Dealing with loneliness and depression

DR YANSIE ROLSTON Monday, May 1 2017

THE phone rings. It’s a casual acquaintance – a friend of a friend, so I debate whether to answer immediately or call back after I have finished eating my lunch. Instinct said answer, so I do. After the two hour chat my lunch long gone cold and no longer looking appetising, I know it was worth it. You see, men so infrequently reach out that it must have taken him a lot of effort to pick up the phone and utter the words “Can I talk to you, I need help.” Turns out that his routine is work, home, dinner while watching the sports news on TV, sleep, and repeat, and as time goes by he has become increasingly distant from his family and friends.

Human beings are inherently social animals and connections are an integral part of our nature, so an absence of meaningful social contacts has the potential to create mental and physical deterioration. Most people will from time to time feel pangs of loneliness whether that is due to social, environmental, psychological, physiological factors. However, for some, such as the acquaintance, the loneliness is compounded by feelings of inadequacy, low self-esteem, pessimism and considerable pain that runs deep.

Because he has people around him – an ailing mother, wife, and children he had been struggling to consciously understand and articulate what he was feeling, and identify that his loneliness was causing emotional pain. But, it is more than just sharing a physical space with others, it is about companionship – that those around show they value your company, that you are supported, and loved, and most of all that you matter.

Technology has enabled people to be more connected than ever before, yet society is in the throngs of a loneliness epidemic which is having a multiplier effect on depression rates because loneliness and depression are co-related. To quote Dr Hawkley from the University of Chicago, “Although depression doesn’t always lead to loneliness, feeling lonely is often a predictor of depression one year or even two years later”.

Depression craves solitude and isolation, and some may also struggle with relational anxiety and display guarded weariness towards others fearing rejection or intimacy. This can often be a valid reaction because the mind has a way of protecting itself and if someone has been let down or hurt or experienced a broken relationship or friendship, the natural default is to protect against further disappointment, which can mean isolating from people, places and situations.

But chronic isolation and loneliness has the potential to be harmful. Researcher Julianne Holt-Lunstad, says it is akin to the harm caused by smoking, obesity or alcohol misuse.

Brigham Young University undertook a study of 3.4 million participants and found that mortality increased by 26 percent in people who feel or are socially isolated or lived alone.

So, what can be done? It is not about just going out and socialising, or engaging in unhealthy survival strategies such as drug and alcohol misuse, eating junk or sugary foods, overspending on impulse purchases, engaging in random sex, or seeking out destructive relationships.

Don’t get me wrong, I am not saying that people should not seek pleasures, after all there are proven psychological rewards to be gained from ‘retail therapy’.

I know too well that warm feeling you get when you buy a beautiful perfectly fitting pair of shoes, or indulge in a delicious chocolate cake with two scoops of coconut ice-cream. It is developing safe coping mechanisms, and monitoring and moderating behaviours so that they do not compromise one’s health and well-being.

There are some who are grappling with loneliness and all they require is for someone to be there; someone who shows that they care and who will listen without judgement or offer unsolicited advice; someone in whose company they feel loved and needed; someone who helps to validate that they matter, and that they have a significant role in their life.

For others, it is much more complex, however, if someone you know is struggling with loneliness and depression reach out, call, make the time and show them that you care. You don’t need to have all or any of the answers to what they are currently experiencing, just let them know that you are actively thinking of them.

Dr Yansie Rolston FRSA is a UK based disability and mental health specialist advisor. She is a social strategist and trainer who works internationally at various levels of government, business and civil society. Contact her at yr@efficacyeva.com

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