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5 Things We Can Each Do Help Solve The Loneliness Epidemic” with Dana McNeil and Fotis Georgiadis

I also believe that in our society we have a desire to achieve financial success and buy into the idea that one can achieve wealth as a path to happiness. We ascribe to the requirements of achievement through sacrifices of one’s personal time, showing ambitious dedication to one’s employer, and providing immediate responses of calls […]


I also believe that in our society we have a desire to achieve financial success and buy into the idea that one can achieve wealth as a path to happiness. We ascribe to the requirements of achievement through sacrifices of one’s personal time, showing ambitious dedication to one’s employer, and providing immediate responses of calls to action. As a result, we have less time and energy to dedicate to our personal relationships and are often unwittingly making choices between our personal relationships and our business success. As the years of duty pile up, so do the years we have not been able to be emotionally present to creating lasting and connected personal relationships.


I had the pleasure of interviewing Dana McNeil. Dana is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and is the founder of a group practice called The Relationship Place located in San Diego, California. Dana’s practice specializes in couples’ therapy and utilizes an evidence-based type of couples’ therapy which is known as the Gottman Method. Dana’s practice works with all types of relationship issues from pre-marital counseling, dealing with the aftermath of extra marital affairs, partners working through addiction recovery, military deployed families, parents of special needs children, LGBTQ, and polyamorous clients. Dana has been featured in publications such as the Business Insider, Authority Magazine, Eat This-Not That, and Oprah Living.


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?

Two experiences compelled me to enter the therapy profession. The first was my former job as a property insurance adjuster helping people after natural disasters. The second was the amazingly helpful pre-marital relationship work I did with my husband before our marriage.

My early career consisted of working for a large insurance company as a property damage claims adjuster. Part of my job was to travel to affected areas of the country in the wake of catastrophes such as hurricanes, floods, and tornados to provide on-the-ground assistance to clients whose homes had experienced damage.

As you can imagine, these clients were traumatized by their experiences. They were often in shock, and some experienced guilt about having survived when so many in their community hadn’t.

Many of them also didn’t have access to mental health care.

I soon realized that before I could settle their insurance claims, I would need to provide my clients with support and empathy so they could process their shock and be able to participate in meaningful conversations with me about their property claims.

I found a great sense of purpose in listening to and validating my clients’ experiences as they shared how they had survived their trauma. I saw how helpful it was to them to debrief their feelings.

Before we were married, my husband and I had a long-distance relationship. Because of the challenges of being so far apart, we sought pre-marital counseling.

I knew that regardless of how much I loved my husband-to-be, we were going to face communication challenges, differing expectations, and conflict. I wanted to ensure our marriage got off to a strong start.

I researched the best evidence-based couples therapy methods and fell in love with the Gottman Method because it’s an easy-to-understand and structured method that teaches effective and simple communication skills that build upon one another.

I was also pleased that I could enhance my relationships with everyone in my life by using these skills.

I couldn’t find a local Gottman Method therapist who was taking clients, so we bought Gottman’s “The Seven Principles” book and Skyped with each other every Sunday as we worked through the couples exercises together.

We learned invaluable communication tools that helped us be better partners and we still use them in our relationship today.

I believe firmly in the Gottman relationship method and have found it to be highly valuable not only for myself but also for the clients I work with in my relationship and couples counseling practice.

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

I was recently seeing a couple who came in to seek counseling as the result of an unwanted pregnancy.

The partners had not been dating each other long and the male in the relationship did not believe his partner was actually pregnant. He seemed convinced she was fabricating her pregnancy to keep him in the relationship. The pregnant client produced a sonogram as evidence to her partner.

He somehow was able to determine that the sonogram was faked and been created on a website where doctored sonograms can be purchased from a foreign country. He produced the website information and copies of similar sonograms he been able to find on the internet from this sonogram-making company.

I don’t know if it is the most interesting story of my career, but it was certainly surprising to be involved in the session where he confronted her with his evidence about the doctored sonogram. It was extremely awkward for all of us, and I felt so bad for both of my clients because they were both in so much pain. It was also fascinating to me because I had no idea such a thing would have a market or that anyone would consider the need to research if it was real.

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?

Being human, I make at least one mistake a day, and the best gift is when I can find the humor in it.

One of the most humorous mistakes I made as a green therapist was freaking out when a cockroach ran across my shoe during a session. I was working as an intern at a non-profit organization that didn’t even have the funding for my clients and me to have office space to meet for sessions. My clients were in long-term residential care for substance abuse recovery, and many had lived very difficult lives being homeless and living on the street prior to coming to stay at the recovery home.

In the hopes of finding some privacy, my clients and I would meet in the breezeway outside of an elevator hallway that connected two buildings.

One day, as I was trying my best to convey to my client that I could relate to their difficult living conditions and portray myself as “worldly” in the ways of street life, a large cockroach crawled across my open-toed shoe.

It quickly became apparent to my client and myself that I am not a person who was accustomed to dealing with the creatures my client likely had to face on a nightly basis.

My lesson from that experience is that I don’t fake or embellish that my life experiences or imply that my privileges are not different than a client if that is the truth. I am myself with my clients, and I don’t apologize for having led a different life.

What I do hope to convey to my clients is that they are the experts of their life and I am a safe place to talk about what it was like for them to have survived it. I will provide my clients support and empathy and be free of judgment.

While my clients may be experts on their own lives, I learned to let them know that I as a therapist am an expert on coping skills and techniques to help them avoid relapse. I let them know that I didn’t need to have mirrored every aspect of what they had been through in life in order to help give them tools to make their lives better moving forward.

It was an important lesson to learn early in my career and one I have carried with me working with every client population.

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

I am currently part of a nationwide show for Cox Communications called “I Do”. It is a show being produced for newly engaged couples that aims to talk about more than just the dresses and flowers involved in the act of getting married.

I will be talking about and providing tips on some topics that I introduce in my pre-marital sessions with clients. We will be sharing with the audience how to have healthy couples communication, normalizing that conflict happens, and talking about issues such as money and children that many couples either don’t know how to or don’t want to talk about prior to their wedding.

I hope it will help new couples see that pre-marital counseling is preventative maintenance for the relationship. We all feel the glow when we are new in the relationship and everything feels fresh. Preparing for the inevitable hard times that will hit your relationship in the form of sickness, co-parenting, financial issues, or feeling disconnected emotionally from your partner is one of the goals that I have in working on the project.

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

As a couples therapist it would seem that I wouldn’t see many clients who experience loneliness, and unfortunately it is just the opposite.

The average couple waits six years before they go therapy, and during those difficult times there is a great likelihood that the partners have become emotionally disconnected.

One of the hardest things to see in my practice is a couple who can be sitting in the same room together and still feel lonely.

I would also say that the time right after a couple breaks up can be an unbearable kind of loneliness. The world feels different like a light has been turned off, and the act of learning how to go from being a “we” to a “me” can be an excruciatingly lonely time.

Many people come to therapy because they are lonely and don’t have a strong support system to talk about their problems and worries with. Therapy can offer a safe place to process some of the disconnect and human connections we may be missing from our lives.

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?

The article in Forbes contained numbers that are shocking but also unfortunately represent what I see being represented in the client populations we work with.

One of the main reasons for concern is due to the links we are seeing between loneliness and increased symptoms of clinical depression. When someone is depressed, they tend to isolate themselves and perseverate on their problems over and over without relief or perspective. This pattern can lead to a mindset where a depressed person starts to doubt their value or purpose in the world, and it inevitably may lead to thoughts of self-harm or suicide.

A second concern involves the likelihood of a person who is lonely or disconnected from others to turn to substances such as alcohol or drugs as an escape from the emotions of sadness. When used on a regular basis to manage uncomfortable emotions, a habit can quickly become an addiction or worse lead to overdose.

Lastly, a person who is ill or is experiencing side effects from an illness or medication reaction won’t have anyone in their daily life to notice slowly declining cognitive changes or react to sudden physical symptoms that require medical attention.

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

We are becoming an incredibly emotionally disconnected society and are losing our ability to be empathetic with others.

I see clients on a regular basis who text their married partners with criticism instead of speaking to them and asking for their needs. I see partners break up decade-long relationships by email so they can avoid having to deal with the partner’s tears or emotional reactions.

In my opinion, Western culture shapes a societal viewpoint that focuses on individual needs and in the process excludes or ignores the needs of the community leading to disconnect and emotional distance.

While the need exists to identify and express one’s individual desires and set healthy boundaries, these events don’t have to be mutually exclusive of acknowledging and validating that others have differing opinions or views on a topic.

Some of the ways in which we try and inoculate ourselves from dissenting thoughts or opinions may initially feel protective but in the long run create to further isolation and emotional fragility.

When we never have to challenge ourselves to manage distress or work at compromise, then we rob ourselves of the opportunity to create depth and build deeper commitment in our relationships.

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.

We all have an emotional responsibility to be kind and sensitive as to how our actions impact the people who make up our world. The inability that some of us have in accepting feeling distress seems to be leading some to avoidance of emotional feedback via the use of technology.

Many of us feel more power and less personal connection with others when we use technology. Some of us don’t hesitate to bully each other when we can do so from the comfort of a keyboard and an anonymous username. This dynamic creates a sense of freedom from being concerned with how the person on the receiving end reacts.

Social media also can create the façade that everyone has a better, more fulfilling, and generally happier existence then the person viewing the post. This sense of comparison and perception that our own life is lacking in some significant way also creates a sense of social failure and aloneness.

I also believe that in our society we have a desire to achieve financial success and buy into the idea that one can achieve wealth as a path to happiness. We ascribe to the requirements of achievement through sacrifices of one’s personal time, showing ambitious dedication to one’s employer, and providing immediate responses of calls to action. As a result, we have less time and energy to dedicate to our personal relationships and are often unwittingly making choices between our personal relationships and our business success. As the years of duty pile up, so do the years we have not been able to be emotionally present to creating lasting and connected personal relationships.

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.

Not all cultures are experiencing these increasing levels of loneliness, and I hope we can start to study and introduce more of the attitudes of collectivist societies. The hope is our society could embrace and replicate some of the ways in which countries who don’t experience such high levels of loneliness are successfully incorporating all members of a society into the fold.

1) Stop comparing yourself to others on social media.

If you must compare, compare yourself to where you were a year or five years ago. Notice how far you have come and all the growth you have achieved. Posts on social media are just a snapshot of one small piece of their life. It is NOT the whole picture.

2) Schedule lunches, movie dates, etc. with the people in your life.

Get things on the calendar instead of hoping things will just come together last minute. Most of us are busy and have lots of demands on our time. Getting those important and much needed visits planned out allows you to have something to look forward to. Regular visits with people who care about you create opportunities to for you to challenge those warped mental distortions about our value to others.

3) Pick up the phone!

Tell someone you are thinking of them. Check in and see how they are doing. Ask them to tell you how they are feeling about things happening in their life. There is a different energy created when you speak to someone and hear their voice, laughter, and tone. Texting and email are for exchanging quick bits of information-they are not relationship builders.

4) Volunteer.

One of the best ways to remind ourselves that we are not alone in the world and to remind us to put our fears and worries in perspective is to be of service to others. Helping others has been associated with raised levels of mood-boosting oxytocin, which is our bodies’ way of raising our emotional state.

5) Join Meetup. (www.meetup.com)

Meetup is a nationwide non-profit organization dedicated to facilitating people and activities of mutual interest to make friends and share experiences. Depending on the size of the town a person lives in, there can sometimes be hundreds of events such as book clubs, hiking groups, and wine tastings happening all at the same time. Many of my clients have made some good friends by attending these groups and have even organized some of their own.

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. 🙂

My great hope is to change the way we handle our responses when we are feeling defensive. It would greatly diffuse many a tense situation if we were able to find the ability to find even a small thing that we could take responsibility for in those moments versus our seemingly normal response to defend our position.

By finding something we can take responsibility for, we are not saying that we are wrong but offering to the other person that we are aware that we participated in the conversation and added to the missed opportunity for connection.

When I admit that I may have been distracted and not paying as much attention as the other person deserved or offer up the admission that I was multi-tasking and not fully present, or even that I skipped lunch and was snappy because I was hangry, then I am telling the other person I want to make a repair attempt.

The ability to accept my part in the disagreement says everything about my character and my ability to compromise because of the value I place on the relationship. It also says I hear that my partner, friend, or co-worker and want them to know that I acknowledge their sense of connection was impacted as well and that we both want things to move forward in a positive way.

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 🙂

Dr. John Gottman! I practice the theory of couples therapy that he developed over 40 years ago and I would love to sit down and pick his brain about some of the questions that sometimes arise for me in sessions. Nothing better than hearing it from the original master of the theory, although I would likely be so star struck that I might not be able to put together an articulate sentence.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

www.sdrelationshipplace.com

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

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