Image: D. Sharon Pruitt
Whether you think Valentine’s Day is an opportunity to show your love and appreciation for someone or is just another example of terrible commercialism, it cannot be denied that the signs and banners and posters all around us can be an unwanted reminder for some that they are alone.
Who is alone and who is lonely?
Many people choose to be alone by staying away from other people, whereas lonely people often feel a lack of support and a great sense of isolation. You don’t have to be Robinson Crusoe shipwrecked on a deserted island to feel the effects of loneliness.
According to a report from the Mental Health Foundation, loneliness affects men and women of all ages, but the younger you are the more likely you are to feel lonely on a regular basis. On the other end of the spectrum the Campaign to End Loneliness (a campaign group of charities) is calling for greater awareness of loneliness among the elderly calling it the “hidden killer”.
Our lifestyle in today’s society is probably the biggest culprit:
- Increased activity on online social networks rather than face-to-face interaction
- The fact that more and more people choose to marry and have children later in life
- Cheaper airfares allowing people to live farther away.
In the case of the elderly, isolation can occur when lack of mobility and the loss of family and friends result in them being trapped in their own homes.
How can feeling lonely affect your health?
The negative effects of loneliness on your wellbeing are similar to that of excessive smoking and alcohol, and exceed the effects of not exercising at all and obesity. This is due to the fact that lonely people tend to
- Drink more excessively
- Have unhealthier diets
- Exercise less often than socially contented people.
A study at Princeton University study at Princeton University in 2006 concluded that rats kept in single occupancy cages were much slower at producing new brain cells than rats allowed to socialize, despite all of them having frequent exercise. No one knows if the same thing happens in humans (the rats were sacrificed) but it is well documented that loneliness affect the brain’s cognitive functions leading to depression, Alzheimer’s, stroke etc.
What can you do to prevent loneliness?
1. Be active in your local community. This doesn’t mean you have to have full schedule, but consider joining a sports club or book group or you could volunteer for a good cause.
2. Get offline. Try to make a conscious effort to have real-time interaction with friends and family instead of spending most of your communication online or texting.
3. Don’t be embarrassed to talk about it. You can seek professional support from your GP, mental health services, youth workers or therapists. Remember though that sometimes it’s best to have help from a friend than from a stranger.
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