By Victoria Matthews, PACFA Registered Counsellor
Love and belonging are fundamental human needs. As we head into the Christmas season, it’s timely to focus on those people who will find themselves standing in a crowded room, yet still feel lonely. Take a moment, and imagine how that feels. How does it happen? It’s because it isn’t solitude that makes us lonely. It’s a lack of connection to others; a feeling that you aren’t loved or cherished, or that you aren’t emotionally safe.
A recent University of Chicago study showed that the bodies of people suffering from loneliness had changed in such a way that the risk of inflammatory diseases increased and their antiviral response diminished. In other words, our brains are wired to equate loneliness with danger, and to switch our bodies into a defensive state. This makes sense if you think back to our origins as hunter gatherers. We’ve come a long way since our time chasing mammoths, but our brains instinctively know there is safety in staying connected to other members of our tribe.
In fact, a recent University of Chicago study identified a link between loneliness and how our genes express themselves. Loneliness changes your body, giving a greater resistance of blood flow through your cardiovascular system, higher levels of cortisol, a poor immune function, an increased likelihood of depression and a failure to sleep deeply. Chronic loneliness is actually as dangerous for you as high-risk behaviours such as smoking, obesity or a lack of exercise.
The truth is you can be isolated and lonely in a crowded room, in a classroom full of people, in a house full of family or even an unhappy marriage.
A comprehensive University of Utah study on marriage quality discovered that men and women in loveless, sexless or ambivalent marriages consistently post higher blood pressure readings on any given day. They also found that a marital fight that was critical, contemptuous or controlling in tone was as predictive of poor heart health as whether the individual smoked or had high cholesterol.
In a similar study, Ohio State University researchers discovered that wounds heal more slowly in couples that have hostile arguments versus those who manage conflict without hostility.
A surprising amount of people endure joyless, ambivalent and even difficult relationships, either with their partner or family members. Yet if you knew how badly it was affecting your physical health, would you continue to settle for what you have? People endure these lives because that’s the Australian way – you do what you need to do and you get on with it.
Yet these people become sick and fatigued. They wonder why they’re not sleeping. Why does their neck ache? Where has this persistent headache come from? Why is their stomach bloated? How could they possibly have gained weight?
These are all symptoms of emotional stress – the early onset of depression. But these unhappy people, even though they might go to a doctor and pick up an anti-depressant, will all too often avoid looking themselves in the mirror and asking that profoundly important question, ‘am I emotionally well? Can I change this situation? And if I can’t, can I change the way I react to this situation?’
For most people, taking a pill won’t change anything. It won’t suddenly improve the way you handle people, or the way they respond to you.
Interpersonal therapy or couples counselling is the best place to start for the emotional support you need to move your life into a more positive space. From there you move outward into other holistic lifestyle changes.
Quality relationships – with family, friends and loved ones – are associated with much better health outcomes long-term and profound improvements in wellness.
It’s worth investing in your emotional wellbeing now.