By Dr. Bryn Hyndman, MD
Wintertime in British Columbia consists of short days and seemingly long nights, with daylight fully fading by the late afternoon. Even before the pandemic, winter felt like a long stretch of more darkness than light, and more work than play. Adding a pandemic to this seasonal reality could be the perfect recipe for feeling isolated and alone, whether you live on your own or not.
Did you know that loneliness and isolation affect our physical and mental health? The mind and the body cannot be separated. When our beliefs and thoughts negatively impact our mental health, our physical body feels the effects. That may sound far-fetched, but there is a growing field of medicine called psychoneuroimmunology, which shows that proteins and molecules in our blood can change in response to our stress levels.
Feeling isolated can be a source of stress. When you feel alone and unsupported, you perceive this on a subconscious level as a threat to your survival. Belonging to groups and feeling close to people has a direct impact on your well-being and longevity.
In addition to the necessary daily selfcare, such as watching the foods you eat, getting enough physical activity, going out in daylight, getting quality sleep, and having a sense of purpose in life, you also need to feel the bonds of social connection. Relationships are important in fostering a healthy physical body and a peaceful, kind-hearted mind.
According to Blue Zones, a research institute studying longevity around the world, community is the number one factor that contributes to the likelihood of someone living long and well—into their 80s and often their 90s in some Blue Zone regions.
Connection and isolation also impact your longevity.
Connection gives a sense of belonging, inspiring you to share your gifts and contribute to your community. When you feel alone, even simple questions are difficult to answer honestly, for fear you bring someone else “down.” What do you say when someone asks, “How are you doing?” or “How are you managing with the pandemic?”
A recent UBC study showed that feeling isolated is a heart health risk factor, particularly in women. Isolation is comparable to smoking and alcohol consumption and is an even higher risk to your heart health than lack of exercise and obesity.
Clearly, connection and isolation impact your heart health. More specifically, they impact the likelihood that you could develop a rise in your blood pressure, blood sugar, and/or cholesterol levels, all factors that influence your risk for developing heart disease or heart attack.
These are some of the ways feeling isolated might show up in your blood work:
• High cortisol levels (the stress hormone)
• Increased cardiovascular risk markers (indicating your chance of having a cardiovascular event such as heart attack or stroke is increased)
• Higher blood glucose and insulin levels
• Higher blood pressure
So, what can you do?
Speak up! As hard as that might seem, you need to share with someone, anyone, how you really feel and what is contributing to your feeling of isolation. Naming emotions is also a way to let go of shame, and shame can be a powerful way to keep yourself hidden and block you from truly connecting emotionally with others.
Do you believe it’s wrong to feel isolated with so many positives in your life?
Well, talking about that is a great way to acknowledge and embrace what is true for you right now. Brainstorm ways you can be social in a safe way.
Perhaps you could take a walk around your neighbourhood and enjoy the fresh brisk air, or treat yourself and consider taking a walk along the seawall. Go somewhere that is comforting for you.
Host a virtual gathering or reunion. Be creative! You may not be able to gather in person for a while, but it is possible to have meaningful connections via audiovisual technology. And this way, you don’t need to worry about running out of food or designated drivers.
Do things that stimulate oxytocin (the warm, fuzzy hormone released by the pituitary gland that promotes feelings of love, social bonding, and well-being) and reduce cortisol (the stress hormone).
• Take an online dance class
• Work out with an online yoga partner
• Assist someone who needs help
• Pay someone a compliment
• If you live with others, consider a board game, Twister, or exchanging coupons for massages
• Join an online network: a new parent group, church group, book club, or a neighbourhood group
• Weed out your social media channels; unfollow people who do not enrich your life
• Curl up with a good book and travel to faraway places
• Send letters, postcards, and care packages. Putting time and effort into these small acts of love make you feel more connected and positively impact the recipients.
The above are just a few of the ways you can nurture your cardiovascular health and your mental health. Remember—you are not alone!
When nurturing your health, trust and competence are nonnegotiable. As an integrated medical doctor, this is the philosophy of Dr. Bryn Hyndman, MD. Dr. Hyndman is board certified with the Canadian College of Family Physicians (CCFP), and is trained in naturopathic medicine.