How Weekly Volunteering Can Overcome Loneliness and Depression
7 minute read
We all need some alone time every now and then, but too much of this can be a terrible thing. Loneliness has been linked to depression and increased risk of suicide as well as increased risk of serious illness.
As we get older, we lose people, and this is when true loneliness sets in. Humans are naturally social creatures, so maintaining contact with others is critical to your well-being.
Volunteering is a fantastic way to get the contact you need and to prevent loneliness from taking hold. And recent research has found evidence to back up this claim, even with just 2 hours of volunteer work per week.
When Loneliness Comes Knocking
Widowhood is a difficult and emotionally challenging time of transition for people. Losing a loved one is traumatic.
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While research focuses on elderly individuals, loss can happen at any stage in your life and the effects are just as devastating. Losing friends or family members can create intense feelings of isolation and loneliness.
With these feelings comes depression and anxiety, which can take a serious toll if not addressed.
Loneliness has been long-associated with depression and early mortality. When an elderly individual loses their spouse, it is not uncommon for them to die shortly after.
Loneliness may be a feeling, but it causes physical, mental, and “spiritual” damage, essentially leading people to give up on life. Loneliness can be avoided, though, by staying in touch with people.
Even if you do not have a circle of friends or family, you can get the contact you need through simple activities, such as volunteering.
A recent study found that those who had recently been widowed saw huge life improvements once they started volunteering about two hours a week. Participants that had been recently widowed found increased energy levels and a more positive outlook after volunteering.
While they still reported missing their loved one and thinking of them often, they also reported that the weekly interactions made them feel involved in life.
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Following a loss, people often withdraw from society and isolation sets in. By volunteering and getting involved in a regular, social activity, people gain a sense of belonging.
How Volunteering Helps Loneliness
Some time to yourself is a blessing, but loneliness is an entirely different situation. There is a sense of isolation from the world that comes with loneliness, especially after losing a loved one.
Apart from the strong links with depression that loneliness has, there are additional physical effects on your body that you may not be aware of. Over time, serious complications can harm your health and well-being.
A lonely mind can lead to a lonely heart. The feelings of loneliness and isolation can cause physical symptoms of uncertainty and panic.
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The physiological changes associated with uncertainty equate to those of stress, and your body can only endure the stress response for so long. Faster heart rates and increased blood pressure will start to wear away the health of your blood vessels and put strain on your heart.
Loneliness, and the associated depression, can for lack of a better term, break your heart, causing potentially serious cardiovascular problems.
The act of volunteering helps to fill a void that is created when you lose a loved one. The new connections are not to replace one that you have, rather they keep you in touch with the world.
Humans are social by nature and we need human contact, even if it is only for a few hours a week. Being around people, helping, and talking to others keeps you from isolation because you are drawn out into the world to be with people. In turn, your heart does not feel as stressed, because you are not as anxious.
Being lonely can also impact your immune system. Studies have shown that lonely individuals are more susceptible to infections because their bodies produce fewer antibodies.
The reason behind this again lies in the stress response. Loneliness triggers uncertainty, which triggers stress in the body. Cortisol, the stress hormone, influences other hormones that impact the production and implementation of your white blood cells (your primary immune response team).
Loneliness and Inflammation
As part of the immune system, the inflammatory response is necessary to protect us from infection, but it can get out of hand.
Chronic and uncontrolled inflammation causes serious damage to cells and tissues and contributes to serious diseases such as asthma, arthritis, Alzheimer’s, IBS, heart disease, and even cancer. This is one reason for the popularity of probiotic supplements, which can help reduce inflammation.
The isolated feeling triggers increased production of norepinephrine, a hormone that shuts down your defenses but increases white blood cell count. The inflammatory response thus runs rampant through your body.
With the decreased immune defense mentioned previously, your body is at the mercy of chronic inflammation and does not respond to the anti-inflammatory controls of stress hormones.
Volunteering for a few hours a week helps to support your immune system. Daily activity and involvement prevents you from feeling stressed or depressed, helping keep the inflammatory response in check.
Regardless of your age, it is important to maintain a strong and healthy immune system, and any type of loneliness can negatively affect this. Staying in contact with people can help you maintain the robust immune system you need.
Finally, loneliness causes a lack of sleep, which is detrimental to your health. We need sleep to recharge, and without it our immunity falters, leaving us at increased risk for mental health problems, too.
A lack of sleep impairs cognitive and physical function, which can cause accidents as well as impair overall health. By volunteering, you get the social contact you need to feel at peace. This allows you to sleep better at night.
The Bottom Line
Loneliness is a part of life, because inevitably we will all lose someone or experience a traumatic event. The key is to not let it take over and to avoid a depressive state.
This doesn’t mean you have to become a social butterfly overnight. Volunteering for a few hours each week keeps you active, in the world, and around people.
Your health doesn’t have to pay the price because that little bit of human contact goes a long way.
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