In a concerning development, loneliness has been declared a pressing global health threat by the World Health Organization, with the US surgeon general equating its mortality effects to smoking 15 cigarettes a day.
To address this issue, the organisation has initiated an international commission focused on tackling loneliness by promoting social connections and scaling up solutions across countries of all income levels.
Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the Director-General of WHO, said in a statement, “High rates of social isolation and loneliness around the world have serious consequences for health and well-being. People without enough strong social connections are at higher risk of stroke, anxiety, dementia, depression, suicide, and more.”
The US surgeon general, Dr Vivek Murthy, added a stark warning, stating that the health risks of loneliness are as detrimental as smoking up to 15 cigarettes a day, surpassing even those associated with obesity and physical inactivity. He emphasised that loneliness is an often underestimated public health threat.
Loneliness, according to WHO, is linked to a 50% increased risk of developing dementia and a 30% increased risk of coronary artery disease or stroke in older adults. Research also indicates that between 5% and 15% of adolescents experience loneliness, although these figures are likely underestimations.
Counselling psychologist Smriti Bhardwaj highlighted that loneliness can have several negative effects on physical health, including fatigue, disturbed sleep cycles, chronic body aches, increased risk of heart disease, stroke, dementia, and premature death. “Additionally, loneliness can contribute to mental health issues such as decreased confidence, feelings of hopelessness, anxiety, tiredness, and lack of motivation,” she said.
Sidhharrth S Kumaar, chief happiness officer at NumroVani, noted that individuals may adopt unhealthy lifestyle habits like smoking, drinking, inactivity, or poor eating habits to cope with loneliness.
Loneliness is often a subjective emotional state, characterised by a perceived sense of isolation, even when surrounded by others. The primary drivers of loneliness include a generation gap, changes in living arrangements (such as an increase in nuclear families), excessive usage of social media as well as financial instability. The pandemic has further intensified loneliness due to halted economic and social activities.
While coping with loneliness has no panacea which will work for all as it is a subjective experience, here are some practical tips to deal with loneliness:
- Curating self-care rituals: Develop proactive and personalised self-care rituals designed around the mind, body, and soul.
- Hobbies and activities: Identify and engage in activities that bring joy and allocate scheduled time for hobbies like painting, pottery, photography, or trekking.
- Volunteer activities: Dedicate time to social causes and activities that bring fulfillment, such as volunteering at old age homes, orphanages, or NGOs.
- Rejuvenate relationships: Foster meaningful relationships and build a support system to combat loneliness.
- Reprogramming subconscious mind: Embrace personalised programs like mindfulness and meditation to reprogram the subconscious mind. Seek professional help proactively and without hesitation.