One of the main tributaries feeding into the river of depression is loneliness. It can both trigger depression and can prevent us from recovery. But loneliness doesn’t just affect mood disorders. It has a hold on heart disease, immunity function, nervous system disorders and many other illnesses. It is not an exaggeration to say that many of the health issues in this country stem from loneliness.
In his PsychCentral blog, “Loneliness Is Not a DSM-5 Disorder, But It Still Hurts,” psychiatrist Ron Pies reports on what loneliness does to the body. He writes:
It’s easy to assume that loneliness is simply a matter of mind and mood. Yet recent evidence suggests that loneliness may injure the body in surprising ways. Researchers at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine studied the risk of coronary heart disease over a 19-year period, in a community sample of men and women. The study found that among women, high degrees of loneliness were associated with increased risk of heart disease, even after controlling for age, race, marital status, depression and several other confounding variables….
And lest there be any doubt that loneliness has far ranging effects on the health of the body, consider the intriguing findings from Dr. S.W. Cole and colleagues, at the UCLA School of Medicine. These researchers looked at levels of gene activity in the white blood cells of individuals with either high or low levels of loneliness. Subjects with high levels of subjective social isolation — basically, loneliness — showed evidence of an over-active inflammatory response. These same lonely subjects showed reduced activity in genes that normally suppress inflammation. Such gene effects could explain reports of higher rates of inflammatory disease in those experiencing loneliness.
What to do about it?
Dr. Pies suggests support groups, especially those for particular medical conditions, like cancer, depression, or addiction. Online support groups can be as effective as the ones where folks drink coffee. A study in 2002, published in the American Journal of Psychiatry, followed a group of more than 100 persons with severe depression who joined online depression support groups. More than 95 percent of them said that their participation in the online support groups helped their symptoms. Of course friends can fill the hole.
But sometimes we can’t fix it or make it go away. We just have to feel it. Accept it. Even as you want to run from it. Because it’s part of being human. I’ve always found great solace in the words of Henri Nouwen: “It is not easy to stay with your loneliness. The temptation is to nurse your pain or to escape into fantasies about people who will take it away. But when you can acknowledge your loneliness in a safe, contained place, you make your pain available for healing.”
Originally published on Sanity Break at Everyday Health.