As we head into the holiday season, we’re continuing our series on how to manage emotions that accompany this time of year. What can we do to take care of ourselves and loved ones when we’re feeling disconnected? This week a psychiatrist helps us better understand the health impact of loneliness and the power of connection, and shares some specific ways to deepen the relationships we have in our lives.
Welcome to Health Matters – your weekly dose of the latest in health and wellness from NewYork-Presbyterian. I’m Courtney Allison.
As we head into the holiday season, we’re continuing our series on how to manage emotions that accompany this time of year. This week, Dr. Warren Ng, a psychiatrist at NewYork-Presbyterian and Columbia helps us better understand the health impact of loneliness.
What can we do to take care of ourselves and loved ones when we’re feeling disconnected? Dr. Ng shares the power of connection and some specific ways to deepen the relationships we have in our lives.
Courtney: Hi, Dr. Ng. Thank you so much for joining us today.
Dr. Ng: Thank you so much for inviting me, Courtney. It’s a privilege to be here, and I’m really excited to have this conversation.
Courtney: So we’re here today to talk about loneliness and the importance of connection. To start, can you tell us what is loneliness?
Dr. Ng: I think that loneliness, as it’s defined, is when the social connections that we need and the social connections that we have are not coordinated. So we’re not having as many of the connections that we need in our lives. And so how loneliness is experienced, how it’s manifested, is really unique to who we are and what we’re experiencing.
Courtney: How does loneliness impact our mental and physical health?
Dr. Ng: There’s a statistic that says that loneliness poses more of a risk to our health than smoking 15 cigarettes a day or drinking six glasses of alcohol per day, and I think it just reminds us that the way that we are as human beings is that we’re not all fragmented in terms of our body, spirit, mind, and I think we’ve gotten away from really appreciating that within our lives.
So when we feel lonely for a prolonged period of time, or in a way that overwhelms our ability to feel a sense of well-being or to take care of ourselves, then we’re at greater risk for depression, anxiety, suicide risk, as well as other behaviors that might not be as positive, such as alcohol, substance use, and other sort of addictive behaviors.
But I think when we’re also lonely for long periods of time, then it also has an impact on our physical health. So in terms of having risk factors for heart disease, for diabetes, for dementia. When people have had a heart attack or stroke and they’re actually at greater risk for having depression, but when there is an experience of loneliness on top of that, then that actually increases your risk for having a worse outcome in terms of your heart disease. It’s important that we heal holistically in terms of our mind, body, spirit, and soul, and not just in one dimension.
Courtney: Absolutely. I love how you highlight the whole person when it comes to health and wellness.
Can you explain to us the importance of human connection?
Dr. Ng: Human connection is a critical part of our survival. And when you think about infants or babies, when they’re born, they crave the connection, and often with the parent, the mother, the caregiver, it’s really that connection that allows that infant or that child to survive and not only survive but thrive.
However, that doesn’t really change throughout our lives. We still crave that connection. It’s as important to us as oxygen. It’s as important to us as food, as sleep. Some of these basic human needs. And I think that that’s where when we neglect our need for human and interpersonal and relational connectedness, then we’re actually depriving ourselves of, say, the oxygen that your heart needs in order to function.
And then there are these different levels of connectedness that are important. And there are the intimate connections that are the deep relationships that we have. And then there’s also sort of the relational connectedness, like our friendships and our social circles, as well as a collective sense of connectedness, which is really our sense of community and a sense of belonging.
Having a sense of connectedness along those three different dimensions is also really important. So you can have a really wonderful sense of connectedness at home, but then if you don’t have that sense of friends or social connections outside of your home, or a sense of connectedness to your community, you can feel lonely in those other settings.
Courtney: So what are some steps we can take when we’re feeling lonely?
Dr. Ng: One of the things that’s really important to say about loneliness and our sense of connectedness is the fact that we all have the power to change that. And we all have the power to make that difference in the lives that we want.
Sometimes people are encouraged to first think about gratitude, what are some of the things that I’m grateful for, and thinking about the people in our lives that sort of had a meaningful impact on who we are and how we feel about ourselves, and thinking about reaching out to them.
I know that for the Surgeon General, Dr. Vivek Murthy, has also encouraged people to take 15 minutes in their day to reach out to people in meaningful ways. But also not only for people that they know, but also people they don’t know. So, to strangers, like today, I, I think that I’ve been in an elevator at least three different times and making eye contact with people saying, “Hello.”
If you can imagine if we all did something small, but every single one of us in this world every day, that would be incredible. That would be a cataclysmic change in terms of how we interact with one another.
So starting small is often a really important thing, but also thinking about, what are the things that we can do in our lives that enhance our sense of connection, reflecting back on what brings you joy, what gives you a sense of connectedness and helps you have a sense of belonging in this world?
When did you feel that the last time? Who were you with? What were you doing? And then maybe just going back to maybe, hey, I think I should be doing more of that and being able to grow from the places that work best for you. So it’s sort of like planting your seed and then giving it sunshine.
Courtney: Yeah. We’re approaching the holiday season, and it could be a time for many emotions. For some, it’s a time of family and friends and connection, and for others, it’s a difficult time. So what can we do to protect our mental health around the holidays?
Dr. Ng: I think as a, as a psychiatrist and a mental health professional, I would say that the most difficult time of the year in terms of my work are actually the holidays, and I think it’s often a time when people have this fantasy of what life is like, meaning that everyone is happy, everyone’s having a great time, all families are so together and so connected. And I must be the only one who doesn’t feel that way.
So I think that the things that it’s important to acknowledge at that time is setting expectations and if we can use the holidays as a reminder that connections are really important, but relationships can also be difficult, but that they’re worth working on, and that they’re worth investing in, and that there may be some connections that through the year we may have neglected. Maybe we were really busy at work, we didn’t spend the time that we wanted to with our loved ones, or our family members, or friends, and that could be a nice reminder of the time that, hey, you know, I want to recommit to my connections. I want to use this time to acknowledge that this is important to me and then to let someone know that they are meaningful in their lives, but it’s also a time to acknowledge that sometimes our ability to meet the moment and to take care of our needs exceeds our ability to do that, and I think it’s important to also be human enough and vulnerable enough and strong enough to say that I need help, and I need more support. And that might be reaching out to your health professional, your mental health professional, and not to have any shame or stigma in getting the help that you need. It doesn’t mean that seeking help is that you’re weak or that you’re not enough. It just means that you’re not alone.
Courtney: Dr. Ng, this has been such a wonderful conversation. Thanks again for joining us.
Dr. Ng: Thank you so much for having me. And thank you so much for raising the awareness to loneliness and also what we can all do to address it for ourselves and for the ones that we love and for the ones we have in our lives.
Our many thanks to Dr. Warren Ng.
I’m Courtney Allison.
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