Feeling lonely these days? You’re not alone. The US Surgeon General officially declared loneliness a public health epidemic as society grows more disconnected from each other.
This problem has been brewing for a while, 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. Back in 2017, the US Surgeon General sounded the alarm on the growing rate of loneliness and its impact on our well-being. But any effort to reverse the damage done by loneliness was undone three years later with COVID. The COVID pandemic intensified these feelings of solitude as businesses shut down and people stayed home.
For older women, the country is catching up to the loneliness they’ve felt for a long time now. On top of COVID, women are navigating a stage of life where loss is front and center. Not only are they saying goodbye to those lost from COVID, but they are also bidding adieu to their fertility, children moving away, loss of loved ones who have passed away from old age, and 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?
A 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 wired for connection, says Minaa B. As we grow attached to others, the brain sends out signals letting us know we are 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 risk of stroke from loneliness. Additionally, being alone makes you more vulnerable to viruses and respiratory infections. Lacking social connections also increases the risk of premature death and is equivalent to smoking 15 cigarettes a day.
Older women are highly vulnerable to loneliness
There are a number of reasons women are more susceptible to loneliness once they hit their 40s. Here are some of the most common culprits as we age and progress through life.
Empty nest syndrome
Having your child leave for college means you’re left with more free time for yourself. Some see it as an opportunity to focus on themselves, but others struggle to create an identity beyond the role of parent. Minaa B says there is some grief tied into your new freedom as you watch your child grow and become less dependent on you.
Relocating to another state or town might be a good financial decision after a child leaves, but there is a risk of geographical loneliness.
Unlike before, you might not have people in the vicinity you can rely on for social outings. Even if they may be one phone call or DM away, it won’t feel the same as hanging out in person. “Social media creates this false sense of connection where you feel like you’re engaging with others,” says Minaa B. “People don’t feel the need to check in because they believe they are already immersed in your life.”
Hormone changes from menopause
As estrogen levels fluctuate, depression can creep up and affect women transitioning toward menopause. One study reported depression symptoms in 41.8 percent 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 once enjoyable to you.
Growing older means dealing with a weaker immune system and a greater chance of getting sick. Minaa B says we saw a spike in loneliness among people who are immunocompromised in the first few years of the pandemic as many felt forced to stay at home. “Members of their own community weren’t willing to wear masks to protect them,” she explains. “It can feel lonely having to self-isolate because others in the community are oblivious or [indifferent] to your needs.”
How to beat loneliness
First, map out your circle of support. Start with who you consider to be your innermost circle such as family or a best friend. The next layer involves people you connect with over a shared interest. Your outermost layer is professional networks such as your therapist. While you might pay them for their service, there is still value and trust in the connection.
If your circle of friends is looking empty, Minaa B recommends sites like Meetup.com or Eventbrite to attend events and network with people in your area. Note that not everyone you meet will reach bestie status. “We might yearn so deeply for friends that we often overlook people who are just a connection,” sats Minaa B. “But friendship is something that cannot be forced.”
Before you go, check out our list of the best mental health apps that are affordable and effective.
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