- Going to bed lonely or sad increases your cortisol load the next day, which produces the stress response.
- High cortisol levels dampen the immune response and even kill natural killer cells that fight viruses and even tumors.
- Mindfulness of relationships can connect you with someone who is supportive or someone you care about each night before sleep.
Have you ever gone to bed at night feeling sad or lonely? Then, you woke up not feeling refreshed, but exhausted and on edge. You are not alone. It's been found that your emotional state at night can influence your body's stress system in a profound way.
We all know how Covid has produced higher levels of isolation. Wearing masks, as important as they are, is the equivalent of placing an emotional wall between yourself and others because you can't recognize facial expressions. These expressions are processed by emotional brain centers that help us feel safe.
Furthermore, the lack of daily contact caused by sitting in front of a computer screen (I'm certainly guilty of that) is no substitute for real, person-to-person contact and human touch.
A study from the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that "Prior-day feelings of loneliness, sadness, threat, and lack of control were associated with a higher cortisol awakening response the next day." When cortisol floods the body and the brain, it has been shown to put the brakes on our immune system by reducing T-cells; cortisol has been shown to kill NK cells—important immune cells that help fight off viruses and even some kinds of tumors.
Imagine you had feelings of loneliness that lasted for days or weeks or longer. This could produce a chronic state of stress resulting in chronic health conditions. In fact, it's been reported that eight of 10 commonly prescribed medications are for symptoms of stress. That's where mindfulness comes in.
How Mindfulness Transforms "Me" into "We"
One of the misconceptions of mindfulness is that it is primarily about noticing what comes through the sense doors, such as being aware of thoughts and emotions. Yes, that may be true. However, if that were all mindfulness represented, it would be a lonely and isolated kind of mindfulness. To help reduce suffering, mindfulness teaches us how to experience the world through immersive inter-being with our surroundings. This means seeing ourselves mirrored in our human community, the air, the water, the planet, the plants, and all creatures large and small.
To look deeply at another is to see yourself.
In our culture, it's commonplace to put a high value on our independence. This illusion of independence was lifted for me when I was in the monastery and had my first meal with the monks. All our food was brought in and offered to us by a nearby community of Burmese people.
I was humbled by this gracious act of caring and by the realization that even the smallest morsel on our plates comes from a vast interwoven network of being—the sunshine, rain, natural nutrients, and human effort. This helped bring me closer to others as I developed gratitude for all things that make living possible.
If you haven't guessed by now, the "one word that fights off viruses and loneliness" is relationships. I purposely use the plural form because our connections to our world express themselves in multiples.
The next evening that you feel lonely, remember that your body is listening in on your social and emotional experiences of the day. This is why that matters:
If you feel alone and lacking support, then your body will boost your cortisol response to prepare you for what it thinks will be a stressful day.
Mindfulness Prescription for Warding Off Viruses and the Dark Clouds of Loneliness
Create mutually positive and satisfying relationships. This can take time, but the best mountain climber in the world can only take one step at a time. Start tonight by taking a simple, first step that connects you with another. Others may not know how you are feeling; take the initiative and reach out through one of the following actions:
- Call one person who can make you smile or laugh.
- Text someone you know, and wish them a "good night."
- Physically give someone close to you a hug or a kiss before going to bed.
- Go out of your way to contact someone who might be lonely.
- Reflect back on one positive interaction you had with another person earlier that day.
- Journal your experience of being with another person earlier that day or week that lifted your spirits.
Reaching out to another during times of sadness and loneliness is not a weakness. You are tapping into the unique interwoven web of relationships that humans are intended to nurture and benefit from. The book Simply Mindful offers reflections and practices on relationships that are helpful. Above all, be mindful of your emotional state throughout the day. Let yourself be open to, and revel in, the multitude of personalities on this planet. Have fun as you do this. Surely, there's one or two of them who you can share a 'goodnight' with.