Americans are lonely and our health is suffering for it. Isolation is often an underlying factor in many of the most common health conditions, including chronic pain, substance abuse and depression, according to osteopathic physicians.
Long working hours, increased use of social media—in many cases surpassing in-person interaction—and a mobile workforce traveling or living far from family contribute to high rates of loneliness, noted Jennifer Caudle, DO, assistant professor of family medicine at Rowan University School of Osteopathic Medicine.
“Loneliness is an invisible epidemic masked by our online personas, which are rarely representative of our real emotions,” said Dr. Caudle. “It’s important for patients to understand how their mental and emotional well-being directly affects the body. By taking a whole-person approach to care, osteopathic physicians are trained to address these underlying issues that can quietly erode patients’ health.”
Many of the institutions that once created community, such as schools, churches and neighborhood organizations, have been replaced by online versions or more solitary activities, Dr. Caudle noted, adding to modern day loneliness.
Just over 3 in 10 (31%) Americans reported feeling a sense of loneliness at least once a week, suggesting this condition is widespread and likely affects someone you know.
A survey last year of more than 2,000 American adults found 72 percent report having felt a sense of loneliness, with nearly a third (31 percent) experiencing loneliness at least once a week. The survey was conducted online by Harris Poll on behalf of the American Osteopathic Association.
In the survey, just over 3 in 10 (31%) Americans reported feeling a sense of loneliness at least once a week, suggesting this condition is widespread and likely affects someone you know. Despite a high quantity of online connections, many people feel disconnected.
The first step in addressing loneliness is to determine whether those feelings are caused by depression. A physician can diagnose any existing mental health conditions and suggest treatment options. To limit loneliness, Dr. Caudle recommends some simple steps to help increase real social engagement:
Consider a digital cleanse. Social networks can offer real connections, but the curated platforms may overemphasize the success of others, which can lead to feelings of inadequacy. For more empowering activities, consider enrolling in a continuing education course or spending time enjoying nature.
Exercise with others. Participating in a running club, group fitness course or team sport can have dual benefits, creating opportunities to meet new people while also improving physical health. Many sports stores, churches and community groups offer free weekly activities including fun runs and yoga.
Buy local. Developing a routine that includes visiting a local shopkeeper, coffee shop, farmers’ market or gym builds roots in the community. Creating relationships with local vendors can lead to a sense of shared history and camaraderie.
Step out of your comfort zone. Introducing yourself to nearby neighbors or engaging with people in the building elevator—while initially uncomfortable—can begin the process of developing community and has the added bonus of alleviating loneliness for others.
Change jobs, schools or cities. This drastic option is not always possible, and certainly not easy, but it may have the most significant impact. Start by identifying the culture that would best fit your personality and work toward a transition.
“Face-to-face communication is critical for emotional and mental health,” Dr. Caudle added. “Seeking out meaningful human interactions makes patients happier and, ultimately, healthier overall.”
Doctors of Osteopathic Medicine (DOs) focus on prevention by gaining a deeper understanding of your lifestyle and environment, rather than just treating your symptoms. To learn more, visit www.DoctorsThatDO.org.