Everyone feels lonely from time to time, but according to a recent study, loneliness has doubled in the United States, despite all of the social media interactions people are involved with.
The study, conducted at the University of Chicago found that loneliness has doubled in the U.S. since the 1980s, affecting up to 60 million Americans. All these feelings of isolation can increase a person's chances of premature death by 14 percent and early death in the elderly by 45 percent.
John Cacioppo, a social neurologist at the University of Chicago and the author of Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection, found that loneliness affects the immune system and can be as damaging as obesity or smoking. Loneliness, he writes in his study, impairs immune function, boosts inflammation and can lead to heart disease, arthritis, diabetes and even dementia, cancer and fatigue.
“Human beings are social animals. Socializing with others is an essential need for most of us,” said Dr. Brent Blaisdell, a licensed marriage and family therapist and Intermountain employee assistance program coordinator at McKay-Dee Hospital. “The research is quite clear. People need people. Those that have a robust social network simply do better mentally, physically, and emotionally than those that do not.”
Chase Bailey, a family nurse practitioner at the Ogden Clinic said there is an obvious and well documented interaction between the development of stress and disease. The more frequently an individual experiences depression, seasonal affective disorder, or loneliness, the more likely they are to contract everyday illnesses such as the cold.
“Additionally, chronic illnesses and depression are associated in that many patients who suffer from chronic health problems are also lonely and depressed,” Bailey said.
Being alone is not the same as being lonely, the experts say. Everyone needs alone time and space away from the rest of the world. However, loneliness is a feeling that something is missing in your life. It's a feeling of complete isolation, even though you are surrounded by others. A person can have 4,000 friends on Facebook and still feel lonely.
And while Facebook, Twitter and Instagram are a convenient way to connect, Blaisdell said it often lacks the depth, context and intimacy that face to face interaction supplies. Sometimes, all of our Internet connections aren't helping and may be making things worse.
“For those unfortunate few that are homebound due to some disability social media is a godsend. But for the rest of us I’m afraid it has become a quick and superficial way to 'act' connected, but ultimately I’m not sure it makes us 'feel' more connected,” Blaisdell said. “So, while many people are reporting being connected to hundreds of others via social media, I’m not sure they are truly feeling that way. Thus, we are hearing reports of increased loneliness in the midst of a dramatic increase in social media connectedness.”
“I'm not sure that loneliness in of itself is being reported or portrayed as an epidemic problem in our general media. However, there has been an increased awareness of mental health disorders including depression, anxiety, and mood disorders,” he said.
Bailey said as a general rule the healthcare consuming public is much more aware and astute regarding the warning signs of mental illness and depression. As these issues have become more acceptable patients seem more likely to consult their doctor for treatment.
So how does one overcome loneliness? Bailey said it generally takes a multifactorial treatment approach. Patient's may benefit from counseling, exercise, structured activities they enjoy, communicating with others, and in severe cases utilization of medications, and formal psychology.
Blaisdell said we must all acknowledge our need to be connected with others. It’s important to our overall well being. This is a need, not a weakness.
“Therefore, if having a healthy and robust social network is essential to our well being then we should take the time and develop some skills to enable our relationships to flourish,” he said.
Blaisdell said some steps to avoid loneliness and the mirage of social media connectedness include using social media for what it’s intended for, which is to stay conveniently connected through updates,small talk, and quick news reports.
“Take social media 'time outs'. Not only is the social media world keeping us from connecting at a deeper level, our electronic devices get in the way of interpersonal connection even when we are with one another,” he said. “Take a look around you right now and look what others are doing. Most of them have their noses buried in their electronic devises. Carve out time and utilize some energy to interact face to face and eye to eye with others.”
Get out of your social media comfort zone. Putt down your smartphone/ipad/computer and go communicate directly with someone.
“You’ve done it before, you can do it again,” Blaisdell said. “You’ll be amazed at the results. When you are able to see body language, hear voice tone and understand context of an interpersonal interaction you open the door to better listening and deeper connection. Thus, significantly reducing the pains of loneliness.”
In addition, it's important for individuals to understand that there is no one size fits all treatment and many patients require a number of different treatment approaches before becoming successful, Bailey said.
“Patient's and family should consult with her primary care physician regarding signs and symptoms of depression. Loneliness and depression are not problems one should expect to become content with accepting,” Bailey said. “There are treatments available, and there is light at the end of the tunnel. Each local hospital as a team of crisis workers available in the emergency room should patient's or family members develop thoughts of harming himself or others.”