This Epidemic Is the New Smoking. 3 Strategies to Overcome the Myths

There’s a meme that was wildly popular on social media recently. It went like this:

Stop worrying about what other people think.
I mean, have you met other people?
They’re awful.

After I had a chuckle and commiserated with the idea, I was reminded that memes like this go viral because there’s truth to them!

Yet, while I agree that we shouldn’t worry about what other people think, the latter part of the sentiment is at odds with a national epidemic: loneliness. It’s the new equivalent of smoking 15 cigarettes a day, according to the U.S. Surgeon General.

What makes loneliness especially prevalent is that it’s so deceptive. Here are three reasons why:

  1. Quantity doesn’t equal quality. We think if we’re surrounded by people, we shouldn’t be experiencing feelings of loneliness. In fact, we can feel very lonely in the midst of large workplaces, meetings, events, parties, family functions, or text groups.
  2. Adversity can be isolating. If you’re going through something, it can feel as if you’re the only one experiencing it because your reactions are unique to your journey. Chances are that others encounter similar circumstances but you haven’t sought them out to work through your shared burdens.I recall writing about these two factors in my journal during my chemotherapy treatments. Here’s an excerpt:

    February 10, 2014

    It dawns on me that I have a lot of friends. I truly think I have a lot of good friends. I have two great friends. I’m grateful for all of them. Yet, I am so lonely, and it is not for a lack of people in my life. It’s got me really upset.

    I am lonely in this journey because no one walks my walk and no one has the same experience and no one can see the pain inside. There is something about this diagnosis that creates moments of extreme loneliness. It passes quickly, but there are bouts of it just about every day…

  3. Busyness has increased our sense of loneliness. U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy says, “In the last few decades, we’ve just lived through a dramatic pace of change. We move more, we change jobs more often, we are living with technology that has profoundly changed how we interact with each other…”

I see this with my patients. They come to me with a sense of overwhelming busyness, meetings to attend, and emails or texts to respond to, which can lull them into the feeling that their life is full and, therefore, not lonely. This simply is not the case.

Why do we need to overcome these myths?

Because loneliness has serious health effects, such as a 29 percent increase in heart disease, 50 percent increase in dementia, and 32 percent increase in strokes, as well as increases in anxiety and depression.

The big learning moment here, according to Murthy, is that loneliness is about the quality of your connections. As a result, Murthy and the national advisory committee proposed a national framework to rebuild social connection and community in the U.S.

While this is happening on a national scale, what can you do in your own sphere to increase the quality of your personal connections?

Here are connection practices that are working for me and my patients:

  1. Practice active listening. Active listening means you’re leaning in, asking clarifying, specific questions. If appropriate, try repeating what you’ve heard to make sure you heard them accurately. Try to read between the lines or interpret what’s not being said by taking in nonverbal cues, like eye contact, body posture, or hand gestures.
  2. Exercise your empathy skills. Passive listening is when you tell someone you understand. Instead, try to say, “I hear what you’re saying.” This is a more accurate way of reacting to what you’ve heard. It’s hard to know exactly what someone is going through, so if others hear you say, “I understand,” that can feel tone-deaf to the other person.
  3. Reestablish connections without technology. Take a page out of the Surgeon General’s national agenda and “renegotiate” your relationship with technology. Rather than fire off a text to someone, pick up the phone or schedule a coffee, tea, or walk. Arrange a gathering before or after your child’s game or during your lunch hour with a colleague. Get creative. Tap into what’s already happening in your life and make it social.

Join the national movement and connect with friends and family members. Don’t fall victim to the myths about loneliness. Instead, engage in quality connections through active listening, empathic communication, and technology-free interactions. It’s a win-win for you, the people in your life, and your longevity.

Dr. Cindy

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