by Dr. Steven Garner, MD
Dear Dr. Garner,
I hope you can help me. Three years ago, my husband died, and since that time, I have been very lonely. We used to have a vibrant life together. Now I spend most of my evenings alone in the house and rarely go out.
I don’t believe I’m depressed. I think I am lonely. My daughter is telling me that it’s a sin to behave the way I am without seeking help. She says God gave us our bodies, and we must treat them well. She says I am not taking good care of my body by prolonging my loneliness.
Is it true that loneliness can make you sick on top of being unhappy?
Lonely Lady in Astoria
Dear Lonely Lady,
Before I answer your question, I would like to acknowledge loyal Tablet reader and St. John’s legend, Jack Kaiser, and his lovely wife Connie. It was a pleasure sitting with them last week at Carnesecca Arena, where St. John’s won a thriller in overtime.
Your daughter is absolutely right. Loneliness can cause many harmful physical effects to the body. It has been linked to illnesses such as diabetes, high blood pressure, alcohol and drug abuse, difficulty concentrating, poor memory, heart disease, strokes, depression, suicide and sleep disruption.
Lonely people feel alone and unwanted. I am concerned that you may also have a component of depression. Before I continue, I want to stress the importance of seeing your doctor for evaluation of possible depression, which can be serious. Being lonely is not necessarily about being alone but feeling as if you don’t have enough social contact. For example, a child attending an out-of-town college may feel lonely despite being surrounded by numerous classmates. It is also the quality of relationships rather than quantity.
Loneliness affects the health of the elderly more than other ages. There is a direct association between being lonely and having ill health. Studies with fruit flies show that they die sooner when they are isolated.
It is not unusual to feel isolated occasionally; however, these feelings usually subside within a few months. When they persist for months and increase in intensity, intervention is necessary. It sounds to me that you are at this point.
I am sorry to hear about the loss of your husband. It is important at the time of such a loss to have a connection to other people to help ease the isolation and sadness that you feel. There are things that you can do to try to alleviate loneliness such as:
• Being positive. When you are happy, you project confidence. This is helpful in making new friends.
• Try to improve your social skills. This includes being a good listener. There are numerous books and information, either online or in your library, to help develop these skills.
• Get out of the house. Select an activity that you like. It could be something such as bird watching. Here you will meet people with similar interests and increase the likelihood of developing new friends.
• Make a commitment, such as at church or elsewhere as a volunteer. The opportunity to help others improves your self-esteem and helps eliminate feelings of isolation.
• Try to understand why you feel lonely. When did it start? What worsens your loneliness? Write down some causes of your loneliness and think about what you can do to improve it. People who are lonely often have a component of anger. Resolve to become a more calm, friendly person.
In 1984, a questionnaire asked people to tell how many close confidants they had. At that time, it was an average of three. A repeat survey in 2004 found the most common answer was one. It is the quality of the confidant that is important rather than the quantity. One close friend can help cure loneliness.
Persistent loneliness has a detrimental effect on your health and indicates that something in your life needs to be changed. With the right approach, you can cure your loneliness. Speak to your physician to get further help. You should also be evaluated for depression.Dr. Steven Garner is a Fidelis Care provider who is affiliated with New York Methodist Hospital, Park Slope. He also hosts “Ask the Doctor” on The NET, Tuesdays at 8 p.m. on Channel 97 Time Warner and Channel 30 Cablevision.