The Health Risk of Loneliness and How to Tackle it During the Parenting Years
By Dr. Nasreen Khatri
With the churning 24/7 social wheel of family and work life, it’s hard to believe that parents could ever feel lonely. Or is it?
According to the 2016 Census, for the first time in our history, the one-person household is the most common living arrangement in Canada.
Almost one-quarter of all citizens say they have no confidants. (http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/one-is-the-loneliness-number-1.850697).
What is Loneliness?
Loneliness is an emotion, feeling distressed or anxious, due to a perceived lack of connection with others. John Cacioppo, an expert on the subject refers to it as “social pain.”
According to Julianne Holt-Lunstad, another researcher, loneliness has 3 aspects:
- Structural — the presence or absence of others.
- Functional — what relationships do for us
- Quality — the positive or negative dimensions of relationships.
When there is an absence of relationships, or that relationship does not fulfill its function (e.g., friend), or the relationship is experienced as negative, loneliness can take root.
Parents and Loneliness
Research by Action for Children, a UK charity committed to helping children in need, reported that 52 per cent of parents stated that they had feelings of loneliness, with one-fifth reporting loneliness during the past week.
Sixty-eight percent of parents stated that they felt “cut off’ from friends and family since having children.
A confluence of factors, including social isolation resulting from parental leave, post-partum mental health issues in either parent, exhaustion/ sleep deprivation of early parenting, misalignment about parenting values and behaviours with friends and family, the social pressure to be the “perfect” parent, financial problems (and hence, less resources to spend on socializing) and a shrinking social network can all lead to feelings of loneliness.
Why is loneliness unhealthy?
Loneliness and low numbers of social connections are associated with a reduction in lifespan similar to that caused by smoking 15 cigarettes a day (http://www.cbc.ca/news/health/loneliness-public-health-psychologist-1.4249637).
People are social beings and when we are not physically around others, it can compromise everything from our hearth health, immunity, cognitive functioning and stress hormone (cortisol) levels.
Sustained loneliness can lead to mental health problems, such as anxiety or depression.
How Does Social Connection Keep us Healthy?
Being with others in the same room reinforces regular daily routines and healthy coping habits, provides us with social support, provides meaning, enjoyment and keeps our stress levels down, Not being around others can lead to less healthy ways of coping, such as drinking, overeating and leading a sedentary lifestyle.
Fortunately, besides realizing that most parents feel lonely at times, there are many steps we can take to tackle loneliness.
7 Tips for Losing Loneliness
1. Become aware and name that you feel lonely. Write down your thoughts and feelings and try to discover the gaps in your social experience.
2. Gain perspective. Consider how our changing social structures enables loneliness. Be kind to yourself and know that there is “nothing wrong” with you. Due to changing social structures, later marriage, divorce, geographical and other moves for work and education, people often find themselves at loose ends socially, many times in life.
3. Plan, socially for life changes. When planning a move to a new city or job, plan not only financially and logistically but also socially. Such help land you and your family on solid ground with social support.
4. Make socializing a priority. There is no substitute for developing and sustaining ties, even if they are bit-size (ten-minute conversation with a friend). Other ways to focus on socializing is by volunteering, joining a personal interest group, or a sports team.
5. Use social media wisely. Nobody on their deathbed ever wished they had spent more time on social media. Make an effort to meet people in person, to improve relationships, satisfaction and optimal health benefits of relationships.
6. Make good use of “me time.” Just as it is essential to connect with others, it’s important to spend some of our alone time connecting with ourselves, be that through nature, hobbies or in mindfulness practice to feel comfortable and benefit from healthy solitude.
7. Cultivate gratitude. Taking stock and being grateful for the connections and relationships in our lives creates us the confident, open mindset that makes new connections more likely to happen.
The key is for parents to feel less “alone” in having the experience of loneliness and to take steps to connect. If it takes a village to raise a child, the first step to creating that village is to literally break the “ice’-olation. It can be as simple as a smile, making eye contact, saying “hello” or reaching out by phone or e-mail to those around us. Chances are, you’ll be glad you did.