Do you feel lonely these days? You are not alone. The US Surgeon General has officially declared loneliness a public health epidemic as society becomes increasingly disconnected from one another.
This issue has been brewing for some time, says Minaa B, a therapist, mental health educator and author of the book Owning Our Struggles: A Path to Healing and Finding Community in a Broken World. In 2017, the US Surgeon General sounded the alarm about the rising rate of loneliness and its impact on our well-being. But every effort to reverse the damage caused by loneliness was undone three years later with COVID. The COVID pandemic has intensified these feelings of loneliness as businesses have closed and people have stayed at home.
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For older women, the country is recovering the loneliness they have felt for a long time now. In addition to COVID, women are going through a phase of life where loss is front and center. Not only are they saying goodbye to those who have died from COVID, but they are also saying goodbye to their fertility, the removal of children, the loss of loved ones who have died of old age, and the possible loss of health.
Thankfully, we already know the cure for loneliness and there are steps you can take today to build your community, regardless of age.
How does loneliness affect your mental health?
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Lack of social support can increase feelings of depression and anxiety which, if left untreated, could increase the risk of suicidal ideation.
Loneliness hits hard because human brains are hardwired to connect, says Minaa B. As we grow attached to others, the brain sends signals letting us know we’re in a calm, safe, and trusting space. But with prolonged loneliness, our brains are stuck in a state of stress.
How does loneliness affect physical health?
The Surgeon General reported a 29 percent increased risk of heart disease and a 32 percent increased risk of stroke due to loneliness. Also, being alone makes you more vulnerable to viruses and respiratory infections. Lack of social ties also increases the risk of premature death and is equivalent to smoking 15 cigarettes a day.
Older women are very vulnerable to loneliness
There are a number of reasons why women are more susceptible to loneliness once they hit their 40s. Here are some of the more common culprits as we get older and progress in life.
Empty nest syndrome
Leaving your child off for college means you have more free time for yourself. Some see it as an opportunity to focus on themselves, but others struggle to create an identity beyond parenting. Minaa B says there’s pain related to your newfound freedom as you watch your child grow and become less dependent on you.
Moving to another state or city might be a good financial decision after a child leaves, but there is a risk of geographic loneliness.
Unlike before, you may not have people nearby to rely on for social outings. While they may be a phone call or DM away, it won’t be like dating in person. Social media creates this false sense of connectedness where you feel like you’re interacting with others, says Minaa B. People don’t feel the need to check in because they believe they’re already immersed in your life.
Hormonal changes since menopause
As estrogen levels fluctuate, depression can creep in and affect women as they go through menopause. One study reported symptoms of depression in 41.8% of perimenopausal and postmenopausal women. Depression can give you a sense of disconnection as you experience changes in your mood and less energy to enjoy things that were once pleasurable to you.
Getting older means dealing with a weaker immune system and a higher chance of getting sick. Minaa B says that in the early years of the pandemic, we have seen a spike in loneliness among immunocompromised people, as many have felt forced to stay at home. Members of their own community were unwilling to wear masks to protect them, she explains. He may feel alone that he has to isolate himself because others in the community are oblivious or [indifferent] to your needs.
How to overcome loneliness
First, map out your support circle. Start with who you consider your closest circle like family or a best friend. The next level involves the people you connect with over a shared interest. Your outermost layer is professional networks like your therapist. While you may be paying them for their service, there is still value and trust in the connection.
If your circle of friends seems empty, Minaa B recommends sites like Meetup.com or Eventbrite for attending events and networking with people in your area. Note that not everyone you meet will reach beast status. We may long for friends so deeply that we often overlook people who are just a connection, says Minaa B. But friendship is something that can’t be forced.
Before you go, check out our list of the best affordable and effective mental health apps.
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