Better connection equals better health

Source: iStock/urbanzon

By Erin O’Neil LCSW

March 2023 marked the third anniversary of the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, during which isolation and loneliness dominated our experiences. However, loneliness was an epidemic in its own right, independent of the precipitating factors of COVID, and it existed well before its onset. While most people tend to experience moments of loneliness throughout their lives, we are seeing more and more individuals experiencing longer periods of loneliness. And this to the point of impacting physical and mental health.

Loneliness is making headlines everywhere and is the topic of much discussion in the health care industry. Vivek Murthy, US Surgeon General, proposed a national framework for rebuilding social connection and community in America. That psychology today post also shares that loneliness may be linked to emotional regulation and social identity.

Why do we feel so alone?

Loneliness occurs when our inherent desire for connection goes unfulfilled. From a clinical point of view, connection represents the feelings and experiences associated with a sense of belonging that comes from attunement. Dan Siegel, clinical professor of psychiatry at the UCLA School of Medicine, founder of the Mindsight Institute, and author, defines attunement as “felt feeling.” In his newest book, intraconnected, Siegel notes the value our society places on independence and individuality over connectedness, and this is evident in surveys. Young adults aged 18 to 24 are more likely to report feelings of loneliness than older adults (79% compared to 41%).

Since 2012, studies have shown that teen loneliness has gradually increased in tandem with smartphone access and internet use. While this correlation is still under scrutiny, some experts argue that relying primarily on communication via social media affects a person’s face-to-face interactions, making it harder for them to develop deep personal relationships with family, friends, and others. Social media and internet use can lead to cyberbullying and feelings of exclusion, which in turn can increase feelings of isolation, regardless of how present we may appear to be on some of these platforms.

However, young people are not the only ones experiencing loneliness at such high rates. People from underrepresented racial groups are more likely to experience loneliness, as are those with lower incomes. Caregivers report loneliness at a rate of about 65% compared to non-parents (55%). More than half of the US population (58%) can be classified as lonely. Even though we seem so much more connected now, we are actually lonelier than ever.

How loneliness can affect our physical and mental health

The implications of loneliness on the mental and physical health of our populations are devastating. Our brains are geared toward connection as a survival response. We need it like we need food and sleep. Loneliness and social isolation are a threat to our sense of security, registering as such in the parts of our brain connected to survival.

A report by the Kaiser Family Foundation has linked social isolation and loneliness to increased risks of heart disease and stroke. Loneliness also increases our stress hormones, which can lead to physical inflammation and a higher risk of arthritis and diabetes. The impact of stress on people with chronic pain and/or autoimmune diseases is well documented. To come full circle, adults with poor physical health report being 50% more lonely than those in good health.

In addition to physical illnesses, increased periods of loneliness can affect us psychologically, causing and intensifying depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress injury, self-harm, and suicidality. Furthermore, substance abuse and loneliness can form a toxic cycle, each feeding off and exacerbating the other. Individuals struggling with addiction are more likely to experience feelings of loneliness, which can increase use. On the other hand, loneliness can be a contributing factor to the development of substance use, abuse and dependence.

What healthcare professionals can do to help

So what’s the antidote to a loneliness epidemic? While there is no one-size-fits-all solution, we can start by incorporating the concept of connection as an integral part of the person’s healing process. There are steps we helping professionals can integrate into our care to mitigate loneliness and (hopefully) some of the symptoms our clients are experiencing as a result:

Essential Loneliness Readings

  1. Knowledge: Referring to Siegel again, it will be very difficult for our clients to “feel felt” or feel a connection with us as practitioners if we are not in tune with ourselves. The first thing we can do is become aware of our own emotional, physical and mental states. With this awareness, we can be more present and facilitate attunement with others, the definition and gateway to authentic connection.
  2. Model: Many of our clients have suffered from attachment injuries, and while they continue to possess the inherent need for secure attachment, it can be difficult for our clients to know what it is and trust when they have it if they have never experienced it before. As therapists, we are in a unique position to be able to simultaneously explore what secure attachment looks like for our clients and at the same time be a secure attachment for them. Consistency, reliability, accountability, compassion and empathy build trust and trust builds those strong relationships needed for healing and prosperity.
  3. To explore: As part of holistic care for our clients, we need to focus on the importance of connection in addition to the specific work we are doing (eg, trauma healing, emotional regulation, substance use recovery, grief therapy, etc.). Explore out-of-office resources and help identify and overcome obstacles that keep our customers from connecting. Once they experience this, we might be surprised at what a large role their loneliness played in their distress.

To foster healthier and deeper connections in our communities, it will be necessary to understand and have compassion for how lonely we all are and the impact this is having on the overall health of our country. At the very least, make your space welcoming and offer the potential for healing through a close clinical relationship.

To find a therapist, visit Psychology Today’s Therapy Directory.

Better connection equals better health

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