The Lonely Majority

How loneliness could be changing your brain and body.

“A  2018 study. . . found that 54% of 20,000 Americans surveyed reported feeling lonely. In the span of a bit more than a year, the number rose to 61%. Generation Z adults 18-22 years old are supposedly the loneliest generation, outpacing Boomers, Gen X and Millennials, despite being more connected than ever.”

Wowza. The silent, underreported epidemic.

“Loneliness might conjure images of being apart from friends and family, but the feeling runs much deeper than not having plans on a Friday night or than going stag to a wedding. Evolutionarily, being part of a group has meant protection, sharing the workload and increased odds of survival. After all, humans take a long time to mature. We need our tribes.

‘It’s very distressing when we are not a part of a group,’ said Julianne Holt-Lundstad, professor of psychology and neuroscience at Brigham Young University. ‘We have to deal with our environment entirely on our own, without the help of others, which puts our brain in a state of alert, but that also signals the rest of our body to be in a state of alert.’

Staying in that state of alert, that high state of stress, means wear and tear on the body. Stress hormones like cortisol and norepinephrine can contribute to sleeplessness, weight gain and anxiety over extended periods of exposure, according to the Mayo Clinic.”

What to do? Doug Nemecek, chief medical officer at Cigna:

“‘We need to reach out to some friends and make sure we maintain those connections and have meaningful conversations. It’s important for all of us to be comfortable asking other people how they feel.”

And for the lonely majority to risk being vulnerable when asked.

A Better Way To Treat Anxiety

The title of a recent Wall Street Journal article about exposure therapy. 1.8 million young people, or nearly 10% in the U.S., experience anxiety disorders of some sort. Researchers at the Mayo Clinic, Virginia Tech and other institutions are finding that slowly exposing children to the things they are anxious about, at an early point in treatment, can be highly effective in helping them overcome anxiety.

Stephen Whiteside, a  Mayo pediatric psychologist, in the article:

When parents help children to escape from feared situations, anxiety symptoms may worsen and children frequently become more impaired.

Exposure therapy explained. Also verbatim from the article:

1) Children are gradually exposed early in treatment to things and situations they fear, and parents receive training as ‘exposure coaches’. Instead of avoiding things, the child begins to learn new ways to behave.

2) Don’t overreact. If your child is complaining or distressed about an upcoming situation—say a math test—tell him you understand how upsetting it is but you are going to be very proud of him for trying.

3) Save the praise. Praise the child only after she actually takes a step toward dealing with her fear, such as germs (‘You did a great job of riding the bus on the field trip.’)

4) One step at a time. Encourage your child to take small steps toward a goal, such as visiting an airport in advance of a scheduled flight.

5) Encourage decision making. Let your child make some choices on his own, such as whether to walk past a dog or visit a house where there is a dog.

6) Grin and bear it. Encourage your child in situations that might involve her fears, such as conversing with strangers—even if you think she might become upset or make a scene.

7) Positive reinforcement. Communicate that you are confident that your child can accomplish the goal, such as separating from the family for a camping trip. Tell her it will get easier every time she does something new.

Number five reminds me that when I was young, I was deathly afraid of dogs. In the sixties, with three older sibs, I was left to my own to work it out. Less intelligent than the dogs that scared the sh*t out of me, I tried to outrun a few. Which of course only made things much, much worse. Now, I’m happy to report, the family sometimes worries I may be too close to one particular doggie.

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Spare me the “guess marijuana really is legal in Washington” jokes. It’s early.

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