Music Notes and Covidisms

Music is always a good thing, no matter the mood. If I am down, sad, angry, irritable or just flat, music can be the background that either confirms my emotional state or lifts me out of it.

I was pleased to open the music app on my phone yesterday to see that Apple had gifted me with a new curated music list called Get Up! I usually like to play my Favorites Mix, the Chill Mix and sometimes get wild and crazy and listen to the New Music Mix. The Get Up! Mix was especially welcome in light of all the stress I have been feeling in at work this past week. From the opening bars of Drivin’ With Your Eyes Closed by Don Henley (one of my favorite artists) to Elton’s John’s Sleeping With the Past to You Might Think by The Cars, I was immediately transported to a better, more mellow place.

Whether Dan Fogelberg is riffing on democracy or Chicago is making me smile, this music is a throwback and an anchor to times before middle age, viruses and crazy politics. I find myself singing along, tapping my feet, humming, and just letting a tiny bit of the stress flow out of me and back to wherever stress goes when it leaves us.

Like the bands tell me, If my Paper(is)late and I am stressing over deadlines, music can Take It Away. A look to the Western Skyline does Open Soul Surgery on me and, like Tom Petty (may God rest his soul) I Feel A Whole Lot Better. Amen.

What does COVID-19 do to you, even if you’re not infected? Well, from my chair at work, it makes me anxious, it has tripled my workload and it leaves me wondering when this will all end. Any good things, positive things it has done? Yes.

I am concentrating on communicating my needs and the needs of my staff and patients more succinctly. No time for mincing words these days. Formulate the thought, get it out. On to the next thing. It has made me appreciate touching base with my peers. A lot of decisions and plans can be made in a very short amount of time in a crisis situation. I knew this from having worked hurricanes and other natural disasters, but this is different. It is affecting everything from staffing to leave time to employee health to childcare to scheduling to clinic procedures to supervision to patient care to technology to time management. Boom. In a matter of days, the way we did things is no longer the way we DO things. You have to keep up. It’s exhilarating, excruciating and exhausting.

I have had more direct contact with my family members by phone and FaceTime in the last few weeks then in the last year. I checked on my uncle last evening after hearing from my mother that he had sustained an injury in a fall. He sounded the same to me on the phone. A little mischief and humor in his voice, an even tempered assessment of the world, a positive take on what had happened to him and how he was going to deal with it. It made me smile just to hear his voice. Why had I not called him sooner? There is no reason; there is no excuse. Just a loss of routine connection that a tiny virulent particle has prompted a course correction for.

Thanks to Tom Petty for giving me the right thing to say to you, Coronavirus.

I’ll feel a whole lot better when you’re gone.

Updates

Well, as often happens, it takes a while for the dust to settle on a new idea or project to really find out what you were thinking in the first place. I was going to have a spin off blog about growing older that would be separate from my longstanding blog Musings. I realized a couple of things. One, it is as difficult to multi-blog as it is to truly multitask. We fool ourselves into thinking that we can do it, but in reality we only find ourselves ping ponging back and forth between competing ideas and projects, half doing both, completing little and feeling frustrated. I found that as I was growing older I was simply musing, and in the time I was musing I had indeed grown older. The solution? Merge the blogs. Done. If you missed any of the first dozen and a half posts on Growing Older, they are here to be found and enjoyed. Now, back to musing, the thing that I like to do and most likely do best in this space and format anyway.

Coronavirus has changed my life. Has it changed yours too? It seems like years ago since the first inklings of this unfolding tragedy hit out consciousness, but it’s only been weeks. In just weeks my home life, work life, travel, recreational time, and professional view of the world has changed. It’s here. I don’t like it.

Specifically, what do I not like about this virus-filled world? I do not like the fact that I now am sitting at my desk, isolated, cut off from my patients, all of whom I now communicate with by cellphone or video. I do not like the fact that my wife is unnerved, unsure, and at loose ends, not knowing if she will fly, where she will fly, with whom she will fly, and if she has a better then even chance of contracting this COVID-19 and then bringing it back home. I also worry that even though I see everyone artificially and sterilely now, that I may have had a chance or three to pick up that same virus in the weeks before we even knew it was stalking us. I do not like the fact that I spent many hours thinking about and working on a presentation for a conference that is now canceled. I do not like the fact that my wife and I were planning to go to Italy in April, the first time I would have been back to that country since I lived there as a seventh grader in 1970, and now that dream is many months if not years down the road. I do not like the fact that I cannot joyfully get on a plane and fly anywhere I want to seek adventure or excitement, because each trip is possibly contaminated and scary and potentially disease-ridden. I do not like the fact that I had to physically rearrange my office to better telepsych and type and talk and Skype and document. A little thing, but enough to make me not know exactly where to put my hands and at what distance to sit from each screen and how to best situate myself to hear and see and type and complete other tasks at hand. Just enough change to make me strain at the viral tether that now is attached to all of us, invisible and inevitable.

Which part of all this makes me the most cranky, feel the most sad, the most sorry for myself? None of it.

What hurts the most about this kind of game changing, world shrinking, mind blowing natural event is how it impacts the ones I love and care about. I already mentioned my wife. What hurts her hurts me and vice versa. Her confusion and questions are mine, my physical and emotional exhaustion are hers. We support each other the best we can and keep moving forward.

Our mothers, both in their eighties, should not have to worry about this. They are the young old, at least in our eyes, energetic and sharp and happy and smiling. They enjoy Silver Sneakers, volunteering at the hospital, spending time on the back deck, tending to flowers, watching the myriad birds they attract with feeders, visiting with neighbors, seeing pictures of great-grandchildren on FaceBook and living the life that the old should be entitled to without question. They should not have to worry about a cough, some congestion, a fever.

My children. No, they are not young anymore, I know that, strange as it still seems to me. They are courageous and daring and outspoken and informed and energetic as they attack this new problem that has decided to pop up in their lives at this particular time. They must handle relationships and jobs and raising children and sending spouses off to work. They have this newfangled internet and FaceBook and Twitter and Instagram stories and all the ways they can connect to friends and family, and they wield them like flaming swords, daring this little be-crowned viral particle to deconstruct their worlds. I marvel at their energy, their drive, their curiosity, their willingness to challenge norms and speak out and change their world. Virus be damned.

Yes, all the inconveniences are just that. They are not insurmountable. They may be fleeting. They are adaptations, mild kinks in the otherwise relatively smooth rope of time that we all cling to and slide along until we reach the frayed end that allows us to quietly slip off into history.

The big things, the important things, are how this little virus is changing our social fabric, our emotional, physical and financial security, our ability to reach out and touch each other, to comfort each other, to hold each other up. It is painful to watch, to experience, to feel. It is isolating. It is depressing. It feels almost insurmountable.

But it is not forever. The wonderful line in one of the shows that my oldest daughter starred in last season in Chattanooga, Avenue Q, says it best.

It’s only for now.

Wash your hands. Pick up the phone. Call someone. Wash your hands. Telecommute if you can. Cook at home. Have wonderful conversations. Wash your hands. Do it, because you must. We must all pitch in, if not for ourselves, then for our mothers and fathers and children and grandchildren,

It’s only for now.

Productive Anxiety

Mind Matters

Monday, March 23, 2020

Productive Anxiety

“I can’t quite explain what it is,” I told my wife a few days ago. Seems like weeks ago, actually.

“I agree,” she replied. “I can’t put my finger on it either, but something is not quite right.”

We were having what now seems like the first of dozens of conversations about the latest threat to our stability and wellbeing. Of course I am talking about the coronavirus scare that we have all been grappling with over the last few months. The threats posed by COVID-19 have inserted themselves into our vernacular, our school systems, our places of worship, our nursing facilities and our workplaces. We have read newspapers, listened to television reports, made toilet paper and canned goods runs on Costco, and washed our hands more in the last few weeks than ever before. What is it about this latest threat that makes us so uneasy?

Things that we do not fully understand make us anxious. I hear about anxiety virtually every working day from my patients but this is different. None of us know what to expect. Someone told me last week that this is like knowing that the tsunami is coming but not knowing how big it will be and how much damage it will do. All of us, patients and families and caregivers and healthcare providers alike, get anxious about this kind of threat. This is a novel virus. Most of us do not like novelty, change, things that are different and are likely to disrupt our routines. We fight against things that we can see, touch, or manipulate. This is different. This is an invisible threat that will not kill most of us, or even make many of us really sick, but may potentially sicken or kill the most vulnerable among us if we do not act now, and decisively so. This kind of anxiety is normal. Let me repeat that. This kind of anxiety is normal. It helps to make us more attentive, more attuned to the things around us that will help us not only survive, but prosper and move forward. Anxiety can be a catalyst for positive change. It is both a warning and an energizer. It slows us down but propels us to action at the same time.

Now, what happens if we do not stay abreast of the science and the rational warnings being offered by those who know how best to do this, but fall prey to rumors, speculation and frenzy? If that happens, our normal, adaptive, productive anxiety turns to fear. If we touch anything we will get sick. If we do not wear a mask we will breathe in something horrible. If we do not buy up everything in sight, we will run out of something vital. Anxiety turns to fear, which can lead to further speculation which leads to more false information being internalized which leads to more fear and on and on. As you might surmise, this is not adaptive, positive or productive. It makes us circle the wagons, cuts us off from sources of legitimate information, and erodes trust. Anxiety can be motivating. Fear can be paralyzing.

Some of my patients describe going up one more rung of this anxiety ladder, all the way up to panic. If fear is paralyzing, panic is even more isolating and disruptive. Rational attempts to socially distance oneself from large crowds or potentially infected people becomes absolute isolation. Panic makes you feel the most anxious and out of control you have every felt. You feel, literally, as if you might die. Your heart races, your pulse quickens, your palms are sweaty and you feel that you must run out of the room immediately. Panic keeps you from taking in new information, even if it is rational and useful, makes it hard to concentrate and keeps you from making good decisions for yourself or those in your care.

Panicked is not where we need to be at this time of crisis. Afraid is not where we want to be. Anxiety? Now, that is another thing. If I told you I had not been anxious about how COVID-19 was going to affect me, my practice seeing patients in a busy mental health center, my eighty four year old mother or my six grandchildren and their families, I would be lying to you. Of course it makes me anxious. That drives me to seek out good, useful information, make good, safe decisions and take care of myself and those under my care the best way I know how.

How can you keep yourself in a state of productive anxiety, not fear or panic?

Connect with others, but in a healthy way.  Write letters, text and make actual phone calls to those you want to check on. FaceTime with family. Skype with business associates. You do not have to weather these kinds of stresses alone. We are truly all in this together and we are stronger when we support each other through the stressful times.

Educate yourself. Know the facts about COVID-19 and issues related to it. It is very true that knowledge is power, and from my perspective, it is a pretty darn good treatment for anxiety as well. Check out cdc.gov and scdhec.gov for timely and ongoing updates on the state of the virus outbreak and related topics.

Know yourself. Do you have underlying health issues that put you at risk? Are you over age sixty? Do you need to be careful with routine exposure to crowds, avoid sick people, or avoid going out at all unless absolutely necessary? Do you have support from family, friends or neighbors who can run errands or accomplish tasks for you that might be too risky for you right now?

Reframe any mandatory time away from school, church, work or social contacts as time for you. Read. Paint. Put together a puzzle. Take a nap. Watch comedies. We are all guilty of being too busy and never taking enough time for ourselves to just be still, meditate or relax. This is the time to retrain ourselves and understand just how important that time is.

Wash your hands often, use hand sanitizer if you need to in between scrubbings, avoid shaking hands and practice good respiratory hygiene.

Remember, anxiety can be a productive, adaptive, healthy response to stress.

F5s

F5
Incredible tornado.
261-318 mph.
Strong frame houses lifted off foundations and carried considerable distances to disintegrate; automobile sized missiles fly through the air in excess of 100 meters; trees debarked; steel reinforced concrete structures badly damaged.

tornadoproject.com

 

We had a strong storm front come through the southeastern United States last week. Of course, this was not the first time this happened, and it will certainly not be the last. It was fascinating to watch it march inexorably across the country, showing up on my weather app as a ragged green diagonal slash from Gulf to heartland to northeast, moving slowly and relentlessly across the landscape. In the center of the ragged slash was a well defined hard bright yellow-orange-red line of destruction. Pretty on the screen, destructive on the ground. Destroyer of worlds.

Texts began to trickle in from my daughter, who lives in Spartanburg, of an apparent tornado that touched down not five miles from her house and destroyed a shopping center. A coworker who sees patients at the mental health center by telehealth connection also reported frightening noises that drove her to her basement to hunker down until all warnings were lifted later in the day. Both reported the loud, surreal wail of tornado warning sirens, something that I have never heard in real life, but that I am sure must be quite distressing in the midst of gray skies, howling winds,  pouring rain and lightning flashes. Not an F-5, but terrifying nonetheless.

When I hear about such stressful situations and see evidence of the destruction they bring,  I think of my friends, family, acquaintances and patients have who struggled with cancer, financial stress, persecution for various reasons, and other stresses that lead to anxiety, fear and emotional upheaval. My aunt who succumbed to ovarian cancer when I was a boy. My mother, who is a breast cancer survivor. My friend, who tragically committed suicide. My patients, who tell me stories of unbelievable trauma, neglect, abuse and hopelessness. Like an F-5 monster tornado, these life circumstances can drop on any of us unexpectedly from the sky. Pretty colored X-rays and scans reveal the destructive power of the cancer underneath. Sirens go off. The mind screams take cover, take cover! The body sometimes is only grazed, shrapnel cutting but not killing. Other times, the impact is devastating. Nothing looks as it did before the storm. The landscape is flattened and only rubble is left. We return to a place, time or set of circumstances that we expect to be familiar, only to realize that all of our old landmarks are gone, destroyed. We do not know whether to drop to our knees and cry, run headlong into the pile of rubble, or turn and walk away.

Is there anything good about F-5s, cancer, abuse, trauma, and destruction?  What an odd question, I hear you asking me.

These scourges, while leaving city blocks, body parts, and psyches in absolute ruin, are often coldly surgical in their devastation. That is, a few hundred yards away, or a few inches outside the margins, or in some other part of the emotional us, the sun is shining, the tissue is healthy, the coping is reasonably good and life goes on. Friends rush to help. Prayers go up. Communities, wonderful , supportive, dynamic communities form. Support is not only offered but insisted upon. Rebuilding begins immediately in the aftermath of the siren’s wail, the surgeon’s knife, and the abuser’s fist.

When the horror and the shock and the denial and the anger and the tears and all of it subsides, victims become empowered survivors.

Strong!

The chorus goes up.

We will rebuild.

Life will go on.

We’re still here.

The Doctor Is In. Sometimes.

I grew up in a small mill village in northwest Georgia. When things did not go right, someone got sick, or we had an accident, or we needed a sports physical, we would head around the circle to the entrance to the mill complex, just across the grassy field from my house, and see Dr. Harry Dawson. Dr. Dawson was that old omnipresent breed of physician who had a small self-contained office, seemed to me to always be there anytime he was needed, and could treat anything. He got kids through the measles, mumps, chickenpox, broken arms, flu, the common cold and of course that time I dropped the hammer on my brother’s head when we were climbing the tree in the back yard. It was an accident, I swear. He’s fine, thanks.

There are a few Dr. Dawsons left nowadays, but not that many. Same goes for psychiatrists. It is getting harder and harder to simply think, I want to go see my psychiatrist, call for an appointment and actually get one in less than a few weeks if not a few months. There are a few good reasons for this. According to a February 25, 2018 Forbes article Psychiatrist Shortage Escalates as US Mental Health Needs Grow, there are twenty-eight thousand psychiatrists practicing in the US, but three out of five of them are age fifty-five or older. (Here’s looking at me, kid.) As we face more and more angst, shootings and the escalation of completed suicides, the number of psychiatrists who actually see patients face to face and deal with crises individually in their practices, modern-day Dr. Dawsons, are very hard to find. My patients tell me all the time that they don’t want to come in to see a counselor, a nurse, a social worker, but that they want to see their doctor. I understand this, but as you shall soon see, what I and many of my colleagues are doing in 2020 is far different than what we trained to do in the seventies and eighties. If you need mental health care nowadays, you may see any one of a dozen people who are part of a treatment team of health care providers. Your doctor may be in, at least physically, but he or she may not be available to see you personally.

My workflow, and that of my colleagues, has changed dramatically over the last thirty years.

While in medical school and residency training, my schedule of activities was pretty much set for me. I had simply to show up at the appointed time and place and work and learn. Training, classes, meetings, patients, all were set by a scheduler or training director. I had very little input. There was little autonomy during training.

Flash forward to early practice in the late nineteen eighties, when I was a junior faculty member of the Department of Psychiatry and Health Behavior at the Medical College of Georgia. I was an attending physician at the state hospital, in charge of residents barely younger than me, attended faculty meetings, and had a practice life that was still fairly regimented. I still spent a lot of my time working directly with people, around people, talking with people. Psychiatry at that stage of my life was still a people profession, driven by conversations, interactions and face to face meetings.

Go forward still to private practice, which I did for about five years. There were personal interactions with my staff and my patients in the office all day long, visits to inpatients in the hospital, and consults sent for patients on the medical and surgery floors. I was still doing most all of my clinical work myself, making my own decisions, and deciding how often to see patients.

Next came work at the mental health center that started as a part time job in 1991 and then became my primary job in 1993. I loved it, and I have never looked back. Oh, I have done work in crisis units and I have now been doing telepsychiatry for ten years, but my primary mental health center duties are still my most loved ones. The funny thing is, with time, my duties to see patients one to one in the clinic have taken a back seat to myriad other duties, especially since I have been serving as medical director of our center. Individual work (“I want to go see my doctor!”) has morphed into leading a team of other mental health professionals, and even more recently serving as a co-provider in these groups, not even officially leading them anymore. Now in 2020, I supervise a medical staff of thirteen other people, the most we have ever had in my time at mental health. Oddly, though in the past we had as many as five or six psychiatrists working at the center, there are only two of us among these fourteen staff now. I have many very talented advanced practice nurses, nurses, administrative staff and part time, locum tenens and other providers who have helped us take care of patients over the last decade or more.

The thing that I noticed when engaged in a conversation with some of our senior staff last week is that now I do not simply see a limited and finite number of patients, as many as today’s schedule will allow. I do much more indirect and direct supervision, answering dozens of emails each day, talking in real time on Skype, and otherwise making decisions for patients who I am not seeing directly, at least most of the time. I am relying on the eyes, ears and assessment skills of the medical staff as they multiply my ability to hear your stories, assess your symptoms and come up with a reasonable treatment plan that will help you recover. This is both sad and exciting for me. I miss the days of seeing one patient after another, my patient coming in to see their doctor, that most pure of doctor-patient relationships. However, this new paradigm of care allows me to have a much broader reach and treat more people than I ever could alone. That is good. When you need to come in for treatment of mental illness, you may not see the doctor initially, but you will be seen by someone on the team that the doctor is intimately connected with.

What does the future hold? Telepsychiatry is making inroads in hospitals, prisons, jails, schools and even patients’ homes. Mobile crisis teams go out into the community and meet patients where they are, giving care at that point, not relying on visits to a clinic. Traveling RVs staffed with teams of providers scour the backroads for people who need help. More and more, care is becoming collaborative, as mental health workers are embedded with law enforcement and medical clinics, and medical providers set up shop in mental health facilities. Psychiatrists are learning that they can teach, supervise and function very well as part of a larger team, reaching far more souls than they could ever do in their simple solo practices.

I think Dr. Dawson would be proud.

A Milieu of Unfriendliness?

As we had our all agency meeting at work the other day, involving mental health employees from all three of our sites and from all types of job descriptions, I was struck by something that come up as we discussed issues of cultural diversity. We had had a good presentation on diversity and how it was germane to the people that we serve everyday. Then, a few folks made observations that made me understand immediately that they felt misunderstood, unappreciated, and unacknowledged in the positive ways that they obviously felt were important.

How could that be, I thought? I started working for the local mental health center in Aiken part time in 1991 and came on full time in 1993 for the specific reasons that I loved the patients, the clinical environment, and most of all the people that I worked with. I have stayed at the center for almost twenty nine years for those same reasons. Now, I know that we are not perfect, but I do get the sense that the folks I see and work with every day are basically good people, caring people and people who care about my wellbeing as well as their own. For the most part, we cooperate, we commiserate, we collaborate and we celebrate, all important parts of being on a team that pulls in the same direction for positive changes and outcomes. I was a bit saddened to hear that some of my coworkers do not seem to feel respected, genuinely valued or appropriately acknowledged.

How did we get from 1991 to 2020 and this angst? I have a few ideas about what might have changed.

We work in a culture of fear-driven productivity at the expense of much else. Being a part of the management team as medical director, I understand this from a purely operational viewpoint, in that we must do a certain amount of business, bill a certain amount, collect a certain amount of money and constantly push for provision of appropriate services to keep our doors open. Otherwise, we would not be much good or be able to provide services to anyone at all. I get that. But it does seem to me that a lot of our staff feel pressured by the numbers, the spreadsheets and the bottom line, regardless of the emotional toll that this pressure takes on them daily. In this twenty first century world, we have perfected the art of cranking out widgets, but we have sometimes lost our drive to connect in meaningful ways with each other in the bargain.

As a corollary to that, the time that we spend with each other, WITH each other, is minimal.  I have noted, as have others, that sometimes we can pass each other in the hallways and not even acknowledge the other with a smile or a kind word of greeting. Now, there are some of us who are excellent at that kind of connection, bright rays of sunshine in an otherwise clinical gray haze, but I’m afraid many of  us, myself included, can easily fall short at times. We need to connect emotionally and model that behavior that we often try to teach our patients about.

I began to think, we have lots of folks working here, lots of people like me and not like me, with different values and priorities and hopes and dreams and ways to act and dress and walk and talk and interact with others. We preach acknowledging these differences, even elevating and celebrating them in our patients, but are we failing to do the same with those who work in the offices next to us? Based on what I heard at our meeting, I’m afraid that might be the case.

Are we fostering a workplace culture of exclusion? A milieu of unfriendliness?

There is enough stress in the world right now to go around, and then some. There are social, cultural, political and class stresses that make us wonder how we will ever get through some days. In spite of those stresses, we do get through each day.

We need to be consciously  aware at home, at work, at play, wherever we are, that there are those who feel marginalized, unappreciated, unloved, unseen and disconnected.

We must start somewhere.

Smile. Acknowledge. Say hello. Check in. Look up. Make eye contact. Tear down the wall that surrounds the milieu of unfriendliness and build your own bridge to a culture of appreciation and hope.

It starts with me, and with you.

 

Loneliness

Loneliness

“One is the loneliest number that you’ll ever do.”

Three Dog Night

Well, dear readers, we have passed another holiday season, one that was magical for many of us, sad for others and downright lonely for a few. I was already thinking about this annual state of affairs the other day when I happened upon an article in the Dec 19/Jan 20 AARP Magazine, of all places, called “Is There a Cure for Loneliness?” It got me thinking more about some observations that apply to many of my patients, and perhaps to all of us to varying degrees. Please allow me to share some of these with you.

One of the last observations in the article, and I think one of the most important, is that loneliness is the difference between what we would like to have in our relationships and what there is in reality. This is a key idea, in that the rest of the article was predicated on the fact that it is very hard to nail down just exactly what loneliness is and how to best measure and study it. According to this article, it is fairly well known that older Americans are at risk for social isolation and that this can sometimes lead to physical illness, depression, even dementia. The piece tried to explore causation for loneliness, wondering whether there exist medical causes for and treatments for loneliness.

Louise Hawkley, a senior research scientist at the University of Chicago, stated that “Loneliness is a universal human experience, and being the social animals that we are, there must be implications when these social connections are not satisfied.” Steve Cole, Professor of medicine, psychiatry and biobehavioral sciences at UCLA School of Medicine, studied biological effects in lonely people. He found that blood cells in such folks “were in a high state of alert, as if responding to an infection”. Ms. Hawkley stated that “we humans have a need to be embedded, connected, integrated in a social network”. Ah, I can hear you right now, as you read this column, saying, “Well, I am embedded in Facebook and Twitter and Snap Chat! Of course I am connected to other people!” Alas, is that a truly fulfilling connection? Is it enough to ward off isolation, illness, mental health problems? See my previous columns and those of others over the last several years. What kind of connections do we desire, need, thrive on? Is it different one person to another? Of course it is. We are all human, but we are profoundly different from each other in many ways, the need for socialization and connection being one of them.

The one thing that does seem to be more and more clear, however, is that if we do not have some sort of meaningful connection to others, that we are adversely affected both physically and mentally. A friend of mine, who is a physician and also an Episcopal priest, was trying this holiday season to reconcile the religious and the secular in his life. He spoke of worship versus parties, as it were. He said that for him, it would be very important to spend worshipful time in quiet reflection about the mysteries of the season, but he also resolved to “accept every invitation to go to every party and gathering I am invited to!” He was always a wise man when he was my surgery attending in medical school, and he is still wise in the ways of social interaction. We do not need false, fake or superficial social networks and connections, but real, substantive connections with other human beings. That is why real time gatherings can be so satisfying and fulfilling. We need deep conversations; letters (not just texts, LOL); groups that support art, therapy, learning, and self-improvement; shared activities; and shared experiences that allow us and others to feel fulfilled and whole.

Is there a financial cost related to loneliness? According to the AARP article, people who live in social isolation add about seven billion dollars to Medicare costs due to longer hospital stays and lack of adequate family and social support at home. Loneliness is a killer. It may worsen heart disease, may make us more vulnerable to cognitive illnesses such as Alzheimer’s Disease, may worsen hypertension and may leave us vulnerable to infections. Loneliness may be more dangerous than obesity and the equivalent to smoking fifteen cigarettes a day. But wait, I hear you saying now, how can an emotion, a very abstract one at that, shorten a life?

Is it the loneliness itself or the social isolation, disconnection in a variety of ways that is fueling this problem? Again, per the AARP article, there are more people living alone these days as shown by census data, the marriage rate has declined, and the number of children has also decreased. Julianne Holt-Lunstad, professor of psychology and neuroscience at BYU, was co-author of a study that looked at three groups: those who were socially isolated from other people, those who described themselves as very lonely, and those who lived alone. The study included pooled data from seventy studies that followed 3.4 million people for seven years. Each group had about the same risk for early death, 29%, 26%, and 32%, respectively. The study data was independent of health status. It is a fact that people who live alone are not necessarily lonely, and it also follows that some who are surrounded by family and friends do indeed feel very lonely. One thing that seems clear, however, is that people who are socially connected live longer.

Can you definitely measure and quantitate something like loneliness? The UCLA Loneliness Scale, according to this AARP article, is the gold standard for research purposes. It is a twenty item questionnaire that asks about the feelings associated with loneliness, without asking about the thing itself.

How to approach loneliness? First, like many illnesses and conditions, this article states that we must recognize that there are likely multiple etiologies for what we see. These can include genetics, social situation and family environment. We must also try to look at this problem from the point of social connection, not loneliness per se. Why? Because like obesity and other conditions, people who are lonely often are subject to stigma and may be looked on as social failures. We can encourage those who are lonely to volunteer, help others, and encourage activities that qualify as life experiences that build connections and memories. Another concept mentioned in this article, that I like to think of as crowd sourcing care, is that we can ask that people who are in the arena (postal workers, healthcare providers, hairdressers and many others who come into contact with many people every day) to watch out for the needs of others and spot those who are struggling. Finally, we can stay abreast of the research that is being done on inflammation, pain and other issues that might be biologically related to loneliness. There are not many hard and fast guideposts for the medical aspects of loneliness yet, and no medical treatments that are panaceas, but more knowledge is sure to come as we learn more about this problem that can affect us all, not just at holiday time.

Happy New Year!