Several months ago, a patient whom I’ll call “Bruce” came in for a regular adjustment.
I’ve known Bruce professionally for a few years. He is gregarious, quick with a joke or a snarky comment, and easy to talk to. His Facebook page is full of pictures of his friends, his kids, and his grandkids. He had been retired since before he started coming to see me, so I don’t know what he was like when he was working full time, but he seems like the kind of person who would get along well with everyone. He often talked about funny things that happened in his business, vacations with colleagues, and his golfing buddies. He loved to laugh.
Hiding What’s Really Wrong
This visit was different. Bruce had been fighting an infection for months and couldn’t seem to shake it. He had been putting on weight and complaining about pain in his shoulders and elbows. Something wasn’t right.
I asked about his golf game. He shrugged. He hadn’t been playing. Now I KNEW something was wrong.
I asked if he had been to his medical doctor lately. I know his doctor—straight-shooter, no-nonsense guy. Bruce had been avoiding him because his last visit had come with some bad news: Bruce’s blood pressure was up, cholesterol was up, and the doctor was starting to talk about prescribing arthritis drugs.
Then I did it.
The Truth Comes Out
I didn’t mean to, but I did it.
I was just trying to change the subject.
I broke the dam open…totally by accident.
I asked about his grandkids.
He dropped his head and I could see his big shoulders start to heave as if he couldn’t hold back a wave of tears.
There had been an argument with his son and daughter-in-law. It seemed like a little thing at the time, but it wasn’t. They stopped coming over regularly. Then his son took a job out of state. Eventually, they got busy and stopped calling. At first, he was angry at them, but then he realized he was at fault. But by that point, nothing he did to repair the breach seemed to make a difference.
Suddenly, he realized that he was more alone than he thought. His golfing buddies were connected to his old job, and now that he was retired, he didn’t see them anymore. His wife still worked full-time, so she was gone a lot. Even when she was home, they didn’t talk much.
All the happy pictures on Facebook were a mask. In reality, Bruce was lonely, and it was playing out in his health.
How Isolation Was Destroying His Health
It all made sense. He was violating one of the Power 9 principles that the Blue Zones Project teaches us: he was isolated from his community, or “Right Tribe.” His relationship with his kids had become his only social outlet, and when that was cut off, he had nothing else.
As we so often say here on “Wellness Wednesday,” wellness is multi-faceted, and all the facets are connected. You can have a healthy spine, eat a perfect ketogenic diet, and still be sick as a dog if you are not enjoying mental and emotional wellness at the same time.
As Dr. Joseph Mercola points out in this excellent recent article:
“Negative emotions will invariably impact your physical well-being, and feeling lonely is no different. According to two meta analyses presented at the 2017 Annual Convention of the American Psychological Association, loneliness and social isolation — which are similar but not identical — pose greater threats to public health than obesity, raising your risk for premature death by as much as 50 percent. As reported by Medical News Today:
“While loneliness and social isolation are often used interchangeably, there are notable differences between the two. Social isolation is defined as a lack of contact with other individuals, while loneliness is the feeling that one is emotionally disconnected from others.
In essence, a person can be in the presence of others and still feel lonely. According to a 2016 Harris Poll7 of more than 2,000 adults in the U.S., around 72 percent reported having felt lonely at some point in their lives. Of these adults, around 31 percent reported feeling lonely at least once a week.”
The first analysis, which looked at 148 studies involving more than 300,000 adults, found social isolation increased the risk of premature death by 50 percent. The second,8,9 which evaluated 70 studies that included more than 3.4 million individuals, found social isolation, loneliness and living alone correlated with a 29 percent, 26 percent and 32 percent increased risk of mortality respectively.
Overall, this is comparable to the risk of premature death associated with obesity and other well-established risk factors for mortality, including the risks associated with smoking 15 cigarettes a day.”
Loneliness has a negative effect on your physical health similar to obesity and smoking!!
Dr. Mercola goes on to establish that loneliness is associated with excess stress, high blood pressure, poor sleep, inflammation, and reduced immune function.
You Don’t Have To Be Alone To Be Lonely
Now, there are significant health benefits to taking some personal time to be alone—even Jesus made sure that he took time off to be alone during his earthly ministry. I’m not talking about being alone; we’re dealing here with being lonely.
You may know the feeling of being lonely in a crowded room, or even at a family event. Physical proximity without a corresponding emotional connection can leave you feeling empty. In other words, just because there are people around you doesn’t mean you are connecting with them in a healthy way.
We see a similar phenomenon among people whose only social interaction is on Facebook. Like we saw in Bruce’s case, even though he was active on Facebook, he was still alone–and not just alone in his office. There is an emotional/spiritual dynamic here. Since Bruce was portraying on Facebook a false reality, he was not really allowing anyone real access to his heart. The people who were commenting on his photos were not really connecting with him because they weren’t really seeing the real him. They were seeing the false front he was showing them. He wasn’t enjoying the fellowship because they were fellowshipping with a false image he was presenting.
The same is true in the real world. People who put on a “mask” in public settings, portraying themselves to be something they are not, experience deep loneliness, even when the people around them are sincerely trying to connect with them, because they are only giving those people surface access, not opening their heart to them for real connection.
A Bigger Problem
This is becoming a matter of social policy, as professionals from a wide variety of disciplines are recognizing the health risks associated with loneliness. In a great piece published just yesterday on the blog, Mad In America:
“Holt-Lundstad, a Psychology professor at Brigham Young University, argues that social isolation, like obesity, is a “multiply determined” health risk factor, and as such must be approached as a public health issue. Regarding the essential role of social connection in human health and survival, Holt-Lunstad writes:
“Humans are one of the most vulnerable species at birth, relying on others for nearly all aspects of survival—a human infant would simply die if left alone…it is…clear that humans would not survive without the care and nurturance of others…”
“Much as thirst drives one to consume water, loneliness may be a biologically adaptive response motivating one to reconnect socially.”
We Were Not Meant To Be Alone
As the old expression states, “no man is an island.” We were not created to live alone. Even in a culture that values independence, where career pursuits separate us from our families, and where increasing numbers of people never marry or have children, there has to be a place in our life for relationships.
We have to get beyond the carefully-sculpted personas (or masks) we show the world on Facebook, and embrace each other, warts and all, at the heart level. No matter what we think we want, deep intimacy is what we all really crave at our core. And like Bruce, our bodies are beginning to show the effects social malnourishment in the same ways they would show the effects of mineral malnourishment or dehydration.
It’s not a coincidence that we’re talking about this now, during the holidays. Holidays are the social-heavy times of the year when our loneliness is displayed in the starkest contrast. That’s why we’ve spent the last few weeks talking about it. That’s why I’m having Kathy Feinstein, MS speak at our next Fundamental Foods and Friends Dinner on Thursday, December 7 at 6:15 p.m. Click here to RSVP on Facebook and claim your seat now before it fills up, just like all the others. I really believe this is going to be a very special night that will equip you to help others confront the issues of loneliness in a real way.
Before we see another wave of depression and suicide wash over our culture, I want to get this conversation out in the open. I want to talk frankly about it so that people can recognize the pangs of loneliness for what they are, know that they are not alone, and deal with them appropriately.
Can you help me with that?
Take a few seconds to share this article on your favorite social media channel, and let’s get people talking about it.
“At the end of your FEELINGS is NOTHING. At the end of your PRINCIPLES is a PROMISE.” — Eric Thomas