Updated: Oct 23
Research studies keep finding strong associations between social isolation, loneliness and health problems. Many of us are aware of these findings but act as though we have no control over our health. Is there anything we can do as we age to avoid the harmful effects that accompany feeling lonely and socially isolated?
When I was a child, I suffered from asthma. During flare ups, I used to spend many days at the hospital, often feeling isolated, trapped in a cold room while everybody was outside enjoying the world. This story is not much different from what I hear from my patients. Now as an adult, I’m a healthcare provider treating patients in these cold, often isolated hospital rooms. Almost daily, I hear stories from my patients about how lonely they feel, not only during their hospital stay, but also in their everyday lives once they return home.
People that feel socially isolated or disconnected from the rest of the world usually suffer from frequent insomnia and tiredness, are at an increased risk of developing depression, anxiety and other mental illnesses like dementia, suffer from elevated blood pressure, experience thoughts about self-harm and suicide, are at an increased risk of substance misuse, experience weight loss/gain, and the list goes on, and on, and on...
There are many actions we can take to avoid loneliness and social isolation along with the detrimental health effects associated with them. Here are 8 tips to help you take control over your health.
1. Eat a healthy diet: Think of food as medication. If you eat the right things, you will feel more energetic and healthier, if you eat the wrong things you will create the opposite effect. A healthier you is more able to step outside the door and interact with the world.
2. Create and maintain meaningful friendships: When you create a bond with others in a caring way, your body releases oxytocin, the feel-good hormone. This will trigger feelings of increased happiness and thus improve your health.
3. Join in social activities: When you join a group that has the same interests, you are prone to meet new people, feel part of a “tribe” and thus feel supported while giving you the chance to support others as well.
4. Find a hobby: When we engage in activities that we love, we feel engaged. This in turn can open the door for us to connect with others that share similar passions.
5. Learn something new: When we learn something new, we are stimulating our brain cells, creating new dendrites and paths for our dendrites. I know a lady in her 70s that because of a health condition could not leave her home. She decided to learn how to use a computer and how to skype so she could connect with other people around the world and interact with them through her computer. She created her own circle of friends, sharing the same interests. It all started with her reaching out to others saying “teach me how to use a computer” and her willingness to learn something new.
6. Get a pet: Pets are a living creatures, and we can bond with them in meaningful ways. Studies show that when we interact with pets, vital signs like blood pressure and heart rate regulate themselves to healthier parameters. When we take care of a pet, we also feel a sense of purpose.
7. Become an active member of your community: A few months ago, while in Florida, I met a lady in her 80s while she was riding a bike around her neighborhood. She told me her interesting story (which will be posted on Ittaika’s website soon) and how every morning she rides her bike around the neighborhood checking on all her neighbors, especially those with health issues. She feels a sense of purpose, helping her community while helping herself by staying engaged.
8. Exercise regularly: when we exercise, our bodies stay healthier longer, we stay stronger and promote a longer lifespan that is independent enough to allow us to fully engage in life and interact with others. If you do not exercise regularly, you can start by first asking your doctor if there are any guidelines you need to follow due to medications or specific conditions, then start slow and build up from your starting point.
If you have a passive attitude towards your health, I invite you try these 8 empowering actions to help you reconnect with your health and with those around you.