Ask the Pharmacist

Q) I am finding this social distancing really challenging from a mental health perspective. I feel really lonely right now. Should I be concerned?

A) Never before has society been so connected given all of our technological advances especially with respect to cell phones and the plethora of social media sites that have popped up over the last decade. And yet, many experts feel we were in the midst of a “loneliness” epidemic long before COVID-19 raised its ugly head and this “crisis” has been exacerbated even further by the necessary precautions we all have had to take.

First, we should discuss just what loneliness is. It is a state of mind that causes people to feel empty, unwanted and alone. While it is experienced by all nations, some societies and demographics seem to be plagued by it more.

One website’s listing of the incidence of loneliness by country read like a listing of the G8 as modern western economies topped its chart (Canada incidentally was listed as having the 6th loneliest people as a percentage of population. Sweden was the highest). As well, many experts believe that loneliness is more prevalent in young adults which may come as a surprise to many of us who would perhaps quite naturally assume it would be our most elderly seniors who would be most likely to be affected.

Loneliness as an emotion is very complex and is uniquely experienced by individuals making its prevention, and treatment if necessary, challenging for our health care professionals.

However, one thing to keep in mind is that feeling lonely is not always a “bad” thing. In fact many sociologists feel it is an evolutionary imperative that allowed us to survive and thrive over other species as it served to encourage us to be with others which eventually allowed homo sapiens to cooperate in unprecedented ways and dominate the world (for a more in depth discussion on this matter, perhaps consider reading Yuval Noah Harari’s book called Sapiens).

Feeling lonely, much like feeling anxious, is not necessarily a negative as it can serve to motivate us to take positive actions in our life. However, chronic loneliness, defined as feeling alone more than once a week for a prolonged period of time can be a significant health issue. Before we discuss just what its impact on our health can be, we should discern the difference between being alone and loneliness as there is a very clear distinction between these two states.

Loneliness goes much deeper than one’s surroundings and it is entirely possible to feel absolutely isolated from the rest of the human race while sitting in the midst of a roomful of people. Chronic loneliness can jeopardize your health in real and meaningful ways.

A little while ago there was a widely reported news headline from the UK’s Department of Health stating that chronic loneliness was as dangerous as smoking 15 cigarettes a day and more damaging to your health than being obese. While this statement may be a little over the top (hopefully), it can affect your body in numerous ways.

The least surprising is its impact on our mental health. Apparently our brain processes loneliness much like physical pain so similarly it has been linked to such conditions as depression, insomnia, substance abuse and other mental health and emotional conditions. There certainly seems to be at least an association with dementia and Alzheimer’s as people who have been diagnosed with chronic loneliness are 64% more likely to eventually succumb to one of the forms of dementia.

As well, loneliness also slows us down in the here and now as it makes concentrating, making decisions and problem solving all more difficult to perform. But it does not just affect us mentally. People who suffer from chronic loneliness seem to have genes that undergo a phenomenon known as over-expression.

Over time, this causes inflammation and trauma to the heart’s tissues and blood vessels leading to increased risks for high blood pressure, heart disease and their subsequent complications namely strokes and heart attacks. Given all these negative consequences to the body it is not shocking to find out that those of us who are chronically lonely have a lower life expectancy. Clearly, this is a condition that should be treated before it wreaks havoc on our long term health.

The first step is to acknowledge the problem and talk to a doctor, therapist or other health professional about it. Many people suffering from this have deeply-rooted negative feelings about themselves and a properly trained professional can help you to become less self-critical.

As well, as difficult as it inevitably will be, try to engage in a positive manner with others. Force yourself to sign up for a club, sport, work out group ,or community volunteer program which can all provide safe and satisfying ways to connect with others. This club may be a virtual club initially but at some point people will be able to meet in groups once again. Make sure you get outdoors and expose yourself to some sunlight while exercising which can elevate your positive brain chemicals such as serotonin and the endorphins which can boost your cognitive abilities, enhance your sleep and make you feel happier.

Another step is to look for a support group for people who feel the same way you do. Support groups are wonderful organizations full of people who have experienced the same challenges you are currently facing. Again, it may need to be a virtual group to start. They are almost inevitably great sources of learned advice and are a non judgemental concern for your wellbeing.

The long and short of this is that feeling lonely is normal for all of us at some point in our lives, and especially now as we practice social distancing over a prolonged period of time. If however, these feelings continue unabated then please take the hard but brave step of reaching out for help before this emotional state starts to take its toll upon your brain and body.

For more information about this or any other health concerns, contact your pharmacist.