Can Mindfulness Relieve Loneliness and Inflammation?

Mindfulness and Loneliness

Loneliness is a difficult road to travel down.  We are social creatures, and love to be in the presence of others and feel connected.  When we lack that connection, it seems to lead to all sorts of issues on personal and societal levels.  Feelings of isolation can be downright dangerous to self and others. Therefore, it’s encouraging when a study points to mindfulness based meditation as a hedge against loneliness.

mindfulness and lonelinessA recent study from Carnegie Mellon and published in Brain, Behavior, and Community, points to positive outcomes of an 8-week mindfulness-based meditation course on loneliness in older adults. These adults ranged in age from 55 to 85, and were tested against a control group.  The results were positive for the test group.

Loneliness and Inflammation

Older adults who suffer from loneliness can have elevated pro-inflammatory gene expression.  That means that they are more prone to inflammation, and the ill effects of it.  Inflammation can cause a number of issues and make life much less comfortable as we age.  The pain alone from chronic inflammation is enough to make life hell.  Additionally, inflammation has been linked to cancer, heart disease, and other neurological conditions.

In a paper titled, Loneliness and Pathways to Disease, authors Hawkley and Cacioppo state:

In a healthy state, regulatory processes (e.g., ho- meostasis) buffer organisms from the effects of internal and external changes, and restorative processes (e.g., wound healing, humoral immunity) operate to refresh, buttress, and repair various forms of cellular damage (Cacioppo & Berntson, in press). Regulatory devices work only within certain limits of perturbation in buffering the organism from changes in the internal milieu, however, and restorative devices work only within certain limits to return the organism to an earlier condition. If the disturbance is too great or enduring,the very parameters around which these regulatory devices operate(e.g.,basallevelsof functioning or set points)can be affected (Cacioppo et al., 2000b; McEwen, 1998). The current zeitgeist of focusing on stress and stress reactivity has left the restorative side of the story under- studied. Our research on loneliness suggests this may be an important oversight.

It has been suggested that mindfulness and meditation have a profound impact on stress reduction.  The ability to calm ourselves is a very important step in restoring homeostais, or a restorative state.  Inflammation can be triggered by stress, which can be caused by loneliness, or more importantly, the feelings of social isolation.  Stress is linked to an increased incidence of the fight or flight response.  Therefore, being able to calm your mind and body, and return to a restorative state may be paramount to hedging off suffering.

The study also states that students who were lonely had more trouble sleeping, which disrupted their ability to enter the restorative state.  Loneliness has an impact on health, and if mindfulness and meditation can help, this could become a profound area of study.


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