“The time you feel lonely is the time you most need to be by yourself…”
“Are you nervous?” my doctor asked looking concerned. “No, why?” I answered. “Your blood pressure is 165/95 and you are only 31”.
She placed the cuff around my arm again and the reading was the same. She was immediately concerned and wanted to start running tests to see what was going on. I had no family history of high blood pressure, I was active, ate a healthy diet, I was not overweight, and my job at the time wasn’t stressing me out. So, what was it?
I spent the next 6 years seeing specialists and having test after test run; ultrasounds, blood work, acupuncture, tried every natural herb possible, meditation and yoga.
I did everything I could do to find the “cause and/or cure” while refusing to get on blood pressure medication because I was convinced that I was too young to have high blood pressure. I told myself there had to be a hidden cause, I could fix this.
Finally, after one of my doctor’s visits, the doctor said to me, “Jasmine, you are going to die.” My blood pressure was on average 185/110 and she was concerned I was going to have a stroke. After 6 years of searching for answers, I reluctantly decided to get on medication to control my blood pressure.
Although I began blood pressure medication, I have never given up believing that there must be a reason I have high blood pressure. I don’t think I’m high strung. Yes, I have had stress in my life, but so does everyone. So why, when I was 31, was I diagnosed with high blood pressure?
Loneliness affects 60 million Americans. Studies have shown:
- Loneliness increases blood pressure by the same amount that weight loss and exercise decrease it.
- Lonely people have blood pressure as much as 30 points higher than non-lonely people.
- Loneliness is a form of stress. It increases levels of the stress hormone cortisol, this increases blood pressure. Loneliness causes the heart to work harder and potentially causes damage to the blood vessels.
- Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the U.S.
You might be saying, “Wait, wait, Jasmine, you were diagnosed with high blood pressure before your divorce, right?”
Yes, that is true. When we moved to Colorado in 2003, we had no family here and neither of us had good social networks, Drew and I were basically each other’s only friends. He has always been very career driven and amazing at his job, but it required him to work long nights and weekends, so I would find things to keep myself busy when he was working.
It kept me busy and I enjoyed trying new things, but I was lonely. Later into our marriage, our time together declined due to our busy work schedules on both sides. Even when we were together, we seemed to be drifting apart; it’s strange feeling lonely when you aren’t necessarily alone.
After we were separated, the loneliness I had felt was amplified by a thousand. Drew had been with me since I was 17, I was missing having someone to go to lunch with on Saturdays, talk to about my day or just to “be” there in the house even if we were in separate rooms.
I missed the presence of another person. I didn’t want to be that person sitting by myself at a table in a restaurant and eating alone. I have always felt sorry for those people and was dreading that being me.
No one gets diagnosed with loneliness, but we really do have to take it seriously because it’s affecting our health. But how do we fix loneliness?
- Develop social ties: This is very difficult for me and for people who are depressed, introverted or want to shut people out when they are hurting, but studies have shown that a strong network of friends and family reduces the risk of heart disease. But you must accept the help, don’t isolate yourself (yes, easier said than done). Perhaps you have friends and family trying to connect, but you don’t respond. Keeping yourself isolated will only worsen your loneliness.
- Connect with yourself. In addition to developing and embracing those social ties, you can’t only invest in those relationships or you will be putting too much demand on those people to “fix” your loneliness. Learn to love yourself and being alone with yourself. This, my friend, takes practice. I’m still working on it and probably will be for a long time. One thing I have found that works for me right now is getting so immersed in something that my brain can’t wander and I’m laser focused, even if it’s just an hour. A painting class uses the right side of the brain and you sort of drown out everything else because you’re focusing on painting what the instructor says. The same would go for a dance class or a workout class where there is an instructor constantly talking and telling you what to do next.
I can’t say at the time I’m writing this blog that I’m there yet. After having been with someone since I was 17, it is going to take time to learn to embrace being alone. I can say I’m honestly working on embracing it and not expecting someone else to be the solution to my loneliness, because I learned that even with someone “there” you can still feel alone.
Craving companionship is natural and relationships, both romantic and friendships, are important, but there is also something to be said about learning to love your alone time.
Maybe this blog doesn’t pertain to you because during your healing journey you’ve discovered you love being alone, but this is for those who might be struggling. Again, I’m still working on it, but here are some tips I’m using. As always, take them or leave them, but maybe one will seem appealing to you.
- Appreciate the silence: My ex loved TV and would have it on just for noise even if we weren’t watching it. I have learned to love the sound of silence in my place; no TV or radio, just quiet while reading or doing laundry or stretching after a run. Don’t get me wrong, I still love my music, but silence every now and again can be interesting and almost soothing if it’s new for you.
- Social media is actually lonely: Social media can be great to reconnect with old friends, market your business or see photos of your relatives. However, if you are using social media as a substitute for real connection, your feelings of loneliness can get worse. There might be triggers there in old photos, Facebook memories, friends who you have drifted from due to your situation. Viewing snapshots of other people’s lives might leave you feeling as if everyone has a better life than you and is happier than you are. Or you might obsess over how many likes you have, or don’t have, on a photo. I disabled both Facebook and Instagram for a period after realizing I was spending hours on them a week and it wasn’t doing me any good. If you don’t want to fully disconnect, perhaps set boundaries for yourself such as a timeline of only looking at social media for X amount of time a day or week and then focusing on being more engaged in the “real world”, which leads me to my next bullet.
- Try something new: I love to dance. I danced growing up and through high school, but one type of dance I never tried was tap. A few months ago, I really wanted to try a tap-dancing class but just kept putting it off. One of my friends and I were making plans and she asked if we could meet after her tap class. I asked if I could join her and I have now been to three tap classes and I just LOVE it!! This is also an example of connecting with yourself, which I mentioned above. I dance for the entire hour and focus on nothing else other than what my brain is telling my feet to do.
- Go to a movie alone: Ok, the first time I went to a movie alone I went to see “A Star is Born” and cried like a little baby. NOT a good idea to see that movie a month after a divorce or a breakup. However, a month later I gave it another go and went to see another movie alone on Black Friday and really enjoyed myself. It was actually a very fun adventure; the movie was half way over and the smoke alarm went off and we had to evacuate (it was a false alarm). They didn’t let us back in but I HAD to see the end of the movie, so I googled the closest theater and drove there just barely making it. It was not only a good solo movie experience, it was an adventure to make it to another theater to finish out the movie and a story I’ll never forget. You don’t really talk in a movie even if you are with someone, so doing it alone is not really all that strange. Plus, it’s dark so if you cry, who cares?
I am not saying that loneliness is the reason for my high blood pressure, but then again it might be. I am still lonely at times, but I’m working on remedying that and finding that I’m slowly learning to be okay being alone without depending on other people to be my cure all.
The desire for human connection and companionship is natural and very important, but at the end of the day you have to be happy with the person you spend the most time with, yourself.
Matthew McConaughey said this in a commencement speech he gave for the University of Houston in 2016, “When you lay down on that pillow at night, no matter who is in your bed, we all sleep alone.”
I believe being at peace with being alone makes us that much stronger; I truly believe there is an unfound happiness when we learn to fall in love with our alone time and ourselves.
I am still taking blood pressure medication and I will do so until I get to a place in my life where I feel like discussing weaning off of it with my doctor to see if perhaps my new-found happiness and love for alone time has “cured” me.
Until then, I will keep doing my best to embrace those quiet moments and working on doing things that make me feel less alone. I hope some of my suggested tips above might help you too.
Maybe the next time you see someone out to dinner alone, you won’t feel sorry for them but rather you’ll be proud of them for enjoying that meal and embracing their alone time. Maybe they are on a date with themselves just getting to know themselves a little better. And maybe they will be looking at you, thinking the same thing.
Remember, You Got This!