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Wellness And The Holidays: The Dangers of Loneliness

Even though my shingle says “chiropractor,” one of the core principles of my practice is that wellness is multi-dimensional: adjusting the spine is just one facet of a complete life of health.

If I align your spine, but your diet is a mess, we’re not going to be able to sustain the gains we make. The same is true if you are in great shape and eating right…but you are depressed…or your relationships are stressing you out, or you live in a moldy, toxic environment. Like a diamond, your life has many facets, and each one has its own measurement of wellness, but they all interact with each other.

Emotional Wellness And The Holiday Season

As we head into the holiday season, I am becoming increasingly aware of emotional wellness, so I want to spend some time focusing on that this month.

I deal with a large number of people every week:

  • My patients
  • People who attend my fitness classes
  • The people at the monthly Fundamental Food and Friends Dinners (last week’s dinner with Jan Etzel was amazing, by the way – we had SUCH a great night digging deep into the topic of gardening)
  • Colleagues
  • People at church
  • and of course, my family.

Most of the people I know are in a pretty good place emotionally, but the holiday season is one of those times when deep-seated emotional issues tend to rise to the surface. Since my dad died this summer, I have noticed that I have been a little more raw emotionally, and I’m sure the holidays are going to draw out new waves of emotion that I have never dealt with before. I can only imagine what my mom is feeling.

The Most Wonderful Time?

But that brings up my point for this week’s “Wellness Wednesday.” Andy Williams famously says, “It’s the most wonderful time of the year,” and for the most part, I agree with that. But I also recognize that it is one of the most painful times of the year for people. I’ve had some Christmases that I would just as soon forget. You probably have, too.

One of the biggest reasons for holiday blues is loneliness.

It seems like an oxymoron to be lonely at the holidays, but that’s kind of the point. Because there is such a high expectation for community at the holidays, the experience of loneliness is intensified when people feel isolated at the holidays.

Most people’s memories of the holidays are wrapped in the positive community neurotransmitter, oxytocin. Oxytocin is the brain chemical that causes the warm feeling that washes over you when are surrounded by good friends or being held by someone you love. Think about every single holiday shopping commercial you have ever seen – what do they promote? The feeling of community at Christmas, right? Seeing people having fun together triggers the release of oxytocin in your brain, (spoiler alert!) which is why advertisers use those kinds of images in their ads: they want you to associate their products with good feelings.

Now, flip that on its head.

Withdrawal Symptoms

When you are alone and your subconscious is expecting a release of oxytocin associated with community, it makes the loneliness feel more intense. That’s why people who suffer from depression typically have such a deep low at the holidays. Like the withdrawal symptoms you feel when your brain is craving drugs (or sugar) and you can’t get them, it’s not just emotional at that point; it’s physiological, and it has a real effect on your physical body.

Take a look at this excerpt from a great article published by Psychology Today:

“Psychologist John Cacioppo of the University of Chicago has been tracking the effects of loneliness. He performed a series of novel studies and reported that loneliness works in some surprising ways to compromise health.

  • Perhaps most astonishing, in a survey he conducted, doctors themselves confided that they provide better or more complete medical care to patients who have supportive families and are not socially isolated.
  • Living alone increases the risk of suicide for young and old alike.
  • Lonely individuals report higher levels of perceived stress even when exposed to the same stressors as non-lonely people, and even when they are relaxing.
  • The social interaction lonely people do have are not as positive as those of other people, hence the relationships they have do not buffer them from stress as relationships normally do.
  • Loneliness raises levels of circulating stress hormones and levels of blood pressure. It undermines regulation of the circulatory system so that the heart muscle works harder and the blood vessels are subject to damage by blood flow turbulence.
  • Loneliness destroys the quality and efficiency of sleep, so that it is less restorative, both physically and psychologically. They wake up more at night and spend less time in bed actually sleeping than do the nonlonely.

Loneliness, Cacioppo concludes, sets in motion a variety of “slowly unfolding pathophysiological processes.” The net result is that the lonely experience higher levels of cumulative wear and tear.”

If you’ve ever been lonely, especially at the holidays, you know this is all true. We were built for community, and isolation tears at the fabric of our psyche, but it also takes a toll on your body. Maybe that’s why solitary confinement and banishment have been used as a form of punishment since the Garden of Eden.

Loneliness Can Harm Your Body

I’ve seen patients who should otherwise have been in good health age prematurely because they were lonely. Stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol work overtime when they aren’t balanced out by feel-good hormones, like oxytocin and dopamine. And like we’ve talked about before, your body was designed to handle short bursts of the stress hormones, but chronic stress leaves the valves open, dumping toxic amounts of abrasive chemicals into your bloodstream and organ tissue. Not a good thing at all.

If you are approaching the holiday season alone, I want to encourage you to do one of the following:

  • Reach out to friends you have lost touch with. There is always a risk that it might be awkward, but the rewards can be so rejuvenating.
  • Join a local networking group. Go on Facebook and find a group in your area that is focused on a topic that interests you. You might be surprised at who you meet.
  • Visit a local church. I know this one can be controversial because people associate the church with people who have hurt them in the past. If you’ve been hurt by someone in a church, and you are reluctant to get involved again, I understand. But I urge you to look past that. You don’t stop eating just because you got a bad meal somewhere. Visit a few until you find a place you can fit in. If you don’t know where to start, call my office and I’ll be glad to recommend a few where I know you will be welcomed.

We Need Community

We need community to survive…even my friends who majored in forestry because they wanted to live their lives away from people. That’s why the Blue Zones Project included it in their Power 9 list of factors that contribute to longevity. We were created to thrive in community.

Speaking of community, I would be so honored if you would join the community we’ve formed on Facebook. Just like our page and participate in the conversation. We’re always looking for new friends and new perspectives. Our community is not complete without you. And bring a friend! Take four seconds to share this on your favorite social channel, and let see who comes along.

“At the end of your FEELINGS is NOTHING. At the end of your PRINCIPLES is a PROMISE.” — Eric Thomas

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