Posts Tagged ‘Loneliness’

Alone But Not Lonely

December 21st, 2015 at 10:00 am by timigustafson

It’s supposed to be to most wonderful time of the year. But for many people the holiday season is anything but joyous. Feeling left out when others celebrate and exchange gifts can be devastating and even lead to despair and depression. The so-called “holiday blues” are actually widespread, and if you are affected by them, you are certainly not alone.

While it is a myth that suicide rates spike around Christmas, it is true that feelings of loneliness and isolation become more pronounced in those who have little to celebrate. And it’s not always a passing phenomenon.

“Loneliness is not only painful emotionally but it can have a devastating impact on one’s long-term psychological and physical health,” warns Dr. Guy Winch, a psychologist and author of numerous books on emotional health. “Loneliness,” he says, “predisposes us to depression and increases our risk of Alzheimer’s disease, it suppresses our immune system functioning, it stresses our cardiovascular systems, and when chronic, it affects our very longevity.”

To be sure, it is not the holidays themselves what carries the potential for emotional upheaval but rather the baggage we bring along that becomes heavier to bear on these occasions.

Around the holidays expectations are high, and comparisons run rampant. People feel tremendous pressures to put on a happy face and be especially socially inclined. There is a false sense that everyone is living a Hallmark movie with an ideal family and perfect celebrations. That is, everyone but you. And this can trigger feelings of isolation, writes Margarita Tartakovsky, editor at PsychCentral.com, a website specializing in topics of mental health.

Loneliness, she says, can be rooted in early, sometimes traumatic, childhood experiences. Lonely people often lack confidence in their own abilities and suffer from low self-esteem. They can feel easily rejected and tend to interpret other people’s responses as confirmation of their own inadequacy.

The best way to counteract such feelings is to negate a person’s instinct to withdraw and isolate, according to Dr. Ross Rosenberg, a psychotherapist and author of books on a wide spectrum of psychological issues, including addiction and relational problems.

“Loneliness feeds on itself,” he says. The worst someone can do is to cultivate these emotions by setting a stage where they foster. Instead of separating themselves from their surroundings, people with such tendencies would be better served if they opened up and went out to join the world, he recommends.

This doesn’t have to be a big thing. Reaching out to just one other person, or volunteering for just one small project can be a great start.

Also, we should not confuse loneliness with an occasional need for solitude. While feeling lonely is a negative state of mind, aloneness can be pleasurable and quite important at times.

Unfortunately, it has become increasingly harder in our perpetually connected world to find some peace and quiet. Yet, for relaxation, recovery, concentration, creativity, or simply for the sake of one’s sanity, the ability to shut out our surroundings once in a while can be crucial.

The desire for solitude in our culture gets too easily equated with antisocial tendencies, according to Sherrie Bourg Carter, Psy.D., a psychologist and author who focuses on stress issues. The fact is that there are many physical and psychological benefits to spending time alone, she says.

For this, too, the holidays can provide a perfect opportunity.

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Timi Gustafson R.D. is a registered dietitian, newspaper columnist, blogger and author of the book “The Healthy Diner – How to Eat Right and Still Have Fun”®, which is available on her blog and at amazon.com.  For more articles on nutrition, health and lifestyle, visit her blog, “Food and Health with Timi Gustafson R.D.” (www.timigustafson.com).

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Social Isolation Is Becoming an Epidemic Health Threat, Experts Warn

March 25th, 2015 at 11:50 am by timigustafson

Lack of social connections can be as harmful to people’s well-being as suffering from diseases, stress, or poverty, and can even reduce life expectancy. Loneliness and isolation are not only on the rise among the elderly but growing parts of the general population as well. Paradoxically, neither the Internet nor social media – designed to promote communication and connectedness – seem to be able to mitigate these trends, according to several recent studies on the importance of social interactions for good health.

Based on data collected by the U.S. Census Bureau, well over a quarter of all households in North America today consist of just one person.

Surveys by the PEW Research Center and others show large-scale shifts away from traditional settings like neighborhoods, voluntary associations, and public spaces that have long functioned as the dominant social networks. Some of this may contribute to both physical and mental health problems not recognized in this context before.

One study from Brigham Young University in Utah that analyzed millions of single-persons households in terms of health and lifespan found that those living on their own had an increased risk of dying prematurely of up to 32 percent over their counterparts who enjoyed a rich social life. The health threats of social disconnectedness are said to be comparable to those of obesity, smoking, or chronic stress.

Several other studies detected that feelings of loneliness and separation can raise stress hormones like cortisol, which in turn can lead to stroke and heart attack.

Mental health issues like age-related memory loss and dementia may also be exacerbated through social isolation and lack of interpersonal stimulation.

Despite our extensive communication infrastructure, we are now seeing the highest rates of people living alone and oftentimes more disconnected from their social environments than perhaps ever before, the Brigham Young researchers say.

Some experts argue that innovations like the Internet and social media are in fact partly responsible for the gradual disappearance of personal interactions. A study from Stanford University stipulates that the technological developments over the past decades may have improved our quality of life in many ways but also led to less desirable changes in our social behavior.

There are fewer and fewer interactions that require face-to-face contact, both for work and daily living, says Norman H. Nie, a professor of political science at the Stanford Institute for Quantitative Study of Society (SIQSS) that conducted the study.

“The world is more connected than ever before, but people spend less time in person with those they care about. With regards to social interactions, quantity has replaced quality,” Nie warns.

With single people under the age of 65 representing the fastest growing household type and the dramatic changes in the ways we work and communicate with one another, it is imperative that we invent better social environments than those many of our contemporaries are currently finding themselves in, the Stanford study suggests.

While they are very real, the effects of loneliness are hard to gauge, though. People are hesitant to admit they need greater interaction with others, writes Jessica Olien of Slate magazine in an article on the subject.

“In a society that judges you based on how expansive your social networks appear, loneliness is difficult to fess up to. It feels shameful,” she explains.

But, she says, “in terms of human interactions, the number of people we know is not the best measure. In order to be socially satisfied, we don’t need all that many people. […] The key is in the quality, not the quantity of those people. We just need several on whom we can depend and who depend on us in return.”

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Timi Gustafson R.D. is a registered dietitian, newspaper columnist, blogger and author of the book “The Healthy Diner – How to Eat Right and Still Have Fun”®, which is available on her blog and at amazon.com.  For more articles on nutrition, health and lifestyle, visit her blog, “Food and Health with Timi Gustafson R.D.” (www.timigustafson.com).

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Don’t Grow Old Alone

October 9th, 2011 at 3:23 pm by timigustafson

People who are lonely and isolated in their senior years tend to be in poorer physical and mental health than their contemporaries who are in loving relationships. These are the findings of a recent study published in the Journal of Health and Social Behavior that investigated links between social connections and health in older adults.

“Feelings of loneliness and isolation can affect older adults’ health in a number of ways. They can, for example, create stress, lower self-esteem or contribute to depression, all of which can have physical health consequences – either by affecting a person’s lifestyle choices or through direct effects on the body,” said Dr. Erin York Cornwell, a sociology professor at Cornell University and lead author of the study report.

Social isolation may even shorten your life expectancy, according to Dr. James Lynch, author of “The Broken Heart: The Medical Consequences of Loneliness.” Human beings are social creatures throughout their lives. As people grow older, their need for social interaction remains the same, but their ability to satisfy this need may become diminished: They retire and lose contact with former co-workers; their children grow up and move away; they become widowed or divorced; their circle of friends shrinks. As a result, many elders find themselves increasingly deprived of the important benefits of companionship. Life becomes less satisfying and loses its meaning. Consequences are often severe depression and lack of will to live.

“Suicide is more common among older Americans than any other age group,” according to Jane E. Brody, a columnist for the New York Times who writes on issues of personal health. “While people 65 and older account for 12 percent of the population, they represent 16 percent to 25 percent of the suicides. Four out of five suicides in older adults are men. And among white men over 85, the suicide rate – 50 per 100,000 men – is six times that of the general population.

Older widowers and divorcees are at the highest risk. When wives die or move away, their husbands’ social connections often cease as well, especially when the women did most of the social networking. “Men are poorly prepared for retirement and don’t know how to fill in the hours and maintain a sense of usefulness when they stop working,” said Dr. Martha L. Bruce, a professor of sociology and psychiatry at Weill Medical College of Cornell University.

“Many older people despair over the quality of their lives at the end of life. [We] think that sadness is a hallmark of depression. But more often in older people it’s anhedonia – they’re not enjoying life,” Dr. Bruce added.

Conversely, having loved ones to spend time with, making new friends and sharing experiences and interests with others can help decrease the susceptibility to loneliness, depression and illness. Nurturing new relationships and even falling in love again can bring back a renewed zest for life. Research has shown that seniors who remain sexually active enjoy better physical and emotional health than those who do not, according to Dr. Andrew Weil, professor of medicine and director of the Program for Integrative Medicine at the University of Arizona and best-selling author of numerous books on health and wellness, including “Healthy Aging – A Lifelong Guide to Your Physical and Spiritual Well-being.” “The youth culture would have us believe that sexual pleasure is the birthright of the young, that old people shouldn’t be thinking about sex, and that imagining old people having sex is distasteful. None of this is true. [Physical contact] is a basic requirement for optimum health,” he added. “This need does not diminish with age.”

Thankfully, the baby boomers are less inhibited in this regard than previous generations may have been. Today’s 55-plus crowd definitely does not think the party is over any time soon. And they know where to look for love in all the right places – via the Internet, of course. Memberships of dating sites are booming, and the older demographics are growing the fastest. “With so many older Americans unattached, living independently into their later years, and increasingly comfortable using the Internet, they too are logging on for love,” observed Stephanie Rosenbloom in an article for the New York Times (10/6/2011), titled “Second Love at First Click.” Not everyone is looking for true love, let alone marriage. But companionship and romance are in high demand and the dating industry is happy to help.

Living longer and healthier as we grow older through sound nutrition, physical exercise and mental activity is very important, but it’s only a worthy goal if the experience is enjoyable and gratifying – and that includes love.

Timi Gustafson R.D. is a clinical dietitian and author of the book “The Healthy Diner – How to Eat Right and Still Have Fun”®, which is available on her blog, “Food and Health with Timi Gustafson R.D.” ( http://www.timigustafson.com), and at amazon.com. You can follow Timi on Twitter and on Facebook.

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About timigustafson

Timi Gustafson, RD, LDN, FAND is a registered dietitian, health counselor, book author, syndicated newspaper columnist and blogger. She lectures on nutrition and healthy living to audiences worldwide. She is the founder and president of Solstice Publications LLC, a publishing company specializing in health and lifestyle education. Timi completed her Clinical Dietetic Internship at the University of California Medical Center, San Francisco. She is a Fellow of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, an active member of the Washington State Dietetic Association, a member of the Diabetes Care and Education, Healthy Aging, Vegetarian Nutrition and the Sports, Cardiovascular and Wellness Nutrition practice groups. For more information, please visit http://www.timigustafson.com

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