She was 16 when she took ill. High fever and no other symptoms. The doctors took test after test with no definite idea what the problem was. A viral infection was what they ruled and kept trying out different drugs. The fever weakened her. She would just pass out on the way to the washroom. Her mother struggled to take care of her. Her father pitched in to when he came back from work and her siblings helped too.

Loneliness and Illness

For a month the fever continued, making her listless and depressed. The family was stressed already with tensions between the parents. One night her father, drank a little too much and behaved rather badly. Her mother already at her wits end and just bone tired, walked out of the house the next day, leaving the girl in the care of her siblings with no word of where she was going. When the father got back from work, he had no clue where his wife was and the daughter began to panic. With no one to talk to, and feeling that her illness was causing these tensions, she blamed herself for the situation. She was too weak to take her own life, but that was one evening she felt that she should.

Thankfully, the story ended well and things went back to normal. But that was the evening the young girl realized that sickness and loneliness can make a deadly combination. She learnt that an important aspect of healing is having a good social network and strong relationships. She also learnt that once she shared her feelings, and friends were invited over, her healing speeded up.

This truth was recently underlined for the young girl, now over 50 (you’ve guessed, already) when she came across a recent study.

Findings of the Study

In a study conducted at Rice University, participants were measured on a Short Loneliness Scale and a Social Network Index, and the results showed that those who had tested as lonely were no more likely to catch a cold then those who weren’t. But there was a difference: For those who did catch the cold, the lonely people experienced more severe symptoms.

Going in, the researchers were already aware that, “Loneliness puts people at risk for premature mortality and all kinds of other physical illnesses,” study author Angie LeRoy wrote. “But nothing had been done to look at an acute but temporary illness that we’re all vulnerable to, like the common cold.” The study made a distinction between feeling lonely and social isolation. “This paper is about the quality of your relationships, not the quantity,” LeRoy wrote. “You can be in a crowded room and feel lonely. That perception is what seems to be important when it comes to these cold symptoms.”

“Anytime you have an illness, it’s a stressor, and this phenomenon would probably occur,” wrote the study’s lead author, Rice psychologist Chris Fagundes. “A predisposition, whether it’s physical or mental, can be exaggerated by a subsequent stressor. In this case, the subsequent stressor is getting sick, but it could be the loss of a loved one, or getting breast cancer, which are subjects we also study.”

The study’s authors suggest that doctors should take psychological factors like loneliness into account when they are treating patients.
Do you too have instances of the connection between loneliness and illness?

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Image of sick young woman via Shutterstock