Oh, the irony. The one guarantee that comes with loneliness is that you’re not the only one experiencing it, and that’s especially true if you have diabetes.
People who experience social isolation and feelings of loneliness are more likely to develop type 2 diabetes, and those with type 2 are sadly more likely to experience loneliness.
Loneliness can raise our stress levels and increase inflammation that can damage both our physical and mental health. It can also cause us to view everyday life as more stressful, and that stress can weaken our immune system. Finally, loneliness can promote harmful behaviors. The brain wants to correct the negative emotions it’s experiencing, and it may do that by prompting poor eating habits, heavy drinking, smoking, or neglecting exercise.
While loneliness can put us at greater risk of type 2 diabetes, diabetes also contributes to loneliness, creating a painful cycle that’s hard to break. Worse, many people don’t properly understand loneliness, which means they can’t effectively address the problem.
What is loneliness?
One of the difficulties in fighting loneliness is that people often confuse loneliness and social isolation, but they’re not the same.
Loneliness is the feeling that we don’t belong, and it’s characterized by a negative view of our social interactions: No one likes me, I don’t fit in, That person wouldn’t be interested in what I have to say anyway. A person may feel legitimately lonely even if they are quite popular or surrounded by people.
Social isolation is a lack of contact with others, and while it can contribute to loneliness, it’s possible to spend a lot of time alone and not feel lonely. One or two meaningful relationships may be all it takes for someone to feel connected with the world. When it comes to fighting loneliness, quality is more important than quantity.
Changing loneliness requires us to change our thinking, understand what we are experiencing, and build relationships over time. It’s tough work. Here are 10 ways to work toward a more connected life:
1. Admit You’re Struggling with loneliness
According to Harvard Health Publishing, 25 to 60 percent of older Americans struggle with loneliness, and a 2018 study by Cigna found that adults ages 18 to 37 are even lonelier and in worse health than older generations. The study found that loneliness has the same impact on mortality as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.
But despite its prevalence, loneliness is stigmatized. Admitting loneliness feels like admitting to not being good enough or worthy enough to have meaningful relationships. But denying loneliness, according to psychologist Dr. Cacioppo, only makes things worse and can lead to further isolation. Only when we admit that we feel lonely can we take steps toward feeling more connected.
2. Try to understand why you’re lonely
Loneliness doesn’t always make sense, so it’s hard, especially for a seemingly well-connected person, to understand why they feel so alone. But because loneliness is characterized by negative thoughts and withdrawal, it’s essential that we try to understand the causes of loneliness rather than just contribute to the negative feedback loop that keeps us trapped in our own sad thoughts.
Think about when you feel most lonely. Is it when you’re on social media? When you’re with your friends who don’t really know you? At home alone? When you identify something you think is a problem, try making small changes. Do you need to spend less time on social media? Avoid large crowds? Maybe it’s as simple as saying asking a follow-up question after you exchange “good mornings” with a coworker. Tiny changes can make a big difference.
3. Take stock of your thoughts
Loneliness isn’t an actual physical state, it’s a feeling driven by our thoughts and emotions. Our brains try to make sense of these emotions by building a story around them. If we are feeling lonely, then it must be because our friends don’t like us, or because we don’t have any friends, or because we don’t deserve any friends. Stop! Try to keep your mind from assuming the worst and spinning out of control. Distract yourself by changing your scenery, doing something creative, or just taking a few deep breaths.
Try making a plan that helps you feel positive when waves of loneliness hit. You might try making a list of all the people you care about or doing something that you enjoy doing on your own. Don’t let your brain’s sad stories run the show!
“NEXT” for more ways to fight loneliness!
Katie Taylor started writing in 5th grade and hasn't stopped since. Her favorite place to pen a phrase is in front of her fireplace with a cup of tea, but she's been known to write in parking lots on the backs of old receipts if necessary. She and her husband live cozily in the Pacific Northwest enjoying rainy days and Netflix.