How loneliness affects your health

WWhen the pandemic first began, many experts feared that even those trying to avoid the virus would suffer unprecedented levels of loneliness. What will happen when millions are asked to stay at home and away from friends and loved ones?

Two years of research later, experts have found that the pandemic has made Americans a little more lonely — but the levels of loneliness are severe enough to threaten mental and physical health. Here’s what you need to know about loneliness and how to deal with it in your own life.

Who is more lonely during the pandemic?

Across the US and European populations as a whole, the difference in loneliness before and after the pandemic is small. A meta-analysis published this year of the American Psychological Association analyzed 34 studies conducted before and during the pandemic that focused on loneliness, an emotional state other than anxiety or depression that signals when social needs are not met. response. The researchers found that loneliness increased by about 5% during the pandemic.

Pamela Qualter, a professor at the University of Manchester in the UK, who studies loneliness (but was not involved in the study) said the increases were “very small and they really don’t mean anything clinically”. “Given that we’ve all been at home for a long time, I think that shows how resilient people really are. They have found a way to manage that loneliness.”

But even if the increase in pandemic times is small, loneliness is still a big problem. A Harvard survey conducted during the pandemic found that 36% of Americans – including 61% of 18-25 year olds – feel lonely often or most of the time.

Other studies during the pandemic show a significant increase in loneliness among groups at higher risk of illness, including: low income people and those who have mental health condition. Youth, people tend to be more lonely compared with middle-aged people, also become more lonely.

Julianne Holt-Lunstad, professor of psychology and neuroscience at Brigham Young University and a longtime loneliness researcher (who was not involved in the study), says there are many reasons why young people seem to like lack of social connection. Older adults may have developed better coping skills throughout life to deal with periods of stress, she said. Young people may also feel pressure to expand their social circles — a barrier that can be difficult to remove during a pandemic — and some may struggle if they feel like relationships decline. That may be part of the reason why social media can make people lonelier, she said. “If you find everyone else looking much more social than you are, you may be less satisfied with your own social situation.”

Emerging public health priorities

The pandemic has no real silver, but many mental health experts point to the opposite: more and more people are feeling comfortable talking about mental health and the role loneliness plays in health disorders. mental health. The topic became the focus of both conversation and research.

Researchers who study loneliness say it has not always received attention as a major health threat. Primary care physicians and even therapists do not routinely screen their patients for signs of loneliness. However, that was already starting to change even before the pandemic, especially in the wealthier parts of the world. For example, UK appoints its first Minister of Loneliness in 2018.

But the pandemic has accelerated these efforts. Japan follows the UK’s lead by appointing a Minister of Loneliness to take office in 2021; Center for Joint Research of the European Commission launched new research efforts during the pandemic of loneliness research in the EU; and public health leaders, including the Surgeon General of the United States, Dr. Vivek Murthy, have repeatedly Elevating loneliness as a public health issue during the pandemic.

As a result, the World Health Organization (WHO) is finally starting to pay attention to loneliness during the pandemic. Christopher Mikton, a technical officer in the WHO’s social factors division, said the WHO was considering setting up a high-level committee to address social connection, isolation and loneliness.

The goal is to convince legislators in countries around the world to expand data collection on loneliness and fund research to help scientists better understand the problem and find ways to tackle it. problems — and also to accelerate the acquisition and development of solutions, such as cognitive behavioral therapy and peer support.

Despite the growing evidence of the importance of loneliness, “we haven’t done much yet and now we’ve decided to really step up our activities in this area,” says Mikton. “This is not the kind of problem that can be brushed aside lightly. Serious health effects”.

How loneliness affects health

Nearly a third of Americans say they feel lonely at least at some point, according to Ipsos survey released in February 2021. But just because loneliness is common doesn’t mean it’s not dangerous. When loneliness persists, affecting someone for weeks or even years, it poses a serious threat to everyone. mental and physical health. “I think most people realize that it affects our emotional well-being and possibly even our mental health, but very few realize the effects,” Holt-Lunstad said. The profound effect it has on our neurobiology, affects our long-term health. .

Research have found loneliness can be significant increased risk of premature death. In part, that’s because it’s been linked to a number of prominent disorders, including cognitive disorders like Alzheimer’s and other types of dementia, and mental health disorders like depression, anxiety, and depression. schizophrenia. Loneliness is also linked to cardiovascular disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes, cancer, and other chronic diseases.

What can help you with loneliness?

Michelle Lim, scientific chair of Ending Loneliness Together, an Australian network of organizations that also research loneliness at Swinburne University, says there is no one-size-fits-all solution. Instead, it’s important to find a solution that works for each individual. For example, while some people may think it makes sense to join a social group, she says, for example, that may not appeal to someone who is introverted or dealing with social anxiety.

The key to beating loneliness, she says, is not just increasing the number of people a person seesbut earn more complete social connectionsLim said. She often encourages her younger patients to aim to improve just one relationship — whether it’s their only sibling, parent, or friend at school. “It’s about building a relationship between you and that person,” says Lim. Reducing loneliness “is not only about having people around you, but also [having] a meaningful relationship with them. ”

It’s also important to remember that loneliness is part of being human, “a biological driver… that drives us to reconnect socially,” and is not something to be ashamed of, Holt-Lunstad says. In short, she suggests getting busy to distract and enrich your life — like out in naturehave a creative hobby, or meditation. She also emphasizes nurturing existing relationships, including with people you might otherwise overlook. In one research Holt-Lunstad found that people became less lonely after performing small acts of kindness towards their neighbour, such as walking the dog or taking out the trash.

“For someone who may be feeling lonely, they don’t have to wait for others to contact them or do nice things for them – they can take the initiative,” says Holt-Lunstad. “One of the ways that we can help ourselves is by helping others.”

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