Persistent feelings of loneliness can lead to more serious issues

Perception of loneliness has little to do with a physical state of solitude, and chronic feelings of isolation can be dangerous

Special to The TribuneDecember 31, 2013 

TALLAHASSEE DEMOCRAT ILLUSTRATION

Mother Teresa once called it the “most terrible poverty.” Some have said it is “about the scariest thing there is.”

In fact, fear of loneliness is so deep-seated that we can all recall moments of feeling horribly alone.

In their book, “Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection,” authors John Cacioppo and William Patrick estimate that 20 percent of the U.S. population feel lonely. Other researchers posit that 12 percent of Americans have no one with whom to spend free time or to discuss important matters.

Loneliness is different than solitude. Solitude is generally perceived as a pleasant experience in the absence of company. Loneliness, on the other hand, is fraught with negative sentiments such as abandonment, worthlessness and not belonging.

The perception of loneliness has little to do with our actual physical state. We can feel personally detached even though we’re in a crowded room. We may tell ourselves that no one understands us, while loved ones try in vain to break through our psychic shell.

For most of us, loneliness is a transitory condition. It’s associated with a specific time or event that will pass and leave us seeming loved and connected once again. Moving away to college or breaking up with a girlfriend play mayhem with our social circles and create temporary angst.

Chronic loneliness can also signal a more serious mental disorder. It’s linked to an increased rate of depression, suicide and alcoholism. Schizoid personality disorder is characterized by a lack of interest in social relationships and a tendency toward detached relationships. People with social anxiety disorders have trouble fitting in.

Loneliness even wreaks havoc on our health. It harms our cardiovascular, endocrine and immune systems. It’s implicated as a risk factor for cognitive decline and progression of Alzheimer’s disease.

Research at the University of Chicago found that lonely subjects between the ages of 53 and 78 had blood pressure readings that were 16 points above those in the control group. In addition, they reported disrupted sleep patterns.

The good news? Loneliness is treatable. And as loneliness decreases, so do its negative consequences. The sooner you make the necessary changes, the sooner you’ll feel like your former self.

BEATING LONELINESS

Get involved. Stack books at the local library. Drive meals to shut-ins. Walk dogs at the animal shelter. You’ll interact with new faces. You’ll feel good about yourself.

Exercise. Join a gym or sign up for Zumba at the Y. Your mood will improve with regular movement. And who knows who you’ll meet while you’re there?

Finish dying relationships. If you have just broken up with a lover, give yourself time to recover. Then allow yourself to move on. Stop pining away for something that’s not going to happen. Accept that the relationship is over.

Reconnect with someone from your past. Call a co-worker from your last job. Use Facebook to connect with a cousin you haven’t seen in years. Each person adds to your social network and can potentially introduce you to someone new.

Have fun by yourself. If there’s no one in your life at the moment, it’s OK to be alone. See the latest showing at the Palm Theatre by yourself. Take in a concert at the Red Barn. You’re special and unique. Treat yourself that way.

Be pleasant to be around. Make sure you’re upbeat when you are invited out. Discuss cheery topics. Listen to what others have to say. Don’t dwell on your problems. No one wants to hang around Eeyore.

Linda Lewis Griffith is a local marriage and family therapist. For information or to contact her, visit http://lindalewisgriffith.com.

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