Loneliness was a common result of the COVID-19 pandemic as people had to stay secluded to prevent the transmission of the deadly virus. But experts say that America was suffering from a loneliness epidemic long before COVID-19 nudged us even further into isolation. That act of survival against the virus may have threatened our well-being and shortened our lifespans even further.
Neuroscientists explain that our brains interpret loneliness as a threat. When the brain perceives danger, it unleashes defense mechanisms such as hormones that trigger the “fight or flight” response.
According to The New York Times, these responses send blood sugar and blood pressure levels soaring, and heart rates rise to provide extra energy needed for battle against the stressor, in this case, loneliness. In addition, at the same time our bodies also manufacture extra inflammatory cells to repair tissue damage and prevent infection, but produce fewer antibodies to fight viruses. The very measures people employed to isolate from COVID-19 made them less resistant to the virus.
Even before the pandemic, Dr. Vivek H. Murthy, the Surgeon General of the United States, said that loneliness was a public health concern and was a root cause of many of the epidemics sweeping the world today, ranging from alcohol and drug addiction to violence, depression, and anxiety. In his book, Together: The Healing Power of Human Connection in a Sometimes Lonely World, Murthy writes that loneliness not only affects our health but also how our children experience school, how we perform in the workplace, and the sense of division and polarization of our society.
The paradox of the loneliness epidemic is that while people are more connected that ever through cell phones and social media, loneliness continues to rise. According to The New York Times, among the most digitally connected ─ teenagers and young adults ─ loneliness nearly doubled between 2012 and 2018.
The cure, say experts, is to introduce interventions such as the models created in other countries. The British government appointed a Minister for Loneliness four years ago to address the growing problem. Several towns have constructed “Happy to Chat” benches inviting people to sit down and talk.
One of the best ways to help a lonely individual is to ask them for help, notes Stephanie Cacioppo, assistant professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Neuroscience at the University of Chicago.
“For years people thought the best thing you can do for a lonely person is give them support,” she said. “Actually, we found that it’s about receiving and also giving back. So, the best thing you can do for someone who is lonely is not to give them help but ask them for help.”
Murthy adds that real remedies for the loneliness epidemic lie in changing cultural standards.
“We ask people to exercise and eat a healthy diet and take their medications,” he said, according to The New York Times. “But if we truly want to be healthy, happy, and fulfilled as a society, we have to restructure our lives around people. Right now, our lives are centered around work.”
Murthy’s goal may be lofty, but he says the alternative is literally killing people. Connected people live longer, happier, and healthier lives, he says.
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