The US is in the midst of a public health crisis: Loneliness
How can that be, you might think? We are more connected than ever. We have Twitter. Twitch. YouTube. Facebook. SnapChat. Instagram. TikTok. How can we possibly be lonely?
What Is Loneliness?
Mental health professionals define loneliness as a “gap between the level of connectedness that you want and what you have”. Loneliness is different to feeling isolated which is something that we have all felt during the pandemic. Loneliness is more of a subjective feeling. We can be on our own and feel perfectly content. Or we can be with a whole group of people and still feel lonely.
A study conducted in 2018 by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that one in five Americans said that they “often felt lonely or socially isolated”. Another study from 2020 found that ‘36% of all Americans - including 61% of young adults and 51% of mothers with young children - feel serious loneliness’.
3 Types Of Loneliness
As the well known author, Brene Brown puts it, “I feel like if I disappear tomorrow, nobody would even care. I feel like I’m invisible. So that’s what loneliness feels like to many of us”. It is ironic that even with the amount of images we post online, the likes we generate, so many of us still feel as if we are invisible. Loneliness is often broken up into 3 different categories or types:
Health Consequences Of Loneliness
While most people are aware of the fact that loneliness can have serious negative effects on our emotional well-being and our mental health, Mental health professionals define loneliness as a “gap between the level of connectedness that you want and what you have”.
Our brains have specifically evolved to seek safety in groups. We are wired for connection. When we are isolated from the pack it can be dangerous both mentally and physically. The lone herd member that is cut off from the rest of the group is a sitting duck for predators. The centers in our brain that monitor our surroundings for signs of danger go into overdrive and cause our “fight or flight” stress hormones to be released.
When our “fight or flight” hormones are released, our blood pressure rises and sugar levels increase in order to provide us with the energy we need to run or to fight. Our bodies also, unfortunately, produce extra inflammatory cells which can have negative effects on our long-term health.
Why Is Loneliness So Harmful?
According to former Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, loneliness can be deadly. Loneliness has been estimated to shorten a person’s life by 15 years - the equivalent to smoking 15 cigarettes per day! Research has linked social isolation and loneliness to increased an increased risk of various mental and physical conditions such as:
High blood pressure
Weakened Immune System
3 Ways Loneliness Could Be Making Your Back Pain Worse
1. Increased Cortisol Levels
As we mentioned above, our bodies perceive loneliness as a stressful situation. This stress is interpreted as danger which triggers the release of cortisol, the body’s stress hormone.
In small doses, cortisol can help increase your metabolism and cardiovascular system. But sustained elevated cortisol levels can have serious negative effects on your body. If our bodies are in a chronic stressful situation it can cause long term complications like heart disease, inflammation, diabetes, and back pain.
2. Decreased Exercise/Activity Levels
A girl’s night in or a solo Netflix binge session can be good for us from time to time, but when that becomes our go-to on the weekends it starts to spell trouble. It can be easy to go from the occasional Friday night to skipping out on events on a regular basis. When you have low back pain it can be even more tempting to listen to the outdated advice that bed rest can help.
Staying active is key to preventing low back pain or to speeding up the recovery process. Exercising alone can be boring, but taking a walk with a friend, or going to a yoga class with your significant other can be much more fun. It doesn’t have to be anything fancy. Just a brisk walk around the block with your dog can make a big difference to your mental and physical health, and indeed - pets can be a great source of comfort and companionship.
Inflammation is the systemic release of blood proteins that prepare the immune system to deal with danger or injury. When our bodies are chronically stressed, inflammation can become chronic which can have devastating effects on our health. Loneliness -related stress can cause inflammation to become chronic, too.
So How Can We Overcome This Problem?
Loneliness is feeling disconnected from other people and we often feel as if we are the only ones going through a particular situation. You may have heard the phrase, “We are not all in the same boat but we are in the same storm”.
It seems as if there is no where in the world, right now, that is immune to some of the stresses and difficulties that are going on. Covid-19 affected everyone. The effects of the war on Ukraine are being felt all over the globe. Most countries are feeling the pressure of supply chain crises and inflation.
Reaching out to people beyond the superficial visage of social media, and connecting with people in authentic ways, can have a healing effect on loneliness. For companies, having leadership that are vulnerable enough to share their feelings and concerns, while listening to the concerns of their employees is key.
Connection Is Key
Healthy relationships are essential to fighting loneliness and it truly takes a village to get through life these days. Reaching out to others and asking for help is not a sign of weakness, but rather a sign of strength.
We also have to connect with ourselves before we are able to connect with others. In today’s society it can be hard to reach out to connect with others and be vulnerable enough to ask for that connection. It can sometimes feel easier to hide out and pretend that we don’t need anyone but then end up blaming others for not connecting with us.
Social media has many of us presenting an inauthentic version of who we are. Of presenting someone that we think people want to see over our true selves. The problem is that loneliness often lives in that gap. The gap between who we pretend to be and who we really are. This gap prevents people from getting close to you as they can’t know the real you.
How To Combat Loneliness
Dr Murthy recommends taking a two-prong approach to combating loneliness:
Make time to understand your own worth which will then end up with you spending less time and energy trying to pretend that you are someone you are not.
Ground yourself in reality. Instead of comparing yourself to all those “perfect” people on Instagram and trying to recreate your own “perfect” moments, spend more time on yourself, being authentic. Live in the moment rather than trying to create the perfect moment.
Loneliness is bad for us both mentally and physically, and loneliness can take a toll on your body, leading to a whole host of ailments like inflammation and chronic pain.
Sometimes it can feel like it is just easier to be on your own and not make the effort to reach out and connect with others, but in the long term this will actually make your loneliness and depression worse.
Instead of having to make a decision to see someone each week, which can be hard when you are already feeling depressed, make a standing appointment to go for a walk or grab a cup of coffee with a friend. Over time you will find interactions easier and you may find yourself a little more able to come out of your shell and connect with even more people.
For more information on how loneliness and depression can make your low back pain worse check out our blog on "Why Does My Back Hurt When I Am Stressed?". You can also message us with any questions you might have and subscribe to our weekly blogs so you never miss out on the latest information regarding low back pain.