Is Loneliness Is the New Smoking?

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First, they said that “sitting is the new smoking.” Get up, move around.  A good idea for many reasons, including how good it feels. Now, we hear about loneliness and its impact on our health and wellbeing.

I heard Vivek Murthy, MD, the former U.S. Surgeon General under President Obama, speak about it on a recent broadcast of the Commonwealth Club of S.F. According to Dr. Murthy, Cigna found that more than 50% of Americans suffer from loneliness. That means that more adults in the U.S. struggle with loneliness than smoking or have diabetes. Those statistics were pre-COVID 19, pre-isolation, pre-hugging scarcity.

Dr. Murthy states, “The reality is that loneliness is a natural signal our body gives us, like hunger and thirst. And that’s how important human connection is. Thousands of years ago, our ancestors knew this. They knew there was safety in numbers. And when we were separated from each other, it placed our survival at risk. And it put us in a physiologic stress state, which, when it’s short, when it’s acute, it can lead us to seek out connection. But when it’s prolonged, then it can become a chronic state of stress, which leads to inflammation in our body, damages tissues in blood vessels and, ultimately, damages our physical, as well as our emotional, health.”


What can we do about loneliness?

Being alone (isolation) and loneliness (i.e., the psychological state of suffering) are related, but they’re not the same thing.  Even the busiest amongst us – “type A’s on steroids” – have experienced, even for only brief moments, the pleasure of solitude. And many of us, myself included, have had moments when we were in the company of others when we felt lonely – maybe even more so for feeling that way when we were together with others.  We each have our own temperament when it comes to connection and separateness. It’s beyond simply being introverts or extraverts.

So, dear caregivers, and your loved one who you’re caring for, we have what one might call a “situation” here! Social distancing, sustained isolation. And, for many of us, a deep gnawing feeling of loneliness.

So, if getting up and moving around is the antidote to the harmful effects of sitting, what can we do about loneliness?

Reaching Out: Physical Distancing Social distancing

First, distinguish “social” distancing from “physical” distancing.  We know that it’s risky to get too physically close to other people – risky because of the airborne transmission of the COVID virus. But social connection not only feels good, it’s also good for our health and wellbeing.  And people have been getting creative in finding ways of doing so.

Some of us have the mobility opportunity to go outside – even to a porch or backyard.  People who have this opportunity have found ways of visiting with others while maintaining social distance – taking socially distancing masked walks, sitting apart in backyards, etc.

My wife and I live in Philadelphia on a block of row and twin houses, each having a front porch. Last spring, we organized a “bubble-fest” on this very diverse block – social distancing from porch to porch – where people created homemade bubble “wands” and waved bubbles up and down the block.  Everyone – kids, elders, Black, white, mixed economic circumstances – was so excited to get outside, see each other, and have some fun. At popular request, we repeated it the next weekend!


Using technology to reach out

Then there’s the phone and the web. We’re kind of zoomed-out, but Zoom has enabled us to remain connected to our religious community and other involvements we’ve maintained during this time.  During the Jewish holiday of Passover, we hosted our seders on Zoom. It was the first time in 25 years that our daughter, Marika, who lives in San Francisco, was able to join us for our family seder.

This year, Menschwork, an organization that I co-founded, is having our 29th annual Jewish Men’s Retreat on Zoom. It’ll enable many men who’ve never been able to travel to the northeast before to attend.  As in many other religious traditions, during this COVID time our congregation has continued to meet via Zoom.  In addition to congregational services, we’ve been able to gather for other lifecycle events that have been happening for families.

Since so many people are reaching out, using technology to do so, there’s every reason for family caregivers (and their loved ones) to join in and reach out – near and far.  People we haven’t been in touch with for a long time. So many people are doing it now. Don’t wait for other people to call. Many of them would welcome contact but are reluctant to do the reaching out themselves.

Beyond people in your inner circle, think of people you know who may now be especially isolated.  Give them a call every couple of weeks. It’ll be more helpful to them than you might imagine, and it’ll help lessen your own sense of isolation.

What gatherings are happening in your world that might be engaging for you to check out and see how they feel for you? You might ask people you know about places they’re connecting to, including a whole range of music and the performing arts that are now being streamed.


Solitude can be beautiful

Before leaving this topic about isolation and loneliness, a few words about the opportunities that being alone can offer, the benefits of solitude.  Think of a time when you were relieved that some event or appointment got canceled and you were simply free to relax and let go of responsibilities, commitments, to-dos.

If you can, think of even a few moments when that experience of solitude felt good.  To what degree were you able to simply let it be “being” time, rather than filling it with actions. Even if you couldn’t do so, imagine that you did so. What might that have felt like?

How about trying out a simple three-minute meditation. Sit upright in a comfortable chair. Turn off your phone ringer. Put a timer on for four minutes, giving yourself a minute to get ready. Slowly close your eyes. Feel your feet on the floor.  Now, focus on your breath, not trying to control it or do anything special with it. Watch your breath as it easily and effortlessly goes in and out – either through your nose or mouth. When your mind wanders, and you notice it doing so, simply go back to paying attention to your breath. That’s all there is to it.

In Help Me to Heal, a book I wrote with Dr. Bernie Siegel for hospitalized patients and their family caregivers, we invented a playful concept of “self-visiting.” We encouraged patients to create an ideal visitor for them, one who would tailor-make their visits to be exactly the way the patient preferred at that moment – quiet, funny, brief, intense, reflective, etc. And then to imagine having such a visit.  Right now, I propose that you do this kind of self-visiting to have a wonderfully refreshing solitude moment for yourself.


Lessening the impact of loneliness

My book, Coaching for Caregivers: How to Reach Out Before You Burn Out, focused on reaching out, not burning out. I suggested that if people wanted to learn about burnout, there were plenty of useful resources on the web. The same is true for yearning for connection and the health impacts of the experience of loneliness.  Google it.

I’ve begun what I hope will become a conversation between us about ways of understanding our feelings of loneliness – how it’s not automatically connected to being alone.  (Note: A future blog post will explore the inner dynamics – especially our beliefs – about being lonely.)

I’ve suggested trying out some moments to experience the peacefulness of solitude.  I’ve also suggested ways of reaching out – to help other people who need connection and to do the same for yourself. Tap into ways that other people are engaging with larger communities of people.

As someone who might not necessarily be a role model used to say, “Can we talk?” Please step into this conversation via my Facebook page.