How to Navigate a Season of Loneliness

Jealous woman spying her husband mobile phone while he is reading a message. Senior couple in bed while wife is angry as husband using smartphone. Senior husband ignoring wife and texting on smartphone.

Earlier this year, Beverly’s husband died. She was only 55.

Beverly was referred to me by another patient who suggested that acupuncture might help her navigate her way through a turbulent season of grieving, as many studies have proven that acupuncture can have a very positive effect on mood. And indeed, Beverly noticed a profound enhancement in her sense of “emotional stability” as she described it. I saw her weekly for a few months.

Beverly is a vivacious, intellectual woman, full of Life Energy.  She never expected to be a widow so soon.

She put herself through college and also worked part-time to help support the family while her husband Daniel finished law school . . . all while raising two children.

Shortly after both kids got married, Daniel sold his law firm to a junior partner. They had plans to travel extensively. Hopefully welcome and enjoy a few grandkids. Then came the big shock. Diagnosis, Cancer.

Knowing ahead of time that she would lose him didn’t make the loss any less devastating. Or the agonizing loneliness that ensued, anything she could have ever prepared for.

Life (or death) Just Happens

It seems that much of the time, life happens, without your planning or consent. You may not suddenly have become a widow. But perhaps your best friend has become occupied with caring for an elderly parent. Or your spouse is required to travel more often for work. Maybe your kids still live at home, but they’re never “home”.

You can find yourself feeling lonely, and it can be difficult to mobilize, get into action. Sometimes you think it’s easier to keep to yourself, maybe the heartache will pass . . . And yes, eventually it will.

If you’re experiencing one of life’s seasons of loneliness, reaching out to connect with others can lighten the load. A bright therapist friend of mine says, “A shared weight is a lesser weight.”

Are you now officially an empty nester?

Were you a devoted wife for many years but are recently divorced or widowed?

Have you recently retired but miss engaging with your co-workers on a daily basis?

It’s no secret that women are wired for connection. Yet seasons of loneliness seem ubiquitous by the time a woman reaches midlife. Why is that the case?

You may be married, your children may live at home and you may have several girlfriends. Yet, at times, you still feel isolated or lonely.

Feeling lonely is not the same as being alone. “For some people, even though they have what on the outside looks like a social world, their internal experience is loneliness,” says Nadine Kaslow, PhD, professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the Emory University School of Medicine.

Do the Quality of Your Relationships Matter?

Just because you have friends and family around all the time doesn’t mean you feel a deep connection. Being lonely is not simply the absence of people. It’s all about feeling an absence of love.  Harry Reis, professor of psychology at the University of Rochester, believes loneliness is rooted in the quality of a person’s relationships. “It’s a lack of what we call intimate interaction . . . meaningful interactions where people are really connecting with the other person.”

Even the relationships with your girlfriends can, at times, feel shallow, hurried or superficial. It’s good to slow down and make certain you’re giving your focused attention to nurturing those oh-so-valuable emotional bonds.

What’s Oxytocin (the Love hormone) got to do with it?

Women – more so than men – are highly social animals, such that when intimacy is missing, feelings of loneliness can easily ensue. This is supported by Shelley Taylor’s “Tend and Befriend” theory. It reveals that women often exhibit different behavior than the familiar “Fight or Flight” response to stress.

Taylor discovered that under conditions of stress, particularly when close relationships are threatened, humans will join forces with others to ensure the protection and comfort of their children and families. This response is driven by two chemicals:

  1. Oxytocin (the love and de-stress hormone); and
  2. Opioids created by the body to ease pain.

“These social responses to stress and their biological underpinnings appear to be more characteristic of women than men”, according to Taylor.

Why Feeling Connected is important to Your Health

Because we have so many studies on the negative health effects of loneliness, it’s important to treat it  as a chronic health condition. According to a review by the Association for Psychological Science, “Actual and perceived social isolation are both associated with increased risk for early mortality.”

Research shows that feeling socially isolated has can make a huge impact on your health and well-being. Things like . . .

  • Your brain function and your ability to remember things
  • Inflammation in the body
  • Stress levels

Whole food, exercise, sleep and stress management are definitely important components in your healthy lifestyle plan. But Love and Connection are like Vitamins for the body, mind, heart and soul. Hugs and smiles raise your feel-good hormones. Let’s take a look at how you can get a regular dose of both.

6 Unique Ways to Give Hugs and raise your Oxytocin

  • Volunteer at a local animal shelter. Consider fostering or perhaps raising a puppy for its first year that will become an aid for a blind or otherwise handicapped person.
  • Helping out at a Habitat for Humanity site is a great way to enjoy a sense of teamwork and work up a little sweat. A great way to learn how to use power tools.
  • Guide urban youth in the wilderness with Big City Mountaineers. They gets city kids into the wilderness by offering backpacking and canoeing trips. Adults are paired with disadvantaged youth. Being outdoors will also supply you with a dose of Vitamin D.
  • Visit a local nursing home. If you like one-on-one time, you could read to a resident. Or ask the Activities Director how you can help if you’d prefer to work with groups.
  • Beautify the Planet. Join a group to improve public parks. You’ll have fun getting your hands a little dirty . . . planting trees and doing other earth-friendly activities. Yes, removing trash too.
  • Share your expertise with small business owners. SCORE utilizes volunteers who have owned and operated their own business or served in a management position. You can share your success and expertise through mentoring or leading workshops and seminars.

Beverly Found a Brand New Community

For years Beverly dreamed of living near the beach. It was a bold dive into uncharted waters when she decided to move out-of-state without Daniel at her side. She says she’ll be sad leaving her Houston friends, especially those in her grief-share group. She’ll be forever grateful for their support, but she’s ready to move on. It’s a new season, and time for a fresh start. Beverly found a 55+ adult retirement community in a beautiful small coastal town in South Carolina. She’s playing tennis with a nice group of women.

After attending some training, she now answers calls for a crisis hotline from home two evenings a week. I miss her dearly. As the saying goes, “some people are in your life for a reason, some for a season, and some for a lifetime.”

Have you ever had to weather the storms of loneliness? Please share with us how you go about creating meaningful connections in your life.

References:

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25910392 Loneliness and social isolation as risk factors for mortality: a meta-analytic review.

https://taylorlab.psych.ucla.edu/wp-content/uploads/sites/5/2014/11/2011_Tend-and-Befriend-Theory.pdf Tend and Befriend Theory.

https://www.psychologytoday.com/basics/dopamine Dopamine basics.

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/27480575 In Sickness and in Health: The Co-Regulation of Inflammation and Social Behavior.

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25554219 Loneliness and cognitive function in the older adult: a systematic review.

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23630220  Loneliness promotes inflammation during acute stress.

Footnotes:

Diminished cognitive function:  Main findings from the ten studies largely indicate that loneliness is significantly and negatively correlated with cognitive function, specifically in domains of global cognitive function or general cognitive ability, intelligence quotient (IQ), processing speed, immediate recall, and delayed recall.

Increased Inflammation: In many chronic, degenerative diseases, like cancer, diabetes and heart disease, inflammation is at the root. A recent study in the Journal of Neuropsychopharmacology, 2016 Sep 14, it was revealed that individuals who are more socially isolated (ie, lonely) show increased inflammation in their bodies. In another study: The lonelier participants showed heightened cytokine production in response to stress than did less lonely participants. (Cytokines are molecules that create inflammation.) This reflects a proinflammatory phenotype (which means that the genes causing inflammation are “turned on”.) A healthy lifestyle strives to reduce inflammation.

Increased Stress and Accelerated Aging: University of Chicago social neuroscientist John Cacioppo’s research suggests loneliness actually alters gene expressions, or “what genes are turned on and off in ways that help prepare the body for assaults, but that also increase the stress and aging on the body.”

When oxytocin, a hormone, rises in the bloodstream, it signals the need for connection (and Love) It also has a calming effect during the stress response. Certain peptides are produced via the body’s own opioid system. These chemicals impact the central nervous system and result in the easing of pain and in increasing a sense of euphoria.

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