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Britain Appoints Minister Of Loneliness To Combat Epidemic
Some interesting headlines to usher in the New Year were made this past month in the UK. The British government has appointed a “Minister of Loneliness” to tackle the epidemic of social isolation that is apparently griping the nation and its negative side effects.
Some people might scoff at the idea. Is this really an issue so severe that the government has to deal with it? The evidence seems to suggest that it is, and that it could be exacerbating the harmful effects that social isolation can have on human health. Let’s explore this topic in detail and offer some practical tips you can use to mitigate this problem in your own life.
Loneliness and Its Impact on Your Health
Research has shown that feeling lonely is linked to a higher risk of mortality. A meta-analysis of scientific literature on this topic by researchers at Brigham Young University found that social isolation led to a 30% higher chance of dying. That sounds pretty alarming, but why is that? What’s going on here?
Loneliness can take a psychological toll. It increases the likelihood of developing anxiety and depression. It is also correlated with substance abuse and higher risk of suicide. Research also shows that there is a higher risk of neurodegenerative conditions like dementia and Alzheimer’s disease in people who do not have a strong social network. One study showed that loneliness could increase the risk of developing dementia later in life by 64%.
Loneliness might be an emotion, but the effects are not solely psychological and neurological. It can affect your physical health as well. Human beings, like most primates, are social animals. Not having adequate social connections from an evolutionary standpoint is dangerous. The primates on the outside of the tribe so to speak were at greater risk of danger from other members of the primate group or from outside predators. This creates feelings of stress, triggered by the release of the “stress hormone” cortisol. This hormone has immunosuppressant properties, meaning that it is harder for your immune system to fight off infections and disease.
Some studies make a distinction between loneliness, which they define as perceived or subjective social isolation, and objective social isolation, in which someone is genuinely isolated and does not have any close or meaningful connections. Interestingly though, a report in Forbes claimed that it did not matter significantly in terms of its impact on health. Even in cases where an isolated person did not feel lonely, the chances of health complications were still higher.
In conclusion, loneliness can create a negative downward spiral in your physiological and physical health. Far too many people fail to make this connection.
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Tips for Dealing With and Preventing Loneliness
Many times after the death of a loved one, a break up or divorce, or moving to a new town or city, it can be difficult to build a new social circle and to stay connected to the ones you already have. It can also be all too easy to get sucked into the daily routine of work and running errands and to lose touch with friends and family. This is how many people fall into the trap of loneliness and the health effects mentioned above can begin to take their toll over time.
It’s important to maintain a healthy social network wherever you live. First, you should recognize when it has become a problem. If you don’t feel like you have anyone you can confide in, or that you don’t have any deep friendships or connections with anyone, that’s when there is a problem. Even if you don’t necessarily feel lonely, the conditions are right for it to set in.
Begin by reaching out to family and old friends. Call them up on the phone, don’t text. Suggest meeting for a meal or a morning coffee. Make it a point to attend a family gathering or a friend’s birthday party, or some other social function you might normally opt out of. Making different decisions is the first step to adding fresh momentum to your life.
Making friendly chit chat with strangers as you go about your day is another great way to start building some positive social momentum. Say “Hi,” to your neighbor down the hall or next door. Ask the cashier how her day is going. Little interactions like this can give you a boost.
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Joining clubs and taking classes in things you are interested in is also great, because you will meet people who genuinely share your interests, and the chances of you developing a true friendship are much higher.
Just remember—social media and texting are not a substitute for a healthy social life. There is no replacement for hearing someone’s voice for real and face-to-face interaction with other people.