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Combatting the Epidemic of Loneliness

Sporty & Rich Wellness - Combatting an Epidemic of Loneliness

 

By: Shivani Shah

 

I moved to New York City about a year ago, right after graduating college. At the time, I could count every person I knew in the city on one hand…with fingers to spare. For the first time in my life, I felt truly lonely. I found some solace in knowing that this sentiment is shared by many, as the pandemic has exacerbated feelings of loneliness — a societal problem that has been growing for decades. 


A recent study by researchers at MIT found that the neural responses to prolonged isolation are like those of physical hunger. These findings seem to suggest that connection is a fundamental human need. As COVID restrictions are lifted and we begin to relax our self-sequestration, it’s important to note that relationships and connectedness are a foundational part of personal wellness. Below are a few thoughts of mine that I hope will get you thinking about the state of your relationships in your life. 

 

1. Begin to focus on fostering positive relationships in your life and let go of any negative relationships. One of my favorite studies is one of the world’s longest studies on happiness. Nearly 80 years of data collection suggests that close relationships are better for longevity and happiness than social class, IQ, or even genetics. Many studies have even found that satisfaction with relationships at midlife is better than cholesterol level for predicting future physical health. 

 

2. After a few years of limited in-person social interaction, it can be daunting to reconnect with friends and family. Studies show that even a few weeks of isolation can have lasting psychological effects. Physicians have coined the term “re-entry anxiety'' to describe the social discomfort that is commonly experienced. For some, it may be their first time experiencing social anxiety. Feeling nervousness or stress about this change is normal. It is important to remember that not all feelings of anxiety are indicative of a larger problem; however, if you find that your social anxiety is impeding your life, talk to your primary care provider about your options on how to best move forward.  

 

3. Limit your social media usage. Ironically, social media offered the promise of increased social connectedness, but has left us feeling lonelier than ever. A widely publicized 2018 study found that students who limited their social media usage to 30 minutes a day had significant reductions in loneliness and depression. Instead of hours of mindless scrolling, use social media as a catalyst to form new and meaningful connections in real life. Go ahead — DM that internet friend and set up a coffee date!

 

4. Check in on your friends. Whether it is your childhood best friend or an acquaintance from long ago, sending a text as simple as “How have you been?” can make a world of a difference, especially for someone going through a difficult period. In recent years, mental health has increasingly made its way into the zeitgeist, and for good reason. But the work we put into ourselves should extend to our relationships as well. 


References:

Brooks, Samantha K, et al. “The Psychological Impact of Quarantine and How to Reduce It: Rapid Review of the Evidence.” The Lancet, vol. 395, no. 10227, 2020, pp. 912–920. https://doi.org/10.1016/s0140-6736(20)30460-8. 

Cacioppo, John T, and Stephanie Cacioppo. “The Growing Problem of Loneliness.” The Lancet, vol. 391, no. 10119, 2018, p. 426., https://doi.org/10.1016/s0140-6736(18)30142-9. 

Hunt, Melissa G., et al. “No More Fomo: Limiting Social Media Decreases Loneliness and Depression.” Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, vol. 37, no. 10, 2018, pp. 751–768., https://doi.org/10.1521/jscp.2018.37.10.751. 

MITCHELL, JOHN F. “Aging Well: Surprising Guideposts to a Happier Life from the Landmark Harvard Study of Adult Development.” American Journal of Psychiatry, vol.161, no. 1, 2004, pp. 178–179., https://doi.org/10.1176/appi.ajp.161.1.178. 

Tomova, Livia, et al. “Acute Social Isolation Evokes Midbrain Craving Responses Similar to Hunger.” 2020, https://doi.org/10.1101/2020.03.25.006643.

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