What if I told you that there was a medical condition that was as dangerous as smoking 15 cigarettes per day and that nearly half of Americans experience this condition?
Hopefully, we would consider this a national health crisis and begin researching ways to protect ourselves from this deadly issue.
You would think that this would be a national story, worthy of the front page of The New York Times or something that the talking heads on CNN and FOX News would spend hours discussing. But we haven’t done that, even though a recent study by the AARP found that loneliness is as dangerous for our health as smoking and obesity.
Research suggests that people who are chronically alone or isolated are more likely to have heart disease, a stroke, be obese or develop diabetes. While we often focus on ways to cure or manage those physical symptoms, rarely do you see a campaign against loneliness. But, rest assured that it is every bit as dangerous for your health and well-being as smoking or overeating.
So if you are a person who feels alone, here are some things you can do.
First, look for opportunities to find more interaction with other people in current areas of your life. People often get overwhelmed when thinking about trying to develop new relationships, because they assume that this means that they will have to get involved in new activities. Instead of thinking of new things to get involved in, though, start by examining what current areas of your life have potential for finding connection with others. Have you ever had your neighbors over for dinner? Or, maybe you could grab lunch with a co-worker.
Next, challenge yourself to step out in ways that might be less comfortable. Join a book club or a workout class. Start going to a Bible study or a Sunday school class. Find a civic organization that you can join, or become a member of a garden club. Get involved in the local theater company, even if it means volunteering just as a stagehand. If you find someone that you really connect with, be brave and initiate something simple. Ask them if they want to grab coffee or go to lunch sometime.
And, be specific when you do those things. How often have you heard someone say “We should catch up sometime.” I know that I’ve said that myself, and then my next thought was, “Yeah, that’s never going to happen.” Prevent that by giving them some options: “Want to grab lunch Tuesday or Wednesday of next week?”
If you are experiencing loneliness, please be intentional to take steps to find help.
For some reason, tangible things that can affect our health usually seem to take precedent for most people. We know that our diet has a long-lasting impact on our quality of life, and many of us try to monitor the foods that we eat accordingly. We know that exercise is important to our health, and we regularly make goals related to going to the gym or losing weight.
How often do we prioritize the intangible? How often do we admit that there are times that we have depression or anxiety and seek to figure out ways to cope with it? How often do we acknowledge our anger and think about how it affects our relationships? How often do we admit that we are lonely and that we long for deeper relationships?
We fear that those intangible things are weaknesses. We fear that if we talked about them with others they would see us as damaged. It can be so hard to speak up and be vulnerable about these types of things. For most people, it would be safer to talk about struggling with maintaining healthy habits with diet and exercise than to talk about struggling with depression or loneliness.
We need to see that these issues are just as pivotal to our well-being as making sure that we eat the correct number of fruits and vegetables each day or getting in our daily workout. It’s been too long that we have ignored these issues.
If you’re struggling with loneliness, reach out to someone you know. There’s a good chance that they are in the same boat as you.
• Mischa McCray is a licensed professional counselor and a licensed marriage and family therapist. Send questions or topics you’d like him to discuss to firstname.lastname@example.org.