Loneliness & isolation with disability

And what you can do about it

The elderly and people with chronic health conditions are vulnerable to loneliness, which can harm emotional and physical health. Learn how to loosen its hold.

Nights are the worst for Donna Brown, 69, a retired nurse who has tinnitus, a neurologic condition that causes ringing or other sounds in the ear. “Loneliness comes on when the world is asleep and I’m wide awake listening to the constant noises in my ears. I also feel lonely when I try to share my experiences with others, and they look at me blankly because they can’t understand what I’m going through,” says Brown, a musician and author who lives in Pearce, AZ, with her husband, Gary, and their dog, Caddy.

For Nathan Todd, 35, who has cerebral palsy, loneliness has been a lifelong experience. “When you navigate the world with a disability, the narrative that you’re a burden to people makes you feel lonely,” explains Todd, founder of No Label Defines Me coaching, who lives with his mother in Charleston, SC. The first step in countering his loneliness is identifying it as it happens. “It pops up when I’m going through periods of physical pain,” he says. “It’s about wanting to be understood, but it’s hard for people to relate to the experience of cerebral palsy.”

Loneliness & isolation

The loneliness that Todd and Brown describe differs from social isolation. Isolation is based on how many social relationships a person has, whereas loneliness results from having fewer relationships than one desires. “Loneliness describes how we think about our social relationships and if they satisfy our need for connection and belonging,” explains Louise Hawkley, PhD, senior research scientist for the research organization NORC at the University of Chicago. It’s also different from being alone but content.

Different forms of loneliness

There are nuances of loneliness that can make each experience unique, says Lis Nielsen, PhD, director of the division of behavioral and social research at the National Institute on Aging. Emotional loneliness is a lack of intimacy or attachment. Social loneliness involves unsatisfying personal connections or a feeling of not belonging. Existential loneliness reflects a lack of meaning or a sense of being separate from others and the world. Loneliness can be transient or chronic, situational or reactive. It can happen at any age and whether or not people are alone, Dr. Nielsen says.

But loneliness is nothing new. “I think there has been a pandemic of loneliness for the last 20 to 30 years,” says Dilip Jeste, MD, professor of psychiatry and neuroscience and director of the Center for Healthy Aging at the University of California San Diego.

Tackling Loneliness

Whether you are lonelier now because of the pandemic or felt lonely before it, you can take steps to address the feeling. Start by saying ‘Yes, I’m lonely’ then consider one or more of ways to deal with it.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy: Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is a short-term solutions-oriented therapy that teaches you how to modify negative thoughts about other people and social interactions, which can help you feel more motivated and open to engaging with others.
Enrichment: Pursuing a new activity may give your life more meaning, says Dr. Jeste. It also could lead to socializing with others who share that interest. Now is the time to learn a language or musical instrument, read challenging books, or master a new form of technology or creative activity. “Every crisis is an opportunity,” says Dr. Jeste.

Physical activity: Exercise reduces loneliness by improving brain function and emotional regulation, distracting you from thinking about what you’re missing in life, providing a sense of purpose, and relaxing the body and mind, Dr. Jeste says.

Mindfulness: Paying attention to, accepting, and learning to live with your feelings of loneliness without judging or reacting to them can help mitigate them.

Connect in person: A 2019 study in the American Journal of Health Promotion found that having social support and meaningful daily interactions with others were strongly associated with lower levels of loneliness while excessive use of social media and texting were associated with greater loneliness.

Gratitude: A study in a 2019 issue of Research on Aging found that when older adults engaged in a daily writing activity focused on what they were grateful for, their feelings of loneliness lessened over a three-week period.

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SOURCE: Brain&Life Magazine October/November 2020

How to Ease Social Isolation During the Pandemic

By: Stacey Colino

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