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Four steps to tackle the ‘illness’ - Loneliness

The holiday time of year for the majority of people is one of happiness and joy and cheer. People travel to see family that they haven’t seen in long periods of time or spend time with their closest friends. This tradition of ‘togetherness’ in today’s society is a great thing. People take a step back from their busy schedule and really focus on who is around them. However for a lot of people this ‘togetherness tradition’ is one that can cause pain, depression and sadness.

In 2014 in the UK a research conducted by the BBC suggested that 7% of the population would be alone at Christmas. That’s more than 4 million people. Further, the study found that 30% of people between 18-24 feel lonely as do 31% of those over 65 1. It could be argued that loneliness is having no friends or company to share thoughts, ideas or laughter with. It could also be argued that even if you have friends and company around you that you can still be lonely. We may all have times when we are alone, for a variety of reasons. There may be times when being alone can be very refreshing, it can give you a minute to breathe, to reflect, to collect thoughts & emotions. In fact being on your own at times is healthy and often recommended 2 . Much of the psychoanalytical literature published to date has tended to focus more on the ‘fear’ of being alone and how people choose to be alone, but ignores how individuals cope with the isolation, many finding that the reality is somewhat different to the theory.

On many occasions, being alone is a choice 3. Being able to cope with being alone is often taken as a sign of mental strength, someone who shows high levels of emotional intelligence and someone who is comfortable and secure in themselves.

So what determines the feeling of loneliness, and how is it triggered?

In the presence of something good, the brain produces & releases four main chemicals –endorphin, oxytocin, serotonin, and dopamine that cause us to have the ‘feel good sensation’

These chemicals can be your biggest allies or your worst enemy. If you don’t know how to positively produce these chemicals they can affect you in very different ways.

For example in you find yourself craving a heavy carbohydrate meal like a pizza, it is wise to resist. Eating a heavy carbohydrate meal releases the chemical serotonin, one of the “feel good” chemicals. However, rather than consume pizza, what we should do is eat a banana or avocado, something with high energy to boost your mood. Eating pizza isn’t altogether a bad thing, but be careful. Like other drugs these “feel good” chemicals can become addictive. Where serotonin IS a feel good chemical there are also side effects. Think about what you are eating, pizza is heavy often greasy, this type of food makes you feel lethargic and lazy. So what do you do then? Watch TV fall asleep? All those calories are just collecting then in your body and not being burned. These excess calories then collect and result in unhealthy weight gain. You soon notice this weight gain and feel upset so you need another fix of serotonin and by association, we experience craving for another pizza or a similar food. Over a relatively short period of time, exercises levels fall off, weight gain continues and you see your body shape change, leading to loss of self- confidence and self-efficacy and an increasing need for serotonin. This is where binge eating begins, and the body becomes over weight and downward spiral of short term serotonin fixes results in obesity and depression.

The next time you find a craving for a high carbohydrate meal like pizza, ask yourself not does my body need this, but does my mind need this! Granted if you are carbohydrate depleted from having exercised vigorously, and you need the carbs to replenish your carb stores then go for it, however if you haven’t, you have consider if your mind need the carbohydrate rush?

Remember there are 4 feel good chemicals if you get that craving you can not only change what you eat but what you do. Engage in activities that boost your mood, do some high intensity exercises for example. This realises endorphins, granted over time the endorphins and the exercises may become additive like the serotonin but the side effects will force you to eat healthy, drink water, get in better shape, grow in confidence and this reassurance and positive change will allow you to carry on getting the fix of the endorphins.

So, back to the loneliness issue - how does this information help with loneliness? Well, you may control how your body releases these chemicals, and manage the feel good within your mind. Once you know how to use the chemicals effectively, you grow in self-confidence, you grow in acceptance of who you are which in turn helps keep producing these chemicals.

This process may appear very simple, and indeed it can be, but for many it can prove difficult to achieve. Think of your mind like a plant, if you water it consistently it will grow big, strong and bear fruit. If you don’t provide water, the plant will suffer, whither and eventually die. A similar parallel can be drawn with the mind - it needs a constant supply of feel good chemicals in order for you to maintain a stable state of mind. This requires you to take daily, sometime hourly actions.

Happy, positive people make life look easy because they have conditioned their mind to follow certain actions over a prolonged periods, often years and in time the lifestyle becomes ingrained in their psyche and physiology.

If you get the feeling of loneliness, take a moment to consider what the reason may be.

It could be that you aren’t producing enough of the ‘feel good’ chemicals. You may be thinking well if you have been through a break up, or lost somebody close and that you feel lonely because of that. This is potentially because that person or people were the reason for your brain producing these chemicals. Without the stimuli, the brain will inevitably stop producing feel good chemicals. At this point, it is important to face the problem, acknowledging the feelings, and to understand the trigger. Only then can you begin to identify an alternative means of producing the illusive feel good chemicals consistently. Over time your brain will be conditioned to learn how to cope without the stimuli no longer available to you, and rely upon the alternative source you have identified, and the feel good stability will return.

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