How Loneliness Led To My Chronic Disease
The science linking illness and relationships.
When I first got sick and a doctor told me he thought I had lupus, one of the first things I started asking was, why? Why me? Why now? What have I done to deserve this? I’ve spent the last 12 years searching for answers to those questions and found many of them in the latest science of mind-body medicine, where researchers are studying the way things such as our thoughts and emotions, our choices and behaviors, and our life circumstances interact with our physiology to exacerbate or even cause illness.
As health journalist, I’m often asked if I can now pin point the cause of my illness. And, of course, there was no one thing. It was the perfect storm. I have a genetic predisposition to autoimmune disease. I had gut issues associated with a food allergy. I wasn’t eating well. I was chronically stressed. I had taken on the emotional problems of others as if they were my own. I wasn’t sleeping well. But of all these things, there is one that stands out to me as being at the heart of my unbalanced life that led to chronic disease —
I was lonely.
At the time I was starting out in journalism there was an unwritten law that if you wanted to “make it,” you had to “cut your teeth” by reporting in a regional place. It meant that I had to move away from my family and friends. Although I made an effort to socialize and take trips back home, it was a time before Facebook and Face Time, and maintaining close relationships became difficult. It was crushing when my family members started forgetting my birthday. I felt isolated and alone.
The science on loneliness and its link to chronic disease is compelling. We now know that isolated people are at increased risk for the development of heart disease, cognitive deterioration and even the common cold. A three-year study showed that fewer interactions with family and friends predicted an increased likelihood of developing hypertension, cancer, liver disease, diabetes and emphysema. When researchers test the blood and saliva of lonely people, they find that loneliness is associated with increased levels of the stress hormone cortisol and a weaker immune response. In fact, a comprehensive review of the data on isolation and loneliness concluded that loneliness is on par with other major risk factors that routinely make the list of public health concerns such as lack of exercise, obesity, addiction and mental illness.
At the same time as this evidence is piling up, and despite the fact that we’re living in the most urbanized time in the history of mankind, the trends suggest we’re feeling more isolated than ever before. Over the last two decades in the US there has been a three-fold increase in the number of Americans who report having no person they can confide in. For 15–20 percent of the population, loneliness is a chronic state. In the UK, it is predicted that loneliness will reach epidemic proportions by 2030 unless action is taken.
My life today is unrecognizable from what it was when I fell ill. I live in a city where my family and friends are minutes rather than an airplane trip away. My husband and I work hard on our relationship and spend hours each week talking openly and with an open mind. I make an effort to see my friends regularly, scheduling catch-ups so that they happen automatically. I also practice Loving Kindness Meditation, which has been shown to help reduce stress-induced immune responses and to boost positive emotions. I even make an effort to connect with strangers and rather than looking at my phone when I’m at the grocery store check out, I ask the cashier how they’re going.
The take home message from all of this is that good health is not just about taking of medicine, eating our vegetables, and exercising regularly. We need to take a whole health approach, and that includes tending to our emotional well-being by reviewing our social connectedness.
The changes I’ve made haven’t been easy and it’s been a 12-year journey so fa but as I write these words, I’m the healthiest I have ever been in my life and I have no doubt that much of that comes down to the fact that I feel loved and supported.
Originally published at www.thewholehealthlife.com.
*** If you’re feeling lonely, isolated or depressed, seek help so you can learn to reconnect with others. It’s interesting that a review of interventions to reduce loneliness showed that changing harmful thinking patterns was the most effective way of reducing loneliness. You might like to check out Beyond Blue if you don’t know where to start.***