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How Coping with Chronic Illness Impacts Loneliness

The vital role of healthy versus unhealthy coping mechanisms

Loneliness has a devastating impact on our psychological as well as our physical health. In addition to the raw emotional pain it causes, loneliness creates self-defeating mindsets that make it difficult to reach out and connect with others, and it suppresses the function of our immune systems, increasing our vulnerability to illness and disease. Indeed, it has been well established that chronic loneliness has a damaging impact on both our physical health and our longevity (read 10 Surprising Facts about Loneliness). Now two new studies are providing fascinating information about the reverse chain of causality, how our physical health impacts our psychological health. Specifically, how chronic illness impacts feelings of loneliness and the role our psychological coping mechanisms play in these interactions.

The studies, conducted over eight years, examined over 120 adults (all older than 64 at the time of the first measurements) every two years and measured the participants’ loneliness, the severity of their chronic illnesses, the psychological coping mechanisms they employed to deal with their physical conditions, and the levels of biomarkers for disease and disability in their blood.

They found that participants who reported high levels of chronic illness became lonelier over time while those with lower levels of chronic illness did not. It seems that for older adults, having high levels of chronic illness presents a significant risk factor for becoming lonely.

However, the researchers also found that what mitigates this risk is the psychological coping mechanisms people used to deal with their chronic illness. Participants who utilized more adaptive and psychologically healthier coping mechanisms to deal with their chronic illness did not, in fact, become lonelier while those who used less ‘healthy’ coping mechanisms did.

Even more compelling, the coping mechanisms used by lonely older adults to deal with their health risks even determined the levels of cortisol (the stress hormone) and C-reactive protein in their blood six years later (which are both major risk indicators for disease and disability).

Healthy and Unhealthy Coping Mechanisms

Older adults who used psychologically adaptive self-protective coping strategies such as reframing problematic health circumstances positively and avoiding self-blame for any health-related threats they faced did not become lonely over time while those who focused on the negative and blamed themselves for their health woes did.

Reframing involves putting a positive spin on a negative event, trying to look at the situation with optimism, or seeking the bright side of things. Older adults who tended to blame themselves for their chronic illnesses did more poorly because self-blame is not only demoralizing but it also creates significant internal stress which in turns suppresses the functioning of our immune system, causing further declines in health which then lead to more self-blame.

Although the researchers did not measure this variable, my guess would be that a tendency to ruminate and brood was a mediating factor here—as brooding and ruminating about negative events, is associated with higher levels of stress and cortisol blood levels (read The Seven Hidden Dangers of Brooding).

My fellow Psychology Today blogger Toni Bernhard knows this well. As someone who struggles with chronic illness herself, her practice of Buddhism and acceptance made a huge difference in her ability to cope with her situation—check out her blog Turning Straw into Gold for many articles about psychological healthy ways of coping with chronic illness.

What makes these studies stand out is their contribution to the growing body of science that is unraveling the complex interplay between psychological and physical health, and how one impacts the other. The more we understand about these dynamics, the more effectively we will be able to employ psychological interventions to increase not just our emotional health and our quality of life but our physical health and longevity as well.

For a comprehensive exploration of science-based techniques to heal both loneliness and rumination check out, Emotional First Aid: Healing Rejection, Guilt, Failure and Other Everyday Hurts (Plume, 2014).

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Copyright 2015 Guy Winch

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