Dr. Gail Saltz
The growing public health concern of loneliness has recently received a great deal of recognition in the press, with significant attention on seniors and young adults. While we are surrounded by people, both on and off screen, the reality is that loneliness can occur whether or not you have people in your life.
Feeling lonely is due to a lack of feeling well understood and intimately connected to others, and it is this perceived loneliness, as opposed to being objectively alone, that is the predictor of negative health and mental health consequences. For example, research on college freshmen found that they often reported feeling lonely, even though they are surrounded by peers and friends, due to less frequent contact with family and high school friends.
Most concerning, studies have found that loneliness in early life predicts both current and later high blood pressure and cholesterol as well as being overweight. Together these factors cause cardiovascular disease. Loneliness in adulthood is also associated with the progression of Alzheimer’s disease, lowered immunity, increased blood pressure, and poorer quality of sleep. It also affects mental health by its association with alcoholism, depression, and suicide.
So how do we decrease the high rates of loneliness we see? Connection is key.
The number one drive of all humans is to connect and to bond, which is extremely primal. A major component of psychotherapy—what I certainly incorporate in my own practice—is connection, empathic understanding, and a trusted confidential space.
There is a lot of data that suggests that having a support system—someone who you feel you can rely on and trust, someone who understands you—can have an enormously positive impact on health and mental health. Additionally, research has shown that if a person is feeling in a state of “flow” when they’re working, there can be a change in brain waves commensurate with a meditative state. Gratification and reward is a dopamine-based response in the brain, and certainly, feeling understood can elicit the same gratification, and therefore the dopamine response, that is associated with that “flow.”
We also know that loneliness does correlate with depression and anxiety, whereas feeling understood and connected to another can help people feel more honest with themselves and lead them in a direction of self-actualization. One of the most common mental health issues I see today from my patients is social anxiety. Symptoms of social anxiety are rooted in believing others are judging them harshly. If they are able to find a space where they don’t feel judged by others, those connections can be very helpful in diminishing those mental health symptoms.
Many people in the United States and other countries do not have access to a mental health professional. In Zimbabwe, where one in four deal with a mental illness with few resources available, they started a project where older women in different communities sit on benches waiting for anyone who needs someone to talk to, and remarkably they have seen real changes in people’s moods. In fact, they have noted improvements in both the talker seeking connection and the listener who is providing an ear and comfort.
That’s what I find special about HearMe. It is providing a more accessible space using modern means to facilitate connections with people who are specifically trained to provide the empathy that is required to feel understood. Connecting on a deep level when you need someone to talk to and that person can listen with an empathetic ear is beneficial. You don’t need to be depressed or anxious, because we as human beings require connectedness, and the proof of benefit is there in the positive impact it has on our health. We only need to tap into it.
Dr. Gail Saltz is a Clinical Associate Professor of Psychiatry at the New York Presbyterian Hospital, Weill-Cornell Medical College and a psychoanalyst with the New York Psychoanalytic Institute. A frequent contributor in the media, she is a columnist, bestselling author, podcast host and television commentator and one of the nation’s foremost go-to experts on a variety of psychological and mental health issues, especially those pertaining to stress and anxiety, emotional well-being, relationships, and the mental health aspects of current news.