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Cheer Up the Lonely Day: Help others without jeopardizing your own recovery

Posted on: July 10th, 2016 in Advocacy, Relationships, Sober Living No Comments

Francis Pesek of Detroit had a birthday wish: to promote kindness and outreach to the homebound and nursing home populations who have no family or friends to visit them. Thanks to him, July 11 has now become National “Cheer Up the Lonely” Day. People across America visit, call, send cards or flowers, volunteer and do other things to cheer up people who may feel forgotten.

Loneliness is a problem

Research has clearly shown that loneliness leads to illness and premature death. John T. Cacioppo, Ph.D., is a psychology professor at the University of Chicago and a leading expert in social neuroscience. He has studied the effect of social isolation and loneliness on humans for decades.

About 40 percent of those over the age of 65 feel lonely sometimes, and loneliness levels do increase with age. But the elderly are not the only ones feeling isolated. A surprising 80 percent of children less than 18 years of age report feeling lonely sometimes, and up to 30 percent of the general population experiences chronic loneliness.

Loneliness is reversible

Dr. Cacioppo defines loneliness as a perception of social isolation and the distressing feeling that accompanies this perception. Because loneliness is a perception and a feeling rather than a state of being, it is possible to feel lonely in a group or not a bit lonely when alone. So putting a lonely person in a group will not solve the problem. Social interactions need to be well-intentioned, reciprocal and meaningful to help reverse loneliness.

While Cheer Up the Lonely Day may not cure the loneliness problem in this country overnight, it is certainly a good place to start. Visiting a local nursing home or even playing with a child in the family might make a big difference to a lonely elder or a lonely child. For those in recovery, reaching out to help the lonely offers an opportunity to provide service to others.

Staying sober while helping others

Helping others helps the helpers, according to the helper therapy principle (HTP), a concept exemplified by 12-step programs. According to HTP, when people help another person with the same condition, they help themselves. While helping other people in general improves mental health, those in recovery are reportedly better able to stay sober when they help others like themselves.

While helping others should strengthen one’s ability to stay sober, the helper must put his or her own safety and sobriety first. Visiting homebound people who are still active in their addiction (12th step call) may trigger those who are new to recovery. Here are some tips to stay safe:

  1. Accompany other sober members of mutual support organizations to bring support to those in hospitals and institutions, especially in the beginning.
  2. Avoid neighborhoods, people or situations that might trigger cravings for drugs or alcohol.
  3. Use the buddy system for both physical safety and emotional support when doing any kind of outreach activities.
  4. Keep a sponsor or accountability partner informed for additional safety.

Loneliness is a common condition in the U.S. today, but Cheer Up the Lonely Day might provide some momentum toward less loneliness and more kindness, less selfishness and more thoughtfulness. In the process, people may rediscover that the ability to help others is one of the greatest gifts of all.

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About the author

Dana Connolly, Ph.D., is a senior staff writer for Sovereign Health, where she translates current research into practical information. She earned her Ph.D. in research and theory development from New York University and has decades of experience in clinical care, medical research and health education. Sovereign Health is a health information resource and Dr. Connolly helps to ensure excellence in our model. For more information and other inquiries about this article, contact the author at news@sovhealth.com.

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