• Megan Baldwin, LMSW

Social Health + The Heart

Loneliness. We have all felt it at some point in our lives. Many of us might be experiencing it currently. In fact, one quick Google search revealed several links filled with 50+ caption ideas titled “lyrics about loneliness” for people to use for their quarantine Instagram posts. In fact, there are currently over 1.3 million posts using the hashtag #loneliness on Instagram as I write this post. Feeling isolated and lonely is an even more common occurrence today as we continue to experience social distancing and as many of us remain in quarantine due to health concerns from COVID-19.


Research continues to reveal that loneliness not only impacts our social media feed these days, but it has a significant impact on our health. For a lot of people, loneliness is an emotion that we often associate with the emotional experience of a broken heart. Society tends to focus on discussing the effects of isolation and loneliness more frequently in the mental health sphere, however, our research indicates that physical health becomes greatly impacted as well. In fact, cardiovascular disease is among some of the greatest risks for isolation when looking at the impact of loneliness and physical health. In an article in TIME from 2018, Christian Hakulinen, a professor of psychology, deduced that social disconnect “may not cause heart problems, [but] it could seriously affect your ability to recover from them” (Ducharme, 2018).


We know that smoking, alcohol consumption, and obesity are mortality risks and contribute to heart disease and other cardiovascular issues, but Lundstad, Smith and Layton’s study on social relationships and mortality risk shows “the influence of social relationships on the risk of death are comparable” (2010) to the above mentioned mortality risks. According to Harvard Health, adults that experienced “loneliness, social isolation, or both were associated with a 29% increased risk of heart attack and 32% greater risk of stroke” (Harvard Health Publishing, 2016). So, there might be more pain to a broken heart than we realize.


According to The UnLonely Project, a program founded by the Foundation for Art and Healing, “loneliness affects more than one-third of American adults, with particular likelihood among individuals facing life challenges” (The Foundation for Art & Healing, 2020). In fact, their research shows that there is a “growing incidence of depression, substance abuse, and suicide” (The Foundation for Art & Healing, 2020) in teens, young adults, and older adults, because of isolation and loneliness.


While many of these statistics have been found of older adults, according to The New York Times, the 18-24 age bracket currently has the “highest incident of loneliness, as much as 50 percent higher than occurs among the elderly” (Brody, 2018). “…research indicates... Internet and social media engagement exacerbate feelings of loneliness, depression, and anxiety” (The Foundation for Art & Healing, 2020). A major concept that has emerged in the realm of social health is the term “social stress.” SpringerLink defines “social stress” as “a situation which threatens one’s relationships, esteem, or sense of belonging within a dyad, group, or larger social context” (Juth & Dickerson, 2013). It appears, now, more than ever, people are experiencing social stress as they begin to navigate what their social health looks like after several months of COVID-19 and in the unprecedented heightened political divide throughout our country.


So how do we combat this growing problem, particularly in a time when social connection is at its scarcest? Fortunately, resources exist for those that are feeling isolated. Here are a few that I recommend. Many researchers, therapists and coaches suggest by facing the loneliness epidemic head-on by talking about it. One of the most important realizations when looking at one’s own loneliness, is acknowledging those feelings in the first place. Try to recognize the facts from the feelings and take note that even in your loneliness, you are not alone, based on statistics.


Second, try to take an inventory of your current relationships – and engage them! Social media can be a negative culprit that can breed social stress, but it can also be a way for individuals to connect/reconnect. Call a friend that you have not talked to in a while to catch up; schedule a virtual coffee date with a family member, play a virtual game together, the ideas are endless. All that matters is that you are connecting with someone you trust and care about. Try your best to bridge the gap between loneliness and connection – even if it is a simple conversation or gesture, it is a start.


Third, practice a good self-care regimen. This can include doing something beneficial for your body like exercising, or simply splurging on something kind for yourself like renting that movie you have been wanting to see for a while. Go for a walk, start a new fitness routine. Many people have gotten into online fitness groups and have felt strength and connection through programs like Peloton and Beachbody, just to name a few! Find a new recipe and try it out – share it with a loved one.


Gratitude practice is another great way to build up not only your own happiness, but happiness of others and improve relationships. Expressing gratitude to those we love and care for is an important factor in relationships success. But the benefits keep coming. When we are practicing gratitude in our lives, it not only improves our emotional and mental health, but studies have shown that “people of all ages and various nationalities who have more grateful dispositions report fewer health complaints” (Allen, 2018). Additionally, “more grateful people reported better sleep, less fatigue, less depression… and lower levels of systemic inflammation” (Allen, 2018).


Most people know that social health and connection is important for a happy and healthy life. However, it is beneficial to reflect on the specifics of these aspects of our holistic health. I hope that you have not only learned something from this post, but you will take at least one of these practices and begin to put it into place in your daily life, for a happier, healthier, and more social life. As Baya Voce says in her TEDx talk from 2016, “in order to feel connection, we need to feel seen, heard, and valued.” It is my hope that you have found ways to feel connected today – and if you haven’t, don’t lose heart. If you or someone you know is experiencing loneliness and depression, do not be ashamed to reach out to a loved one or a therapist for help.

Resources

Allen, S. (2018, March 5). Is Gratitude Good for Your Health? Retrieved July 28, 2020, from https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/is_gratitude_good_for_your_health


Brody, J. (2018, June 25). To Counter Loneliness, Find Ways to Connect. Retrieved July 28, 2020, from https://www.nytimes.com/2018/06/25/well/to-counter-loneliness-find-ways-to-connect.html


Ducharme, J. (2018, March 26). Social Isolation Actually Hurts Your Heart, A New Study Says. Retrieved July 28, 2020, from https://time.com/5212558/loneliness-social-isolation-heart-health/


The Foundation for Art & Healing. (2020, July 08). UnLonely Project: The Foundation for Art & Healing. Retrieved July 28, 2020, from https://www.artandhealing.org/


Harvard Health Publishing (2016, June). Loneliness has same risk as smoking for heart disease. Retrieved July 28, 2020, from https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/loneliness-has-same-risk-as-smoking-for-heart-disease


Holt-Lunstad, J., Smith, T., & Layton, J. (2010, July 27). Social Relationships and Mortality Risk: A Meta-analytic Review. Retrieved July 28, 2020, from https://journals.plos.org/plosmedicine/article?id=10.1371%2Fjournal.pmed.1000316


Juth V., Dickerson S. (2013) Social Stress. In: Gellman M.D., Turner J.R. (eds) Encyclopedia of Behavioral Medicine. Springer, New York, NY

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