5 Things We Can Each Do To Help Solve The Loneliness Epidemic: “Join a group, ANY group” with Dr. Anna Hiatt Nicholaides and Fotis Georgiadis

Join a group, ANY group. This might be a religious affiliation, professional society, mom or dad group, or walking club. Try online groups to find like-minded individuals. In these groups you might find that you don’t jive with some of the people, but there will be at least one that feels like a kindred spirit.

As a part of my interview series about the ‘5 Things We Can Each Do Help Solve The Loneliness Epidemic’ I had the pleasure to interview Dr. Anna Hiatt Nicholaides. Dr. Nicholaides is a licensed clinical psychologist and couples/relationship specialist. She is also the owner of Philadelphia Couples Therapy (PCT), a premier couples group practice offering a treatment team approach to supporting couples of every persuasion. Dr. Nicholaides became enraptured by the story of the couple from early on in her life, and pursued a couples specialty in her doctoral program, culminating with her dissertation on support giving/seeking within the context of a partnership from a romantic attachment perspective. After doing her postdoctoral training at the University of Pennsylvania’s Counseling and Psychological Services, where she treated both individuals and couples, she went on to obtain post-graduate training in Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy. She is thankful to be providing much-needed support to couples and the clinicians who support them.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share your “backstory” with us? What was it that led you to your eventual career choice?

I have always been an attuned and sensitive person, with a particular bent toward romantic relationships. Love stories have always fascinated me. As I grew up I closely watched the noteworthy couples in my life- my parents, friends’ parents, and couples on television- and started developing my own rubric for the importance of romantic partnerships. What does is mean to be securely attached? What should we expect from our partners? How do you keep love alive? What is true intimacy? These are the questions I ponder every day, and now I’m honored to walk with my clients and clinicians in answering these age-old questions.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?

The most interesting experience I’ve had in session was when Philadelphia experienced a moderate earthquake during one of my weekly appointments with a long-term client. At first neither of us knew what it was, but then we braced ourselves and looked around to make sure nothing in the office would fall on us. I was especially shaken (so to speak) because I grew up in California and lived through the 1989 “World Series” earthquake in San Francisco, which was a big one (6.9 on the Richter Scale). I had to hold myself back from expressing my fear, as my client was clearly not very upset by it and he quickly continued our prior discussion.

Can you share a story about the most humorous mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson or takeaway you learned from that?

There are so many mistakes we make as new clinicians! My first glaring mistake was having a public FaceBook page. I was doing my internship at Swarthmore’s Counseling and Psychological Services and at the end of a session, as the client was walking out the door, she said, “Oh by the way, I loved your wedding dress!” My jaw must have dropped because she quickly explained, “My friend is friends with your sister-in-law, and I saw your wedding pictures on her page. So pretty.” I’m not sure I managed more than a “thank you so much.” As soon as the door was closed I ran to my computer and changed all my FaceBook settings to anonymous.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

My all-consuming project right now is Philadelphia Couples Therapy, LLC. It is a burgeoning group practice and there are so many aspects to grow, including finding a new location to fit our team, hiring new clinicians, figuring out our accounting systems, and talking to designers about logos. My dream is that this group will offer quality couples treatment to those who need it in our area, and help these couples and therefore their families and other relationships begin to heal and eventually thrive.

Can you share with our readers a bit why you are an authority about the topic of the Loneliness Epidemic?

There is no more poignant space to find loneliness than within the context of a romantic relationship. It’s one thing to truly be alone, live alone, and not have people around you to interact with on an intimate level, but it can be even more traumatizing and hopeless when one is stuck in a relationship that lacks intimacy. I’ve seen this time and again. People attach to one another and then eventually become so deeply hurt by their partner that they can’t reach over the chasm to emotionally hold one another. This is the epitome of exquisite loneliness and why some partnerships cause deep emotional distress.

Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the main focus of our interview. According to this story in Forbes, loneliness is becoming an increasing health threat not just in the US , but across the world. Can you articulate for our readers 3 reasons why being lonely and isolated can harm one’s health?

1. Loneliness is known to literally atrophy our physical health. Babies in orphanages that aren’t cuddled have been known to die. This is called “marasmus.” We need each other to survive, quite literally.

2. Being isolated is the most severe form of torture. If we consider the movie “Castaway” where Tom Hanks was stranded on a desert island, he befriended a volleyball with a face (who he named “Wilson”) because he couldn’t bear the loneliness. Near the end of the movie, he risks his life to save Wilson and is beside himself when Wilson is lost.

3. We need each other to truly know ourselves. We can’t know who we are in a vacuum, in isolation. We find out who we are in relation to other people. This is why loneliness and toxic relationships are insidious; we see ourselves through the eyes of our loved ones. If no one really sees us or the people in our lives are abusive, our sense of self is eroded.

On a broader societal level, in which way is loneliness harming our communities and society?

At least in America, it’s clear that isolation is making connection more difficult. This affects sociopolitical decisions on a broad scale. For example, if we are disconnected, we might have more fears about our safety, which could cause us to support gun ownership and the right to carry firearms. We are also less apt to make community-based decisions if we are less connected. This might lead to fewer trees being planted, less of a desire to contribute time and money to our communities, and less openness and hospitality in general. The world is a beautiful place because of the loving connections we make. The fact that these connections are dwindling portends a more bleak existence on this planet.

The irony of having a loneliness epidemic is glaring. We are living in a time where more people are connected to each other than ever before in history. Our technology has the power to connect billions of people in one network, in a way that was never possible. Yet despite this, so many people are lonely. Why is this? Can you share 3 of the main reasons why we are facing a loneliness epidemic today? Please give a story or an example for each.

1. I believe wholeheartedly that our digital devices are addicting. No one is immune from this. I myself struggled to keep my phone in a remote place in the home- what if I need to calculate something, record a to-to, or take a picture? But picking up our phones can quickly become an unintended rabbit hole of Instagram and searching through random FaceBook posts.

2. Having phones in our hands is a quick way to turn someone away. We miss bids for connection, which makes our loved ones feel isolated and rejected. If we find temporary relief in turning to our phone we aren’t forced to interact in more difficult yet rewarding ways, such as engaging with our children at the dinner table, or talking to strangers on the elevator. These interactions can be hard, but they grow us as people, and they bond us all together.

3. Finally, research has shown that we all have limited will power. If we are trying to lower our sugar consumption but have sweets in the break room, our willpower might be used up for that day. Having a phone on us at all times is something we should be wary of because it saps us of our reserves of willpower- we can only resist our phones for so long before we give in to their distracting or self-soothing temptation.

Ok. it is not enough to talk about problems without offering possible solutions. In your experience, what are the 5 things each of us can do to help solve the Loneliness Epidemic. Please give a story or an example for each.

1. Try turning off your phone completely for one day a week. Get creative with ways to solve problems that google or Siri might otherwise solve.

2. Join a group, ANY group. This might be a religious affiliation, professional society, mom or dad group, or walking club. Try online groups to find like-minded individuals. In these groups you might find that you don’t jive with some of the people, but there will be at least one that feels like a kindred spirit.

3. Don’t leave relationships when they’re hard. Work through your differences. (The only caveat is that you shouldn’t allow yourself to be abused. If you feel your relationship is toxic, that’s a good sign it’s time to make new friends or find a new partner.) Otherwise, if your friends or partners are willing to talk things through, don’t give up. Do the hard work of understanding each other and apologizing.

4. Block or bundle your time on your devices. For example, give yourself one hour a day to do computer tasks, put your phone on its charger in the kitchen while you sleep, decide that emailing is only for the morning, and then your leave your computer in the other room. This will help you disconnect from work and from mindless scrolling, and look for more creative ways to interact with the world around you.

5. Eat a meal with someone. This might be an evening dinner with your family, or breakfast once a week with a friend. Food is an excellent bonding tool, as we’ve known for centuries. Utilize this common need and agent of connection to get closer to someone you love and/or admire.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I would love to find a way to bring quality therapy to all people. Therapy is one of the most meaningful ways we can live our best lives.

We are blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂

Ellen DeGeneres, absolutely. I deeply admire her genuineness and how she’s profoundly helped change the way the world feels and thinks about the LGBTQ community.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

On FaceBook we are @PhiladelphiaCouplesTherapy.

Thank you so much for these insights. This was so inspiring, and so important!

You’re very welcome!

5 Things We Can Each Do To Help Solve The Loneliness Epidemic: “Join a group, ANY group” was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

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