Study 3 – Feelings of Loneliness, but Not Social Isolation, Predict Dementia … (link)
Study 4 – Loneliness Predicts Pain, Depression, and Fatigue: Understanding … (link)
Study 5 – Emotional Loneliness is Associated w/ Mortality Among Mentally … (link)
Study 6 – Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Training Reduces Loneliness … (link)
Study 7 – A Randomized Trial of MBSR Versus Aerobic Exercise for Social Anxiety … (link)
Study 8 – Effects of Socially Stimulating Group Intervention on Lonely, Older … (link)
Study 9 – Animal-Assisted Therapy and Loneliness in Nursing Homes: Use of … (link)
Study 10 – The Effects of Animal-Assisted Therapy on Loneliness in an Elderly … (link)
Chronic Loneliness Is Linked to Increased Mortality Risk
Source: Journal of Aging Research Volume 2011 (2011) (link)
- Animal Assisted Therapy
- Traditional Hawaiian Healing
- Loving Kindness Meditation
- Laughter As a Healing Force
- Wound Healing and Nutrition
- Prescription 2014: Cognitive Bias Modification
- Volunteering for Health
If I had to name the most common complaint I hear among people with depression, it is that they are lonely. Just a little while back, I replied on a thread within Group Beyond Blue to a woman who started a thread called “Who Do I Turn To?” She wants so badly to connect with another woman — as the anchors in her life, her mother and friends, have either passed on or moved.
So many of us are lonely. It is at the core of so many disorders and illnesses. Not just the imaginary ones made up in our psyches (or so many think), but heart disease and immunity functions and nervous system disorders. Many of our health issues in this country stem from loneliness.
In his PsychCentral blog entry, “Loneliness Is Not a DSM-5 Disorder, But It Still Hurts,” Psychiatrist Ron Pies reports on what loneliness does to the body. He writes:
It’s easy to assume that loneliness is simply a matter of mind and mood. Yet recent evidence suggests that loneliness may injure the body in surprising ways. Researchers at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine studied the risk of coronary heart disease over a 19-year period, in a community sample of men and women. The study found that among women, high degrees of loneliness were associated with increased risk of heart disease, even after controlling for age, race, marital status, depression and several other confounding variables. (In an email message to me, the lead author, Dr. Rebecca C. Thurston, PhD, speculated that the male subjects might have been more reluctant to acknowledge their feelings of loneliness).
Similarly, Dr. Dara Sorkin and her colleagues at the University of California, Irvine, found that for every increase in the level of loneliness in a sample of 180 older adults, there was a threefold increase in the odds of having heart disease. Conversely, among individuals who felt they had companionship or social support, the likelihood of having heart disease decreased.
And lest there be any doubt that loneliness has far ranging effects on the health of the body, consider the intriguing findings from Dr. S.W. Cole and colleagues, at the UCLA School of Medicine. These researchers looked at levels of gene activity in the white blood cells of individuals with either high or low levels of loneliness. Subjects with high levels of subjective social isolation — basically, loneliness — showed evidence of an over-active inflammatory response. These same lonely subjects showed reduced activity in genes that normally suppress inflammation. Such gene effects could explain reports of higher rates of inflammatory disease in those experiencing loneliness.
So what to do about it?
Dr. Pies suggests support groups, especially those for particular medical conditions, like cancer, depression, or addiction. Nurturing friends certainly fill in the hole … if we can keep our expectations in check.For some ideas on how to make friends, check out “13 Ways to Make Friends.”
And finally, just stay with it. Feel it. Accept it, even as you want to run from it. Because it’s part of being human. I’ve always found great solace in the words of Henri Nouwen:
When you experience the deep pain of loneliness, it is understandable that your thoughts go out to the person who was able to take that loneliness away, even if only for a moment. When you feel a huge absence that makes everything look useless, your heart wants only one thing — to be with the person who once was able to dispel these frightful emotions. But it is the absence itself, the emptiness within you, that you have to be willing to experience, not the one who could temporarily take it away.
It is not easy to stay with your loneliness. The temptation is to nurse your pain or to escape into fantasies about people who will take it away. But when you can acknowledge your loneliness in a safe, contained place, you make your pain available for healing.
Illustration by Anya Getter.
. ~ Paul Tillich
If you are among those traveling the winding path of grief, you’re probably quite familiar with both these sides of being alone:
With an overwhelming sense of missing the one you love comes the crushing awareness of all that you have lost. You’d give anything to be together again, if only long enough to be relieved of your loneliness and to be reassured that your loved one is still a part of your life.
At other times you may feel a need for solitude. You’ll want to be by yourself, to get away from other people and withdraw temporarily from the pressures and decisions of daily life. This need to turn inward, to reflect on your loss, to get in touch with your innermost feelings is common and not to be feared. In fact it can be a helpful time for you to find your tears and figure out where you are going from here.
Isolation from Others Our culture isn’t comfortable with the subject of death, and few of us know how to cope with the pain of loss and grief. We don’t permit or encourage the free expression of sorrow. Instead we learn to control our feelings and hide our pain so we won’t disturb other people. As a child you may have learned that grief is a taboo subject, that feelings should be buried, and that grieving should be done alone. As an adult you may equate grieving with self indulgence or self-pity. You may be too embarrassed or ashamed to let your emotions show in front of others. You may feel isolated, different and apart from everyone else, convinced that no one understands and you must grieve alone. You may feel stunned at the normalcy of life around you as people go about their business, totally unaware that your world has stopped and your entire life has been turned upside down.
You may be reluctant to turn to others, either because you haven’t learned to accept or ask for help, or because you’re afraid others won’t know what to do with your feelings. If they’re unfamiliar with the intensity and duration of grief or uncomfortable with the expression of strong emotions, they may offer only meaningless platitudes or clichés, change the subject or avoid you altogether. And there may be times when you will feel hurt by thoughtless, trivializing comments such as: It was God’s will; I know how you feel; Life must go on; Count your blessings; You must be strong for your children; It could be worse; or At least s/he had a good life.
Some people you know may be done with your grieving long before you are, expecting you to be “over it by now” or worrying that you’re somehow “hanging on” to your grief. Uncomfortable with your strong feelings, they may change the subject or avoid any mention of your loved one’s name.
Suggestions for Coping with Loneliness and Isolation:
- Think about who is supportive to you in your environment and what gives your life purpose and direction (family members, pets, relatives, friends, neighbors, co-workers, teachers, colleagues, clubs, athletic activities, groups, church groups, support groups, bereavement counselor). With whom are you most comfortable, and who is the most comfortable (accepting and caring) with your grief? Look for those who will listen without judging you, or for those who have suffered a similar loss.
- Find time with others to talk, to touch, to receive support. Be honest with others about what you’re feeling. Allow yourself to express your sadness rather than masking it.
- Don’t expect others to guess what you need. When you want to be touched, held, hugged, listened to or pampered, say so.
- If all you want from others is help with simple errands, tasks, and repairs, say so.
- Let others (especially children) know if and when you need to be alone, so they won’t feel rejected.
- Go somewhere and have a good, long cry— and do it as often as you wish. You have every right to miss the person who has died. Accept your feelings as normal.
- Find time alone to process what’s happened: to remember, to dream, and to think.
- Identify your loneliest times, and think of how you can alter your routines and environment (for example, rearrange the furniture in a room; plan your weekends ahead of time; use your microwave for quick, easy meals).
- While some folks really are thoughtless and don’t think before they speak, bear in mind that many well meaning individuals have yet to experience a significant loss, so they really don’t know what grief feels like, or how to respond, or what to say. They aren’t deliberately trying to hurt you. You can choose to bear with such people, you can enlighten them about what you know of grief, or you can look to others who are more understanding to find the support you need.
- Realize that no one can totally understand the relationship you had with your loved one.
- Ask people to remember, talk about and share stories about your loved one with you.
- Become more aware of how your own usage of words affects other people. Rather than saying something hurtful, admit that you don’t know what to say.
- Consider getting a companion animal (which can be a wonderful source of unconditional love), but only after you’ve investigated what kind of pet would suit you and your lifestyle.
Your feedback is welcome! Please feel free to leave a comment or a question, or share a tip, a related article or a resource of your own in the Comments section below.
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Table of contents
A Prayer for Loneliness
Heavenly, Most Loving, Gracious Father, we come before you to humbly ask that you comfort us in our moments of loneliness, that you be our shelter in the midst of the storm, that you walk beside us every step of the way.
Lord, at times we feel so alone, crying out for attention, in desperation, looking for some sort of acknowledgement from a single soul. Remind us that you are always there, right at our side, whenever we call.
No matter the time, the hour, the situation, Oh Lord, you have promised to never leave us nor forsake us.
Deuteronomy 31:6 Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid or terrified because of them, for the LORD your God goes with you; he will never leave you nor forsake you.”
Psalm 23:4 Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.
Praying when forsaken by loved ones
Lord, there are times we think we can turn to loved ones and friends in our time of need, but they forsake us.
Oh Lord, you alone know what we are going through. Sometimes we vocalize our thoughts but no one understands.
There are many times we cry out to people to listen, when we need a friend, but they hardly ever take the time to show compassion.
Praying for strength to carry on
Give us strength, dear God, to carry on when we are down and out and have no one to turn to. Let us always remember that You are our friend and our companion in our time of need.
God, let us feel the Holy Spirit as He comforts us. Help us to realize that You are the only one we need, especially in times of trials.
1 Peter 5:7 Casting all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you.
Psalm 28:7 The LORD is my strength and my shield; my heart trusts in him, and he helps me. My heart leaps for joy, and with my song I praise him.
What a friend we have!
What a friend we have in Jesus, all our sins and griefs to bear. What a privilege to carry everything to God in prayer.
Touch the hearts of the people who feel lonely today, Oh Father. The ones who are broken-hearted. Those who are bullied. The ones who have everything and everyone around them but they still feel alone.
People who have lost loved ones, and have no families, the single parent. Dear God, reach out to all of them.
Father, guide us as we pray for strength to fight against the feeling of loneliness and depression, help them all to experience peace, love and joy in these difficult times, in the mighty name of Jesus we pray… AMEN!
Psalm 147:3 He heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds.
Uninvited: Living Loved When You Feel Less Than, Left Out, and Lonely
The enemy wants us to feel rejected, left out, lonely. He speaks lies into our lives, such that we lose our purpose, he cripples our courage. and dismantles our dreams. In Uninvited, Lysa shares her own deeply personal experiences with rejection—from the incredibly painful childhood abandonment by her father to the perceived judgment of the perfectly toned woman one elliptical over. With biblical depth, gut-honest vulnerability, and refreshing wit, Lysa helps readers: Release the desire to fall apart or control the actions of others by embracing God-honoring ways to process their hurt. Know exactly what to pray for the next ten days to steady their soul and restore their confidence. GET YOUR COPY NOW