Loneliness: The Invisible Health Crisis
In today’s social media-driven world, it’s easy to substitute online exchanges for in-person connections. Many school, church and neighborhood activities that once created a sense of community have been replaced with digital versions, which can contribute to isolation and loneliness.
In a recent survey conducted online by Harris Poll on behalf of the American Osteopathic Association, 72 percent of respondents reported having felt a sense of loneliness, with nearly a third experiencing loneliness at least once a week. Isolation is often an underlying factor in many of the most common health conditions, including chronic pain, substance abuse and depression, according to osteopathic physicians.
“Loneliness is an invisible epidemic masked by our online personas, which are rarely representative of our real emotions,” says Jennifer Caudle, DO, an osteopathic family physician. “It’s important to understand how your mental and emotional well-being directly affects the body.”
Doctors of Osteopathic Medicine, or DOs, focus on prevention by gaining a deeper understanding of your lifestyle and environment, rather than just treating your symptoms. By taking a whole-person approach to care, osteopathic physicians are trained to address underlying issues, such as loneliness, that can quietly erode your health.
How to Address Loneliness
The first step in addressing loneliness is to determine whether those feelings are caused by depression. A physician can diagnose any existing mental health conditions and suggest treatment options.
To limit loneliness, Dr. Caudle recommends some simple steps to help increase real social engagement:
- Consider a digital cleanse. Social networks can offer real connections, but the curated platforms may over-emphasize the success of others, which can lead to feelings of inadequacy. For more empowering activities, consider enrolling in a continuing education course or spending time enjoying nature.
- Exercise with others. Participating in a running club, group fitness course or team sport can create opportunities to meet new people while also improving your physical health.
- Buy local. Develop a routine that includes visiting a local shopkeeper, coffee shop, farmers’ market or gym. Creating relationships with local vendors can help build roots in the community by leading to a sense of shared history and camaraderie.
- Step out of your comfort zone. Introducing yourself to nearby neighbors or engaging with people in the building elevator can help you begin the process of developing a community and alleviating loneliness.
- Change jobs, schools or cities. This drastic option is not always possible, and certainly not easy, but it may have the most significant impact. Start by identifying the culture that would best fit your personality and work toward a transition.
“Face-to-face communication is critical for emotional and mental health,” Dr. Caudle notes. “Seeking out meaningful human interactions makes people happier and, ultimately, healthier overall.”