The Importance of Community to Health
Friday, April 29, 2016 29 Comments
People Who Need People
Avoiding Isolation and Loneliness
© Madelyn Griffith-Haynie, CTP, CMC, ACT, MCC, SCAC
from the ADD/EFD Comorbids Series – part 1 of 3
Human beings are social creatures. We are social not just in the trivial sense that we like company, and not just in the obvious sense that we each depend on others. We are social in a more elemental way: simply to exist as a normal human being requires interaction with other people. ~ Atul Gawande
Problems before Solutions
As early as 350 B.C, Aristotle described a human being as “by nature a social animal.” For most of the time since, that idea has been considered little more than “anecdotal evidence” by most of the scientific community, since there were few double-blind, placebo controlled, replicated and journal published studies to “verify” the observation according to the rules of the scientific method.
Until verified, according to the science field, no idea has been “proven,” so may or may not, in fact, be true.
Related Post: Science Confirms What we have Always Known – again
The Wikipedia article on the Scientific Method informs us that the Oxford English Dictionary defines it as “a method or procedure that has characterized natural science since the 17th century, consisting in systematic observation, measurement, and experiment, and the formulation, testing, and modification of hypotheses.” 
Related Post: Science and Sensibility – the illusion of proof
Meanwhile, the fields of sales and marketing, psychology & counseling, self-help (and relatively recently, even the science field itself), have taken a serious look at Aristotle’s observation, proposing theories and “proofs” in their attempts to explain why something so obvious might really be so – and how we can use it to our advantage, individually and as a species.
As scientists explore the workings of bodily functions at the nerve and cellular level, they are confirming that loneliness – the absence of social connection – is linked to a wide array of bodily ailments in addition to the mental conditions typically thought to be associated.
Easy to see with Extroverts
According to the Myers Briggs Type Indicator [MBTI], based on psychology but considered to be in the self-help field, the energy flow of the gregarious extrovert is directed outward, toward other people. The MBTI goes on to propose that an extrovert’s energy flow is recharged through interaction with others.
It is said that extroverts generally express great happiness in the company of other people, and are at risk of falling victim to depression should they spend long periods of time without the company of a circle of friends.
But what about Introverts?
Supposedly, while extroverts get their energy from spending time with people, introverts recharge and get their energy from spending time alone.
However, even the majority of people who consider themselves introverts would find it difficult to impossible to navigate life totally alone.
“It’s a mistake to think that most humans prefer the solitary life that so much of modern life imposes on us. We are most comfortable when we’re connected, sharing strong emotions and stories . . . “
~ Nick Morgan for Forbes.
“. . . introverts are not an exception, just a variation on the theme. We function just like any other human in society. The more extreme cases might be seen as the odd duck at times, but they are still just as social as anyone else, just with a different set of rules.”
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Isolation’s Link with Depression
Social withdrawal is one of the most common signs of depression – which, in turn, fans the flame in ways that increase social isolation, as hopelessness and thoughts of despair worsen over time. Worse still, isolation puts us at much greater risk of suicidal thoughts and urges that become increasingly difficult to overcome.
Stephen Ilardi, PhD., associate professor of psychology at the University of Kansas and author of The Depression Cure, asserts that “When we’re clinically depressed, there’s a very strong urge to pull away from others and to shut down [which] turns out to be the exact opposite of what we need.”
Ilardi further asserts that, “When people are clinically depressed, they will typically spend a lot of time and energy rehearsing negative thoughts, often for long stretches of time.”
Depressed or not, ADD/EFD readers of ADDandSoMuchMORE.com will recognize that comment as a fairly accurate description of what we refer to as rumination. Rumination can lead to interpreting even neutral events in a negative fashion.
Mark Goulston, MD, psychiatrist and author of Get Out of Your Own Way, says “When you’re in your own mind, you’re in enemy territory. You leave yourself open to [‘What’s the use?’] thoughts, and the danger is believing them.”
Rumination tends to exacerbate hopelessness and despair, hastening the slide into depression and intensifying the pull to say at home alone with our thoughts, until it becomes a vicious cycle.
Americans at Serious Risk
An article on the Psychology Today blog entitled Social Isolation is the Modern Plague informs us that the best research confirms that Americans are now perilously isolated. The article goes on to say that in a recent comprehensive study by scientists at Duke University, researchers have observed a sharp decline in social connectedness over the past 20 years.
25% of Americans have no meaningful social support at all – not one single person they can confide in. Over half of all Americans report having no close confidants or friends outside their immediate family, while others have little to no family contact as they age.
Addiction Vulnerability as well
In addition, there’s increasing evidence that isolation increases vulnerability to various forms of addiction, as illustrated by the following study described in a 2006 New York Times Magazine article:
Bruce Alexander, emeritus professor of psychology at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia took 16 lucky rats and plopped them into Rat Park, where they were offered water or a sweet, morphine-based cocktail (rats love sweets). Alexander offered the same two drinks to the control group of rats he left isolated in cages.
The results? The rat-parkers were apparently having too much fun to bother with artificial highs, because they hardly touched the morphine solution, no matter how sweet Alexander and his colleagues made it. The isolated and arguably depressed rats, on the other hand, eagerly got high, drinking more than a dozen times the amount of the morphine solution as the rats in paradise. (from page 5 of 7 of the web-posted Times article)
The UCLA Loneliness Scale, with 20 questions that cover variations on closeness and connection, has returned results that show that as many as 30% of the reports from Americans show that they do not feel close to other people at a given time.
No matter where we look for statistics, the situation today is much worse than when similar specifics were collected in 1985, when only 10% of Americans were discovered to be completely alone.
In a survey published by the AARP in 2010, slightly more than 33% of adults 45 and over reported being chronically lonely – with little social contact or meaningful connection for a significant number of years. A decade earlier, only 20% reported the same.
Additional Risk Factors of Emotional Isolation
In a fascinating article entitled The Lethality of Loneliness, the science editor of The New Republic, Judith Shulevitz, delves even further into the severity of a number of problems resulting from a lack of meaningful connection to one another.
Recent scientific discoveries are as consequential as the germ theory of disease. Just as we once knew that infectious diseases killed, but didn’t know that germs spread them, we’ve known intuitively that loneliness hastens death, but haven’t been able to explain how.
Psychobiologists can now show that loneliness sends misleading hormonal signals, rejiggers the molecules on genes that govern behavior, and wrenches a slew of other systems out of whack.
They have proved that long-lasting loneliness not only makes you sick; it can kill you.
Emotional isolation is ranked as high a risk factor for mortality as smoking.
A partial list of the physical diseases thought to be caused or exacerbated by loneliness would include Alzheimer’s, obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, neurodegenerative diseases, and even cancer tumors can metastasize faster in lonely people.
A number of articles on the effects of solitary confinement in prisoners makes several points that are even stronger and more disturbing about the dangers of the lack of social contact and connection.
The Scientific American Mind article, Solitary Confinement Is Cruel and Ineffective, discloses that about half of all prison suicides occur in isolation cells.
“Extreme isolation and sensory deprivation can take a severe, sometimes permanent, toll on emotional and mental health. Researchers have found that prisoners in solitary quickly become withdrawn, hypersensitive to sights and sounds, paranoid, and more prone to violence and hallucinations.”
The Wikipedia entry on solitary confinement has this to say:
The effects of solitary confinement on mental health are undeniable. Prison records from the Denmark institute in 1870 to 1920 indicate that staff noticed inmates were exhibiting signs of mental illnesses while in isolation, revealing that the persistent problem has been around for decades.
According to the Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry online, solitary confinement can cause an array of mental disorders, as well as provoke an already existing mental disorder in a prisoner, causing more trauma and symptoms . . . [and] no positive effects of the punishment have been proven (Jaapl).
Even Worse Effect on Juveniles
The isolation of solitary confinement (physical and social isolation of 22–24 hours per day for ONE day or more) can … provoke serious mental and physical health problems, and work against rehabilitation for juveniles. Because young people are still developing, traumatic experiences like solitary confinement may have a profound effect on their chance to rehabilitate and grow. Solitary confinement can worsen both short- and long-term psychological and physical problems or make it more likely that such problems will develop.
The ACLU and Human Rights Watch created a report that incorporated the testimony of some juvenile inmates. Many spoke of harming themselves with staples or razors, having hallucinations, losing touch with reality, and having thoughts of or attempting suicide – all while having limited access to health care.
The UN Special Rapporteur on Torture and other UN bodies have stated that the solitary confinement of young people under age 18, for any duration, constitutes cruel, inhumane, or degrading treatment.
An Epidemic of Loneliness
Loneliness is a longing for kind, not company. ~ source unknown
I doubt that many of the readers of ADDandSoMuchMore.com are as isolated as someone in solitary confinement. But I’ll bet that more than a few are likely to experience a state of social disconnection that dances dangerously close to the loneliness line.
It is unlikely that many of us will be able to initiate a number of close peer relationships surrounded primarily by people who are so unlike us they find it difficult to relate to our challenges or truly understand why we do the things we do – or how hard we really try to adhere to their expectations of what’s “normal.”
Company is not the same as connection.
Online Shopping, Social Media and Texting
According to the statistics, another group of readers is likely to interact most often in relatively superficial volleys of texts, quickie communications online in blog comments or through their participation in a wide variety of other social media – to a significantly greater degree than they spend time talking with connections face-to-face (in the absence of constant attention diverted by cell phone distractions!).
While their relatively superficial connections are statistically better than nothing at all – and certainly a way to avoid isolation – they too are dancing close to the loneliness line.
In the past five years or so, there has been a significant drop in “retail therapy” – alone or with the company of a friend. We order online, telling ourselves that we are saving time. But at what cost?
With the increasing preference for online shopping, many of us have shut ourselves off from time formerly spent in an enjoyable activity with a friend or two — and we no longer experience the benefits that even the brief interactions in stores have provided for years.
I fall victim to the convenience of online connections too, even knowing that it’s much better for me to interact with real people in real time.
I came across a quote on Pinterest that is as disturbing as it is humorous:
“If you ever need to call a family meeting, turn off the WIFI and wait in the room in which it’s located.”
A friend emailed a cartoon showing a woman on her computer, apparently sending out evites (online invitations), with a caption that read:
I having a party! A bunch of my friends will be coming to my house to play on their phones.
No wonder so many of us feel disconnected, if not actively lonely!
The High Risks of Loneliness
Studies show that loneliness increases the risk for early death by 45 percent and the chance of developing dementia in later life by 64 percent. On the other hand, people who have strong ties to family and close friends are as much as 50% LESS at risk of dying than those with fewer social connections – over any given period of time .
- Dr. Sanjay Gupta believes that the risks of loneliness are a significant threat to health and life that needs to be treated as a chronic illness.
- Richard Lang, MD, chair of preventive medicine at the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio believes that people need to attend to loneliness in “the same way they would their diet, exercise, or how much sleep they get.”
What makes a difference to our health (and what we are missing, whether we are aware of it consciously or not) is the kind of in-person, back and forth, shared-communication peer connections rarely available in our fast-paced, first-world society — except, for some people, during leisurely vacations once or twice a year.
Unless we have at least a few regularly recurring meaningful interactions of that type, even if we truly enjoy our own company, we remain essentially lonely in the ways that matter for glowing health and immune system resilience.
In Part 2 of this article, we’ll take a look at some of the ways in which many of us slide into loneliness, and in Part 3 we’ll explore suggestions to help us gradually reconnect with others in meaningful ways – upping our communication quotient to a level that makes sense with our lives – so stay tuned.
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