We know loneliness is bad for your health. Social isolation (the term researchers use for loneliness) is associated with an increased risk of heart disease and stroke, not to mention an overall increased risk of premature death. Put simply: social connection is a crucial element of wellness.
That’s part of what makes the isolation many are experiencing due to the pandemic so difficult. But not everyone who is self-isolating will become truly lonely, points out Keri Kirk, PhD, a licensed clinical psychologist. Yet loneliness is definitely on the rise in COVID times, surveys suggest.
It’s a problem because we know loneliness can activate dysfunction in several systems in our bodies, including our immune system, Kirk says. One UCLA study found loneliness triggers the immune system in a way that activates inflammatory biomarkers. “Inflammation has been found to be a key factor in chronic diseases like heart disease, various cancers, and things like asthma,” Kirk explains. “So essentially, chronic loneliness can take a similar toll on our health as a chronic disease.”
It could increase cravings and stress eating. “Working in a weight-management clinic, emotional and stress eating related to loneliness and the stressors of isolation is something I see on a daily basis,” says Kayla Girgen, RD. “Food is often used as a coping mechanism to soothe negative emotions, but it only offers a temporary fix.”
Indeed, new research shows many people struggled with stress eating and weight gain during stay-at-home orders. These effects were disproportionately seen in people with obesity. Part of the reason for that could be the stress and negative mental health effects of social isolation, researchers said.
Accountability could go out the window. “For health-related behaviors, including weight maintenance and eating behaviors, accountability structures can make or break success,” Kirk explains. And for many people, the pandemic means our social networks and support systems have been out of whack. That may have impacted pre-existing accountability structures, such as meeting up with gym buddies or regular doctor or nutrition coaching appointments. “With disruptions in those networks, it can be easy to slide back toward less-than-optimal eating habits,” Kirk adds.
Your goals may feel more challenging and less important. “People experiencing loneliness may pull away from other healthy behaviors, or feel like those activities simply feel more difficult,” notes Erin Wagner, RD. For instance, maybe meal prepping just doesn’t feel doable anymore. This can be a tough cycle once you’re in it: You don’t feel as healthy because you’re lonely, but then the loneliness is associated with doing less of what makes you feel healthy. “In short: Being lonely makes other health goals, including weight loss, feel harder or less important.”
Plus, motivation may wane when some of the anticipated rewards of weight loss no longer feel relevant. For example, not being able to shop for new clothing or having limited face-to-face interactions where your progress might be noticed by others may be demotivating for some people, says Girgen.
Lack of motivation may mean old habits might creep back. “People who are lonely tend to have lower perceptions of self-efficacy and motivation,” Wagner explains. ”Missing out on social contact may correlate with feeling a loss of confidence you get from those who are your support system.”
“Without the support of people who matter to us, sometimes we don’t realize when we’re engaging or re-engaging in habits that are not so good for us,” Kirk says. Feeling lonely can increase stress, leading us to reach for foods we find comforting to cope. “Feeling lonely can also impact motivation to exercise or practice other centering behaviors like mindfulness or meditation.”
It’s not always easy to determine whether you’re simply isolated or if you’re experiencing true loneliness. One big sign is feeling like you’re not getting enough social connection in your life, Kirk says. But there are other signals. “Given that loneliness can make symptoms of other physical and mental health conditions worse, it’s important to pay attention to your body and any changes that you’ve noticed over time,” says Kirk. “For example, loneliness can highlight symptoms of depression — even in people who have never been diagnosed before — which can include low mood, lack of interest in enjoyable activities, changes in appetite or sleep and fatigue.” In short, if you’re noticing changes in your mood combined with a lack of satisfaction in your social environment, you may be feeling the effects of loneliness, according to Kirk.
If you need something more concrete, ask yourself some simple reflection questions to gauge your current situation, Wagner suggests. This could be something like: On a scale of 1–10, where am I right now with my…
- Social life?
- Mental health?
Starting with basic questions like these helps to provide insight and leads to more in-depth reflection, Wagner says.
Speaking with a healthcare professional who can give you personalized advice is always a great place to start, but you can also try implementing these strategies:
Pretending like nothing has changed can make it harder to adjust to a new reality. “It’s important to talk about change and normalize the discussion around it during a pandemic, whether that’s life changes, work changes or body and mind changes,” Kirk says. “Talking about change and potential solutions can help you feel more at ease with the unexpected transitions.”
If you’re dealing with loneliness, sharing that with others can help. “I’ve noticed clients are more open to saying that loneliness is something they’re struggling with overall,” Wagner says. “I think normalizing how we all get lonely makes others feel like they can talk openly about it without judgment.” What’s more, sharing your goals with others could help you lose weight faster.
If you’re struggling with food cravings and stress eating, consider engaging in activities that can distract from the cravings, like taking a walk, reading a book, or listening to a funny or suspenseful podcast, suggests Kirk. “More importantly, to combat a sense of loneliness, you want to go toward a sense of connection. So, in addition to taking that walk, talk to a friend or call a loved one while you’re getting those steps in.”
If you’re feeling Zoom fatigue, consider sending letters to friends and family via snail mail. “Writing can be therapeutic and a way to connect on your own time,” Wagner says. Better yet: “Fostering an animal can be a positive way to volunteer and have snuggle time in the comfort of your own home.” Bonus: A dog can be a great training partner to support your weight loss.
Before turning to food to deal with negative emotions, it can help to ask yourself: What is one thing I could do now that would make me feel better? “This may be as simple as reading an article, listening to your favorite song, reaching out to a friend or taking a warm bath,” Wagner says. What you really need could be a cupcake (and it’s best not to make any foods totally off-limits), but you may find that other things help, too, which make you feel like you’re back in control. “Often, taking that first action step can help boost confidence in your ability to take other positive steps,” Wagner says.
“We can become physically stagnant when we’re homebound,” Girgen points out. “Keep up with your usual hygiene routine and be sure to swap your yoga or sweat pants for jeans or dress pants every once in a while.” If you normally spent time commuting, for example, instead of opening your computer to work the second you wake up, try spending a few minutes creating a new healthy habit like meditating or writing down what you’re grateful for.
“It’s important to have a purpose when establishing health goals,” notes Erin Kenney, RD, LDN. Ideally, this purpose goes deep. “If your goal is to lose weight and you focus on a number on the scale, this can become discouraging and increase anxiety,” Kenny says. “Focus on tuning in to how you feel looking at measures like digestion, energy, mood and being creative in the kitchen.”
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