SOCIAL ISOLATION IS ON THE RISE, AND CAN ADVERSELY AFFECT HEALTH
It’s common knowledge that loneliness and social isolation can lead to depression — and vice versa. But feeling lonely for an extended period can be detrimental to one’s health in a variety of other ways, some of which might not seem all that obvious.
“Research is coming out that that social connectedness is one of the most protective things, particularly as people age,” said Bluffton psychologist Maria Malcolm. “When you think about loneliness and social isolation, it’s a stressor on your mind and on your body, and it’s well-documented that when you are experiencing chronic stress, that is going to negatively impact a lot.”
Studies have linked loneliness, via increased levels of stress hormones, to an increased risk of heart disease, Type 2 diabetes, arthritis and cognitive decline. Other recent findings link loneliness to Alzheimer’s disease as a preclinical sign for that form of dementia.
In her practice, Malcolm often sees people facing loneliness and social isolation after arriving in the Lowcountry to begin a new phase of life.
“One of the biggest things I have learned is that many people are not adequately prepared because when they relocate and retire, they’ve left all their supports behind,” she said. “I think many people have not adequately realized that before they make this big move.”
YOU MIGHT BE IN A NUMBER OF GROUPS, BUT IF YOU DON’T FEEL LIKE YOU HAVE ANYTHING IN COMMON, YOU CAN FEEL LIKE A REAL OUTLIER.
“You can be very lonely with a large group of people around you,” Malcolm said. “It’s more about feeling a lack of connection. You might be in a number of groups, but if you don’t feel like you have anything in common, you can feel like a real outlier.”
The first step toward addressing one’s loneliness, Malcolm said, is to look inward.
“A little bit of self examination comes in. Who are the people I want to surround myself with? Is it creative people? Is it people who share my politics? Is it people who share my faith? Perhaps people who share some sort of philanthropic passion that I have,” she said. “But you may not necessarily find those people at the community coffee hour. You’re going to have to dig down and do some work.”
Once you can pinpoint what you value and what truly makes you feel connected to others, the search for your tribe becomes easier — and the connections you make will be more meaningful.
Here are a few tips to consider:
Take a personal inventory.
Ask yourself ‘What am I passionate about? When do I feel most alive, most connected? Who are the people with whom I feel very alive?’
Get involved in activities that put you in touch with those kinds of people.
For example, if you’re a wildlife lover, help count sea turtle nests or take a guided bird-watching walk. If your fondest memories of connection are from college, find a local alumni group.
Get what you give.
Sign up for an organization like Hilton Head Island Safe Harbour, where residents can help other residents. “Any kind of community organization that provides help and socialization on both sides of the equation is good,” Malcolm said.
Have some structure in your day.
Structure is helpful across the board for mood disorders and anxiety disorders, as it gives us a sense of purpose and control.
Adding physical activity you enjoy every day — preferably outside — can help lower stress levels and boost your energy, which makes the thought of socializing feel more appealing.
Once or twice a week, try something you’ve never done before. “With every tiny piece of exploration you do, it widens your world a little bit. Possibilities, options, alternatives open up more organically,” Malcolm said. Sometimes, what is familiar isn’t meeting your needs anymore.
Get help from a professional.
If you’re still struggling, seek help from a mental health practitioner, someone in your faith community or your primary care doctor.