The connection between loneliness, depression and illness
In the 1990’s a guy named John Cacioppo got curious about how what goes on around you has any impact on people’s experience of depression or anxiety. He found a way to study it by having people write down how connected or lonely they felt and their heart rate. What he eventually discovered is that the more lonely you feel, the more cortisol is in your system. Cortisol is a hormone released when we are under stress.
Cortisol serves a purpose as it helps us react to stressful situations, say if someone threatens you or harms you. However, when the stress does not go away, it takes a toll on your body and mind. What this study figured out is that deep loneliness causes as much stress as getting assaulted by a stranger.
Lisa Berkan did a complimentary study. Combined they discovered that loneliness made people three times more likely to catch a cold, two to three times more likely to die, and things like cancer and heart disease were more fatal. As one of the effects of cortisol is to suppress immune system function, these findings are very realistic.
John turned his eyes towards depression. He discovered that loneliness can cause depression and make it much worse. The opposite is true. Connection alleviated depression. So if you have a friend who is depressed you do not need to be a therapist to help. You do not need any answers either. If you bring a non-judgmental presence, help out in little ways your friend is comfortable with, and just be there when needed you are helping more than you know.
The more lonely you become the more your mind has to make sense of why. It is not uncommon for people to conclude that there must be something wrong with them. Which in turn makes them more anxious around other people and sometimes see threats when they are not there. When you are present with people, you affirm their value and worth and help them think better of themselves.
Being with people not only helps us feel good, it helps us feel more secure. Unfortunately our culture has become fragmented and isolated. It’s fueling the rise in depression and anxiety. Some groups in our culture feel this more. The explosion of social media use correlates strongly with depression among teenage females. Older men, somewhat shaped by a culture that has less room for vulnerability and authenticity, have few if any life giving connections aside from their partner, if they have one. Some theorize the gap in life expectancy between men and women can be explained by the lack of life giving relationships in older men.
The remedy for loneliness is not just having someone else around. John discovered that you need to feel like you are sharing something with someone else. Perhaps it is a shared vacation, or a construction project, or organizing a family gathering. The key is that whatever you do together it needs to be meaningful for both of you.
Another key factor would be learning to listen well and respond to the needs of our loved ones. Our sense of bond or connection is directly related to how emotionally attuned we are to one another. In any relationship we all make small asks, some even unspoken. Say your partner is bundled up in their favourite chair with laptop and their phone rings in the other room. If you think to grab that phone and bring it to them, you communicate to they matter to you. That you are willing to sacrifice just a little for their sake. If start telling you something difficult about their day be curious and caring. You do not need to solve their problem, again your caring presence does a lot all by itself. Often, people know the answers to their dilemmas, they just need someone to care. This creates that sense of security, lowers those cortisol levels, and makes it easier to think through situations.
To learn more about disconnection with people contributes to anxiety and depression read Johann Harri’s excellent book “Lost Connections“.
Much of the content of this most is found in Chapter 7 of this book.