by L. Matthew Schwartz, MD

Local doctor L. Matthew Schwartz tackles your reader questions about health every month. Please feel free to ask him any question about physical medicine, pain and integrative holistic medicine or wellness. Send questions to askthedoc@chestnuthilllocal.com

Q: How do we handle feelings of loneliness and/or depression around the holidays?

From childhood, we learn social skills to navigate our lives. We connect with others out of necessity, but also for life satisfaction and our physical and psychological health. So often, in these increasingly busy times, we gather in groups or make excuses to not even get together with others at all. Focus on individual relationships often takes a back seat. We screen our calls and, frequently opt to “connect” with others en masse – via social media. But when times get tough (after a death or separation, or at sad anniversaries), and even when they’re not (holidays and happy anniversaries), we need close contact the most … and may not get it.

Many adults need to hold more than one job or just work more hours, spending less time with their friends and families. Technology pushes us faster and faster, making us, in many circumstances, a “rate-limiting step” in daily discourse. We wind up dependent, even addicted, to our screened devices. We sometimes plunk down our children in front of screens because we don’t have enough time or energy to focus on them. Much of this, we do to ourselves. Social media is actually anti-social according to many sociologists.

Memes, avatars and preened presentations of themselves leave females (more so than males) with much less self-worth, as they obsessively count their likes, hearts and followers. The typical American spends about 11 hours per day with digital media (computer, TV and personal devices). Adults are on track to spend five years (43,800 hours) surfing the internet during their lifetimes. A child born in 2013 is on track to have spent 365 days (8,760 hours) in front of a screen by age 7.

In 2010, the Pew Research Center reported that one third of teens send more than 100 texts per day. A 2013 study showed that the average US gamer over 13 years old spends more than six hours per week playing video games. Only about five percent of adults say that they have meaningful face-to-face social interactions or quality time with friends or family. Almost 50 percent say that they feel lonely, especially those who are overworked, sleep-deprived or retired.

All of this technology originally touted to improve our efficiency leaves us isolated from others. We pay a price – and experience more anxiety, depression, insomnia, social withdrawal and isolation. Stress and inflammation increase. Substance use and abuse increase. Brain function declines (memory, learning, and judgment). Alzheimer’s Disease progresses. Cardiovascular aging leads to strokes and heart attacks. The suicide rate spikes around holidays.

So what can we do? Unplug! Often! Delay tech use in the morning and self-impose a curfew at night. Write a list of your solid and reliable connections and carve out time to call them to make plans. Make requests and truly test whose friendship or family bond is real, so you can know who is really there for you. Be more physical (yoga and other movement arts, exercise) and meet up with friends and family members to share mutually enjoyable activities – fill your calendar. If you are lonely and can’t muster the gumption to do these things, then reach out to ONE person and ask for help – none of us ought to emotionally suffer alone. It takes courage and strength to ask for help – there is no shame.

During this upcoming holiday season, go through your rolodex or contact list and make some moves! You may be pleasantly surprised by your reception. ‘Tis the season!

Dr. Schwartz practices physical, pain and integrative medicine in Wyndmoor. He is board-certified in these specialty fields. He trained at Columbia University, the University of Pennsylvania and Thomas Jefferson University. For more, see MyHealth360.org

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