Some days a chat with a friend is all you need to feel better. Why? Because humans are social beings. Although we have more technology than ever at our fingertips, sometimes we may still feel left out or disconnected. Dr. Buddy Coard, Ed.D., Psychologist at the Stacie Mathewson Behavioral Health Addiction Institute at Renown, discusses the importance of social connections and tips on how to keep connecting, warning signs of loneliness and how to feel less lonely.
If you are feeling a bit more blue lately due to the social isolation of the pandemic, you are not alone. In times like these, it’s especially important to make an extra effort to reach out to neighbors, family and friends.
Why are Social Connections Important?
Dr. Coard points to significant research on the topic of loneliness and social connections. He uses the findings below to detail how social connections affect our overall health.
In a recent survey 40% of participants reported they sometimes or always feel that their relationships are not meaningful and that they feel isolated. Surprisingly, this survey suggests Generation Z (18 – 22 years old) is the loneliest generation.
Another study associates loneliness as a risk factor for early death. It indicates lack of social connection heightens health risks as much as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, or having alcohol use disorder. In fact, loneliness and social isolation are twice as harmful to physical and mental health as obesity (Perspectives on Psychological Science, Vol. 10, No. 2, 2015).
A 2018 study investigated several standard measures of social isolation, including marital status, frequency of religious service attendance, club meetings/group activities and number of close friends or relatives. The findings revealed race as a strong predictor of social isolation. In particular, black men and women were more likely to be lonely than were white men and women.
Loneliness also switches on your body’s long-term “fight-or-flight” stress signaling system, which negatively affects your immune system. People who feel lonely have lower immunity and more inflammation than people who don’t.
Dr. Coard recommends the following tips for those who feel lonely.
Tips to Increase Social Connection
- Join an online community, such as the HELLO Project. It is a community gathering with different health and wellness topics every Tuesday and Thursday at noon.
- Get outside. More and more nature prescriptions are common. In fact even a 10 minute walk can elevate your mood and get your blood flowing.
- Develop a schedule of activities to accomplish in a week, setting realistic goals.
- Monitor your technology. Of course, watching the 24/7 news cycle can be depressing. Turn off the TV and listen to music or read a book instead. Even better, use technology to connect with family members by having a virtual game night or book club discussion.
- Write it out. When was the last time you sent a good old-fashioned letter or card? Or even wrote in a journal? Try to brighten someone’s day with snail mail. Writing down your hopes and fears also helps you to get worries off your mind and process your emotions. With this in mind, there are also volunteer opportunities to support others by sending a handwritten letter to others battling depression.
- De-clutter your surroundings. Go through those old photos and put them in an album. Clean out a drawer, cupboard or closet. You will feel a sense of accomplishment and can donate items you no longer need that others can enjoy. Increase your joy by reducing your clutter.
Warning Signs of Chronic Loneliness
One size does not fit all when it comes to loneliness. For this reason, loneliness can be different depending on your particular situation and your unique personality. However, if you feel some (or all) of the following symptoms, chronic loneliness may be affecting you:
- Lack of ‘best’ or close friends. You connect with others on a surface level, but feel no one truly understands you. People are n your life, yet you are not connecting on a deep, intimate level with them.
- You feel lonely even when people are around. This means feeling disengaged or not part of the group when around others.
- You feel less than enough. You often doubt yourself or don’t feel good enough when comparing yourself to others. And social situations feel exhausting.
What Can Someone Do to Feel Less Lonely?
Dr. Coard offers the following suggestion for those with a lack of social connections:
- Talk with your doctor, psychologist or another healthcare professional. Sometimes chronic loneliness relates to longstanding negative beliefs that an individual has about themselves.
- Engage in behavioral activation. For example, being more active and involved in life by scheduling activities which can potentially improve your mood and decrease feelings of isolation. Initially behavioral activation can be very challenging due to lack of motivation, but setting a reasonable schedule of activities is a good start.
- Pay attention to your sleep. Sometimes when people become lonely they experience significant changes in their sleep cycle. Frequently they sleep too much, or too little. Make sure to maintain a normal, healthy sleep/wake cycle, following good sleep hygiene recommendations.
Related: Natural Ways to Boost Your Immunity