Mental Health Awareness Week: Loneliness the biggest pandemic of all

“Loneliness is one of the greatest public health challenges of our time” Theresa May, Former UK Prime Minister

We have been having Mental Health Awareness Week at work, from May 3rd till 7th; and I signed up for a couple of workshops. I feel blessed working for an employer that recognizes importance of mental health at workplace and in general.

In this blog, I would like to talk about loneliness, particularly, because it has been the greatest pandemic of our time, even pre COVID-19. But the social isolation imposed on us due to ongoing health challenges associated with virus, made loneliness even worse.

Many studies show there’s an increasing number of people experiencing loneliness – more than ever in human history. Studies conducted in 1980 showed that about 20 per cent of people experienced loneliness in their lives. This number has doubled in our current times and continues to rise.

People do not talk about loneliness. It’s a taboo, deeply stigmatized. Our society views loneliness as a sign of weakness, of “being a looser”. Therefore, we deny feeling lonely – not to others, but also to ourselves.

Loneliness is a mortality risk factor as well. Interesting studies have concluded that air pollution increases risk of death by five per cent, obesity by 20 per cent and excessive drinking by 30 per cent. Meanwhile, loneliness increases the risk by 45 per cent! These numbers are staggering. Yet, we keep denying the social pain we feel.

What is loneliness? “Complex set of feelings that occurs when intimate and social needs are not adequately met” (Harvard Business Review). According to scientists prolonged loneliness triggers release of stress hormones, compromises immune health, causes higher risk of infection.

There are many health risks factors that come with loneliness:

  • Increases risk of cardiovascular disease
  • Cancer mortality (reduced responsiveness to treatment)
  • Increased risk of depression

Chronic and severe loneliness has been estimated to shorten a person’s life by 15 years

There are three components for algorithm for mental health:

Physical Health: movement is medicine, balanced diet, sleep, water

Mental Fitness: coping skills and resiliency can be developed; fostering psychological safety at work

Social Connections: The quality of relationships at home, work, and community; fostering culture of inclusion at work; perception of loneliness

Renowned American psychologist John Cacioppo explores the subject of loneliness in his Ted Talk. He equates loneliness to hunger, thirst and pain. If not addressed, he argues, loneliness can be lethal. He declares that, as established by science, we are a social species and we’re interconnected. Our survival depends on it.

This begins in the earliest stages of our lives, with offspring depending on their parent. As we get older, we need to be engaged with other people in order to grow and thrive. Our ability to survive is linked to our collective efforts, not to our individual minds.

When we experience hunger and thirst, our brain mechanism tells us to go find food and water. Similarly, when we experience physical pain, we look for ways to help our bodies to heal. When we experience loneliness, our brain sends signal to go and engage with other people, to satisfy social hunger. But when we experience loneliness, we don’t have a pantry full of friends.

We think of loneliness as a sad condition. For our social species, it is not only sad. It’s dangerous.

In his TedTalk, Cacioppo suggests that when you recognize the feeling of loneliness, you shouldn’t deny it. You should recognize what it is and what it does to your brain, body and behaviour. It’s dangerous for a social species to be isolated and snap into self-preservation mode. This has a negative effect on our brain, our behaviour and our thoughts. We must recognize loneliness and respond to it, just like we respond to hunger, thirst or pain. When it comes to having friends, quantity is not that important; it is the quality of the connection that matters most.

You can increase collective connectedness by becoming part of something bigger than yourself. You can base this on things you enjoy – perhaps serving the needy, volunteering at the museum, joining running club or exploring friendships with people from cultures different to yours.

Be courageous

“Courage starts with showing up and letting ourselves be seen” Brene Brown

To be seen, it means to be authentic, to be your true self.

To foster meaningful friendship, to me, it means to being open to others the way they are, without wanting to change anything about them.

“People are just as wonderful as sunsets if you let them be. When I look at a sunset, I don’t find myself saying ‘Soften the orange a bit on the right hand corner’. I don’t try to control the sunset. I watch with awe as it unfolds.” Carl Rogers

Published by Marianna Maliszewska

“I cannot live without love. Love is at the root of my being.”― Anaïs Nin.

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