A re-look at loneliness !
Columns, Over A Cup of Evening Tea

A re-look at loneliness !

December 17, 2023

By Dr. K. Javeed Nayeem, MD

Very recently, my attention was drawn by one of my patients, very anxiously, to a video clip that was doing the rounds on YouTube. This kind of interaction between my patients and me, happens quite often these days, because the YouTube and other social media channels are today flooded with every kind of ‘gyan’ ranging from the very authentic to the outrageously absurd.

In fact, the topic of my last article about the alleged contamination of our ordinary table salt with deadly cyanide, too, was the result of my attention being drawn to it by another anxious patient.

This time the point of concern for my patient was the news that loneliness was becoming one of the leading causes of death across the world, which if true, should indeed be a matter of great concern.

And, the video clip that was presented to me as the evidence for this alarming trend, was from a news channel with a reputation of reasonably good credibility. I use the term ‘reasonably good credibility’ because these days, we can never be really sure about how credible any source of news is.

What is credible regarding one subject may not be so with another, even if it happens to come from the same source. And, what I accept as credible, may not be acceptable as such to you or for that matter, to anybody else, because our affiliations, beliefs and perceptions can be vastly different.

So, credibility is no longer like the proverbial character of Caesar’s wife; totally impeccable or above board. So, today, its modesty being a very relative term, it can only be relegated to the level of being at best, a mere fig leaf!

Coming back to the subject of loneliness, we should all accept the fact that except for the few rare individuals like me, being lonely is not a very desirable option or a pleasurable situation for most people. I say this because I enjoy my loneliness, which I prefer to call my solitude, even if it is for extended periods, because that gives me the time and space to reflect in tranquillity, upon my own life. And, I do this invariably, at least at the end of each passing day, to get a good night’s sleep, which it ensures, unfailingly!

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Most people dread being lonely even for short periods of time, let alone all their lives. But we must admit that today, despite being immersed in what seems like an ocean of togetherness, a good many of us are miserably lonely, deep down in our hearts. And, this is what is killing us like an epidemic.

According to the report we are discussing here, it has been estimated that unknown to most of us, loneliness is killing people on a scale that is no less than an epidemic. It goes on to say that this level of lethality is almost equivalent to what would happen to a person if he or she smokes fifteen cigarettes or consumes six alcoholic drinks, every day on a daily basis.

Now, how does this happen? Very simply speaking, when people start feeling lonely and left out, either by their own choice or by the helplessness imposed on them by adverse circumstances, they naturally tend to become fearful, tense and sad. Very often, this happens without them realising that they are getting stressed up which is what makes it deadly.

This stress causes the formation and release of a substance called cortisol, which has a profound effect on almost all organ systems in the body. It is in fact the substance that helps to stimulate and tweak our bodies into a state of readiness to tackle an emergency that we may have to face. It is like shifting a cruising car into a lower gear and getting it ready to overtake another.

Among many other things, cortisol does this primarily by increasing our heart rate, our blood pressure and our blood sugar. All these changes are very essential for what is medically called the ‘fight or flight’ response, that may be necessary to overcome or to flee from an adverse situation. Stress is necessary and even good in small doses and it only shows you that you are normal. 

The transient cortisol surge is a natural and very essential response to safeguard us in times of emergent need. But if this elevated cortisol state becomes a constant feature of our lives, it can ruin our health by keeping our minds and bodies in a state of stress, like a revved-up engine, that can very soon only destroy itself. And, this is exactly how stress kills us, before our time.

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Now, let’s see how bad the situation is and going by available statistics, I’m afraid it’s really very bad. It has been estimated that nearly thirty percent of people across the world are the victims of loneliness today and this figure seems to be growing at an alarming rate.

Until very recently, we Indians used to think that stress was only the bane of the western world, but it is no longer so. The reason for this is because even in our country, the older individuals are isolated from their children and grandchildren due to our now single-family lifestyle which is becoming the global norm. The joint-family system, that despite its other disadvantages, was a perfect antidote to loneliness until a generation ago, is now almost extinct, even in our country.

Surprisingly, the younger generation too, which considers itself gifted, because of the advanced technology that is now at its fingertips, is no less lonely today. This is because, without them realising it, their smart devices and smart screens are no substitute for good-old, not-so-smart relationships. That is why they too are now increasingly becoming victims of stress and all its related consequences. Lifestyle diseases like high blood pressure, diabetes, heart attacks, strokes and a surge in all kinds of cancers, which until now were only associated with advancing age, are now claiming younger victims.

Now, what is loneliness? In very simple terms, it is the gap between the connectivity that we all need to keep ourselves happy and what we can only manage to get, with our busy lifestyles. So, how do we beat it? By some very simple measures that cost us nothing; By visiting our friends, relatives and loved ones, who stay within touching distance and staying in touch with all those who stay at a distance. Do think about it!

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