When tragedies occur, everyone wants an answer as to why. They want someone or something to blame. That’s how grief works; it turns our world upside down and leaves us longing to understand what really caused our loved ones to lose their battle. The heartbreak can feel insurmountable.
I know this because my daughter Rylie lost her battle with mental health last year. Ultimately, addiction took her life. But, like too many others, Rylie’s addiction was deeply rooted in her core struggle: chronic loneliness.
Before she lost her life, my wife and I had already been keenly aware of Rylie’s mental health state. In 2017, she had a hard year. That’s when she was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and spent time in recovery. After her time in recovery in 2017, and once Rylie was back at the dinner table with us, we asked her what we were missing in terms of triggering feelings or events. She told us that before things turned bad for her, she felt profound loneliness.
That was a surprising answer. How could she be lonely? She had a loving family around her, and she was intentional about being in all our lives. How could she possibly be lonely?
After learning that loneliness was at the forefront of her struggles, my wife and I began to study it and its impact on health. Not surprisingly, there wasn’t too much out there in terms of treatment. Most dismissed it as a feeling, easily fixed by being around others. And that is just a complete misconception that loneliness is solvable by keeping someone company.
The quest for answers about chronic loneliness—and how it affected Rylie and so many others like her—is what inspired us to start Pyx Health. That dinner table conversation with Rylie started me on a mission to help other families grapple with this condition, which led me to study loneliness and work toward creating an evidence-based program for it. To do that, I had to really understand the science of loneliness and debunk the myths.
At the same time, Rylie was also inspired to help others. When she was active in her recovery, Rylie dedicated herself to helping others with her compassion and empathy, even working at Pyx Health in our compassionate call center. She played a key role in guiding others toward recovery, and that’s evident even after her death. So many people from all walks of life have shared stories with us about what a force Rylie was in their lives. She was a joyful person when she was outside of her loneliness: someone who shared this joy simply through her love of cool shoes and bright shirts.
Leading up to her death, Rylie had plenty of loved ones around her. She had been in recovery, she was being treated for mental health issues, and she was helping others get well. Rylie lived close by, and we did family dinners every week. We were doing everything “right,” it seemed. There was no shortage of humans actually in Rylie’s space loving her, but that wasn’t enough. By conventional (read: uninformed) wisdom, it should have been.
But that’s just not how the condition of chronic loneliness works. We know that now.
Chronic loneliness is about feeling like no one else can understand your burden or hurt. The disease of loneliness makes you believe you are a solitary soul, no matter how many people you’re around who love and encourage you—even if your parents start a company to lead the way studying loneliness in health care.
Everyone needs to understand that loneliness is a disease that can make one feel isolated even when surrounded by loved ones and others helping you. Loneliness wrapped itself around Rylie’s head and heart and just didn’t let go—and she clearly wasn’t alone. It’s one of the top symptoms in those who suffer from alcoholism, bipolar disorder and depression, and in fact, can worsen all three. Loneliness is destructive, and that’s why it must be identified and treated as a chronic condition.
Chronic loneliness affects every demographic. It’s not reserved for the elderly or those with mental and physical health issues. Some people can be more susceptible to chronic loneliness if they have existing psychological and physical health diseases. There is a misconception that only older populations get lonely. Of course, that’s not true. Every demographic and socioeconomic segment can be lonely. The face of loneliness isn’t a senior sitting all alone in an empty apartment. The real face of loneliness is more like a mirror because it could be anyone—even a bright and compassionate young woman like Rylie.
Another misconception about the loneliness condition is that engagement in one’s community is the immediate fix. Telling someone to go out and be social isn’t going to cure loneliness; it’s just going to dismiss a serious issue. When someone is experiencing acute loneliness, they think no one can help them and that they are in this world alone.
Rather than a quick fix, engagement in the community is just the second phase of a long-term treatment plan. Finding a place to belong—whether with family, friends, hobby groups, church or whatever appeals to them—will help them progress.
The danger of the medical community—and society in general—considering loneliness as just a “feeling” is that they miss the connection it has to one’s physical health. It manifests itself in us physically in the same way stress does.
Just as with other behavioral health conditions, loneliness rewires your brain. Scientists have even revealed what loneliness looks like in the brain. The differences in lonely brains are around the default network, a region that involves inner thoughts such as reminiscing, imaging, thinking about others and planning for the future. These areas were more strongly wired together. Lonely brains also had greater amounts of gray matter in the regions. The fornix—which is where nerve fibers carry signals from the hippocampus to the default network—was also different and better preserved.
The conclusion? Lonely people lack social experiences and rely on internal dialogue and memories. Self-reflection is not a bad thing at all, but when negativity hijacks the system and exacerbates the feeling of being alone with our thoughts, it becomes a threat to the person.
Most of the time with chronic loneliness, the person has left the table and is no longer engaged or participatory in their own health. They may stop taking prescriptions, put off doctor visits, not follow clinician orders or fall back into unsafe behaviors such as addiction. That’s why loneliness puts people at increased risk for early death.
Here’s what else we know about loneliness as a health condition and epidemic:
- There is a direct correlation between loneliness and increased cortisol—our “fight-or-flight” mode. Over time, this perception creates an exhausted state, both mentally and physically.
- Loneliness is a high-risk factor for mortality and can play a role in the increased use of opioids, NSAIDs and sleep medications.
- Loneliness, or perceived social isolation (PSI), was also found to affect the cardiovascular system, neuroendocrine system and cognitive functioning, possibly triggering depression, cognitive decline and sleep problems.
- Loneliness takes a toll on society and the healthcare system, costing the U.S. nearly $7 billion annually.
The science is clear: Loneliness is raging a war on the population. The passion I felt as a result of losing Rylie has made me and everyone at Pyx Health even more determined to refine the best treatment for chronic loneliness. Our studying makes it clear: Treatment for loneliness lies in evidence-based interventions involving technology and human connection. There’s a way to both diagnose chronic loneliness and care for those with chronic loneliness. Until recently, treatment for this condition was like a Band-Aid on a gushing wound.
I think of Band-Aids when I think back to Rylie’s struggle. I realize that because we didn’t yet understand the devastation of loneliness, we were applying Band-Aids that we thought would heal—love, acceptance, inclusion. A lonely mind, however, isn’t always ready to immediately accept these things. Despite all our efforts to help her not feel lonely, the last text message Rylie sent was a reference to feeling deeply lonely.
You can’t love or hug someone out of chronic loneliness.
Getting to the root of loneliness requires individuals to be in a place to make connections and participate. Technology is a way for people to ease into connections. It’s often less intimidating and scary to interact with a chatbot than to make a phone call. That chat can be a crucial first step.
It’s easy to dismiss the use of technology in loneliness treatment. We tend to lump tech into one group, leaning on the assumptions that it’s “bad” for mental health or increases isolation, especially social media. A more accurate view is to see that although, yes, some of it is bad, technology can also be a bridge—one that’s scalable—to boost engagement and interaction.
The therapy piece of treatment focuses on getting the chronically lonely into a place where they can be open and start healing. In this approach, immediate intervention can often occur before the detrimental effects of loneliness become severe. They have both the tech resources and humans they can talk with to expand their comfort zone and no longer be a party of one.
Despite struggling with her own demons, Rylie believed in this approach and was devoted to helping others with their loneliness and depression. When she worked in our compassionate call center, she was able to talk to and help people just like her. It has been a year, and people still came forward to tell us the positive impact Rylie had on their lives. I love those stories because I’m so proud of the work she did.
Grief is the strongest emotion. It’s where love goes that can’t be showered on that person. The bigger the love, the bigger the grief. Our grief felt like it was larger than we could withstand. It, however, gave us the strength to punch a hole in the earth for Rylie. If one person or one family can avoid our fate, then Rylie’s legacy will never fade.
Cindy Jordan’s eclectic professional experience has aligned her work life with her deep care for the well-being of others, culminating in the launch of Pyx Health in 2018, the first loneliness solution solely focused on helping the most vulnerable.
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