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Have you ever been lonely?

How does loneliness make you feel? It can be an uncomfortable, pervasive and dispiriting sense of disconnection. It certainly doesn’t feel good and the worrying thing it can sneak up on any of us, because just like mental illness, loneliness does not discriminate.

Loneliness is different from depression, though they can occur together. Typically it’s those lonely feelings that trigger depression rather than the other way round. It’s a dangerous combination associated with higher risk of self-harm and cognitive decline.

Loneliness is a major health hazard because we are hardwired to connect. Human connection is essential to our wellbeing at every level.

The paradox is that at a time when we are able to connect with others more easily and faster than ever before, many more people are reporting an increased sense of disconnect and loss of empathy.

When Theresa May PM of the UK recently announced the appointment of a new minister to address the issue of loneliness, this was a watershed moment acknowledging that many of our “advanced” societies including Australia and the U.S. are facing a rapidly growing problem of social isolation affecting individuals, businesses and the wider community.

It’s estimated that loneliness affects up to three in ten Australians.

Feeling socially connected boosts wellbeing and cognitive performance. It’s one of the key pillars for better brain health. We thrive in the company of others.

How does loneliness show up?

It’s not about being introverted or shy or even being alone.

It’s a feeling that reveals a sense of isolation. You can be just as lonely living in a big city surrounded by others as when in a remote place.

Being alone is not the issue. Many of us relish that precious time to think, reflect and recharge.

But feeling lonely grinds you down, to the point where you can’t be bothered anymore. It makes us more anti-social, we push away those who seek to help.

When I first opened up my medical practice, an elderly single lady called “Marge” would book in for an appointment every week, presenting with a litany of complaints for which there was no obvious medical explanation.

She quickly became one of my “regulars”, turning up like clockwork a few minutes early each time to have a chat with the receptionists and others in the waiting room, before bustling into my office with her list of symptoms

It would be easy to dismiss Marge as a hypochondriac but she did have a problem.

She was lonely.

And that meant she was actually very sick indeed.

Loneliness puts us at greater risk of dying from any cause at an earlier age, predisposing us to a higher risk of cardiovascular disease, stroke, depression and cognitive decline.

Harvard researchers have noted that loneliness is worse for our health than smoking 15 cigarettes a day.

How many people do you know of whose only connection with others is with the person on the checkout, the Meals on Wheels team or the television?

But it’s not just the elderly that get lonely, we can all experience it and adolescents and young adults are particularly at risk.

Loneliness at work can develop when people are working predominantly from home or spend a lot of time travelling on the road or interstate away from family and friends.

“It’s lonely at the top” is a common expression, because who do you turn to as a leader when there’s no-one else around who understands your perspective, challenges and fears?

It occurs in crowded offices when others are caught up in their own state of busyness. We fail to notice when someone is hanging back, not interacting or disappearing quietly when everyone else goes out for a drink at the end of the week. We don’t stop to ask, or acknowledge their presence.

It’s costing us dearly.

There are movements afoot to help combat the problem. Here in Australia the Association for ending loneliness has been set up as a collaborative effort.

You can find out more about what they do at their website http://www.endloneliness.com.au

In addition, there are three areas where we can all make a difference to help ourselves stay safe and protect others.

1. Be Self-Aware.

This is about acknowledging our own feelings and checking in on our relationships. Are you spending enough time with your friends and family? If not, what could you be doing differently to increase that time?

Who is in your Inner Circle of Trust – those who you know you can depend on to chat or listen?

How do you ensure you’re staying in regular contact? Rather than preferring a vague “we much catch up soon” make it a date and put it in the diary.

Take the initiative and arrange some social functions. It doesn’t have to be a big gathering – maybe a small group catching up for a meal in a restaurant, buying several tickets for a show or going as a group to the Footy.

2. Notice Others.

Take time out to say hello.

There are so many people we see on a regular basis every day. A smile and a nod of acknowledgment is a great start.

Ask your colleagues about their weekend and seek out things that you share in common. Though the caveat here is if you’ve spent three years working in an office and have never spoken to this person before, and aren’t really sure what their name is – go easy. You don’t want them to get the wrong impression of your intentions!

Rather than spending yet more time updating your social media status, why not shout a colleague a coffee or arrange an office event such as a lunchtime session at the gym, or have lunch together.

Be vigilant about being inclusive.

3. Create a community that cares.

While fewer people have the time to commit to social institutions such as Rotary or the Lions, there are plenty of other groups that welcome attendance, even if it can’t be achieved on a regular basis. Volunteering your time outside work or setting up a community initiative can help forge new social bonds.

Better brain health is a must and staying social essential.

Dr Jenny Brockis

Dr Jenny Brockis is a medical practitioner and internationally board-certified lifestyle medicine physician, workplace health and wellbeing consultant, podcaster, keynote speaker and best-selling author. Her new book 'Thriving Mind: How to Cultivate a Good Life' (Wiley) is available online and at all good bookstores.

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