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Seasonal Loneliness: Epidemic taking a toll on human health

Joanne Richard
Special to The Weather Network

Tuesday, December 12, 2017, 9:54 AM - One is the loneliest number and many of us are feeling it. With the chilly days of winter here, we’re getting out a lot less and isolation becomes more acute.

That’s something we need to be aware of because there’s a loneliness epidemic going on and it’s taking a toll on people’s health. Actually you run the risk of illness and even premature death. It’s more deadly than obesity.

So if you’re already feeling isolated, it’s likely to worsen in the upcoming months unless you take steps to connect. “Darker days result in more distress while sunlight has been found to promote emotional well-being,” according Timothy Smith, a Brigham Young University professor who has studied loneliness.

Visit our Complete Guide to Winter 2017/18 for a preview of the Winter Forecast, tips to survive it and much more.

As the days get colder and darker, energy and mood can take a nosedive and this decreases our motivation to go out and connect with others, says wellness expert Beverly Beuermann-King. The less we go out, the less we connect. The less we connect, the less we go out or make efforts to engage with others. It can become a vicious circle.

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Stats are startling: 40% of Americans describe themselves as lonely, while a quarter of Canadians do. Data from the General Social Survey found that the number of Americans with no close friends has tripled in recent decades; actually a quarter of them report having not one single friend.

Perhaps no other age group feels the pain of loneliness more than the elderly. More than 40 per cent of American seniors report being lonely, while in Canada it’s estimated that 30% suffer from chronic loneliness. That number skyrockets to 80% for seniors 85 and over.

Blame it on modern life. We no longer live in small communities surround by family members, and that means we continue to become more and more disconnected. “We may not know our neighbours and in some cases, we don’t even know the name of the person who works a couple of offices or desks or stations away from us,” says Beuermann-King, of worksmartlivesmart.com.

We are increasingly isolated, agrees Smith. “Rates of living alone are at the highest recorded levels in human history. Marriages and families, which can provide support, are increasingly beset by stressors. People delay marriage, have fewer children, and feel more lonely.”

Loneliness results from unmet social expectations. Online interactions do not provide meaningful connection, says Smith. Meaningful interactions involve personal investment and often sacrifices for the sake of the connections.

The isolation weakens our immune systems and damages our mental health. We engage less intently in health-promoting behaviours, such as exercise and other forms of self-care, because we’re feeling depressed and unwanted, and instead resort to unhealthy behaviours such as smoking and drinking.

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And add to that overspending, and further digging ourselves into stressful debt. Distracting ourselves from life’s coldness can fuel online shopping, according to shopaholic expert April Benson. “We certainly know that online shopping can be an equal opportunity all-purpose mood changer.”

Benson, of shopaholicnomore.com, reports that the cold keeps us in our houses and, unfortunately, that increased indoor time may be accompanied by increased stress and loneliness that getting out normally distracts us from, and the online shopping can then be used as a stress reliever.

“Unfortunately, loneliness and isolation take their toll, and shopping – often over-shopping – is a way to distract from intense and uncomfortable feelings, to anesthetize ourselves.”

Make an effort to warm up your days and diminish loneliness with tips from Beuermann-King:

  • Seek out connection. Make it a point to connect with friends, family and colleagues even if you don’t feel like it at first. Often we find that the effort is well worth the boost to our mood and energy.
  • Spend more time outdoors during the day – aim for 20 minutes twice a day. It doesn’t matter if it is a glorious winter morning or a dreary, cloudy afternoon.
  • Arrange your indoor environments to get more natural light. Move your furniture so that you sit near a window.
  • Install full spectrum lights to lamps and lights.
  • Eat regularly and nutritiously.
  • Get regular amounts of sleep.
  • Exercise regularly and, if you can, take it outdoors.
  • Helping other people increases bonding and reduces isolation. Reach out to a lonely friend or family member and let them know that you are thinking about them. Send them a message, call them on the phone, or go for a visit.
  • Hug someone today. Giving five people a hug every day can lower your own stress level by 25%!

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