- Kristen Balisi
Fighting The Loneliness Epidemic
Around the world, rates of chronic physical and emotional illness triggered by loneliness and social isolation have been rising. Numerous reports of alarming warnings have stated that loneliness is as lethal as smoking 15 cigarettes a day and makes premature death 50% more likely. With the rise of technology, we live in a world where we are more connected than ever. Yet, does evidence suggest we are feeling more lonely than before?
What is loneliness, and what are the negative impacts of loneliness?
At our most basic, humans are social creatures. Like the need for food, water, and warmth, the need for social connection runs through our DNA. When we lack human connection, loneliness acts as a warning signal, similar to the fight-or-flight stress response. Inside, our bodies enter survival mode. We begin generating more cortisol, a stress hormone that ensures we are alert to potential threats. We undergo more overall inflammation, a way to prepare for any injuries we might receive. During the night, our sleep becomes shallower so we can wake up swiftly in the event of danger. In cases of short threatening periods of isolation, these survival responses initiate to keep us safe.
The longer we are lonely, the longer these responses are activated. However, when triggered for increased and prolonged intervals of time, these defence mechanisms can wreak havoc on our physical, mental, and cognitive health. According to research, the damage caused by social isolation is similar to the harm imposed by obesity, smoking, inadequate access to healthcare, and physical inactivity. As a result, those who experience chronic loneliness and don’t have the presence of healthy relationships in their lives are at greater risk of physical and mental health consequences.
As indicated, social inclusion, connection, and friendship are crucial for well-being. So, what can we do to beat loneliness and find our way back to connection?
Begin by understanding what connection is
Connection is the feeling of oneness. It is having shared experiences, relatable feelings, or similar ideas with someone else. Ultimately, it is the feeling of belonging to something greater than yourself. Maybe experiencing connection for you involves having a meaningful conversation with a loved one. It could be spending time laughing and having fun with friends. Or, it could be lending a helping hand to someone in need.
In this digital era, we’ve created a world where connection is easier than ever. The screens prevalent all around us, however, tend to disconnect us from nature, others, and ourselves. Individually, technology is not enough to fulfill our social needs because it cannot replicate the feelings of connection we get from real-life bonding. We require face-to-face interactions to thrive. Although our devices enhance our connection to others, they cannot fully replace it.
Fostering good relationships and healthy human connection looks different for everyone. With the current pandemic in mind, it is understandable not knowing where to begin. Regardless, we can start by employing the power of authenticity. With the internet and social media, we are time and again exposed to everyone’s ‘highlight reels.’ We see curated, edited, and filtered snapshots of others’ lives that tend to present a false and idealized version of reality. This can cause feelings of insecurity, self-doubt, and failure to develop or amplify, which only exacerbates loneliness and isolation. Sometimes, we get so caught up in the glamorous world of social media that we end up severing opportunities for genuine relationships and connections to form.
Nevertheless, this does not mean we cannot grow meaningful relationships and connections online. Studies have shown that those who focus on developing real connections through social media reported having more enjoyable and uplifting experiences. Also, they did not experience the high levels of anxiety and depression typically associated with social media use. With that said, make use of your screen-time in more fulfilling ways. Create relationships that feel good on the inside, not just ones that look good on the outside.
Equip yourself with the power of vulnerability
To connect with others, we have to give our time, share our honest feelings, and, most importantly, be vulnerable. It is normal to experience fear, insecurity, or doubt - those feelings will always be there. Instead, face these emotions with courage and realize that those who care for you will accept you for who you are, flaws included. During the process of building better connections with others, you may find that you have created a stronger connection with yourself. That is because connection flourishes when we are willing enough to put our fears aside and embody bravery, compassion, and vulnerability.
In closing, connecting and establishing healthy personal relationships with others is one of the most fundamental human needs. So, be your messy, imperfect, vulnerable, and authentic self because it creates a space where others feel safe to be themselves too. Being yourself is a gift to others and just might be the key to solving this loneliness epidemic.