Join a Gym or a Dancing Studio. It might be uncomfortable at first if you have already developed social anxiety due to continuous isolation, but take small steps by attending alone for 15 minutes, then increase it to 30 minutes, then join a class where you can interact with others. It’s essential to focus on having fun while increasing physical activity — don’t let yourself be intimidated by what you perceive as other people’s superior fitness or looks. Exercise can increase serotonin production and release in the brain which can reduce depression symptoms and improve overall mood.
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 Nadia Hassan. Nadia is the founder of VibeGather.com, a social networking platform developed to offer an automated solution to social isolation and loneliness. Based in NJ, Nadia is a Clinical Mental Health Counselor specializing in anxiety, depression, and trauma treatment therapy. VibeGather meaningfully enhances digital human connection, serving as an organizer of plutonic group meet-ups based on user profiles and compatibilities.
Thank you so much for doing this with us Nadia! 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 grew up in the Middle East until the age of 12. My parents were Palestinian refugees, and we lived in several countries in the Middle East before finally settling in the US in the early ’90s, after my parents’ divorce. During my parents’ divorce, I was constantly the middle person between them, which really developed my ability to see things from multiple points of view and increased my coping skills at a young age. After my own divorce and becoming a single mother to three children, I decided to complete my Master’s degree in counseling so I can understand human psychology and learn to navigate through life with the correct therapeutic tools to help myself and others. It became my passion to help people who are struggling and feel lost in this world.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
Many of us look for wisdom in people who have decades of life experience, yet, I’ve learned more about healing from working with children, than any other demographic. Each day they reminded me how to live in the moment. They reminded me of the dreams that we had as children but buried deep down in our souls when life got in the way — making us forget about them. I studied mindfulness prior to working with children, but for some reason still found it difficult to practice until I started working with children and saw that even when they have so much pain in their lives, they still found a way to enjoy the moment when they were playing with their friends. Children are more capable of living in the moment than adults because as adults we forgot how to. It’s important to just enjoy each moment and not worry about the future or dwell on the past.
Can you share a story about the most humorous mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson or take away you learned from that?
There aren’t many funny stories in Mental Health, but I think this story is a bit funny. One of the techniques I teach my clients who struggle with depression and negative self-talk is the use of positive affirmation. When someone has a negative mindset this exercise can be very difficult if I don’t give them specific examples of what they need to say. In the beginning of my career, I didn’t know this until one incident with one of my clients. I gave the client a brief explanation of the benefits of affirmations to do as a homework exercise at the end of the session, but we were running out of time and the next client was at the door, so I moved through it quickly. In the following session, I asked her about the affirmation exercise. She nodded in hopelessness and said, “I told you nothing works for me, not even this, it made me feel horrible.” I said, “ That’s not possible, can you tell me exactly what you said?” She said, “I said, I am not lazy, I am just depressed.” In disbelief, I explained to her that not only did she affirm that she is depressed but the brain doesn’t understand a sentence that includes ‘not,’ with affirmation exercises, so she affirmed that she is depressed and lazy, which is why she felt worse. She laughed and said “Thank God, I thought I was hopeless”, and we both laughed about it as I apologized to her for not making sure she thoroughly understood the exercise. Now, as a rule, I practice the exercise with my clients several times before assigning the homework!
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
Yes. VibeGather! As a mental health therapist, I have seen first hand the struggles and emotional pain people experience due to the loneliness epidemic. I’ve worked with many clients who were able to improve their depression after modifying their daily habits, cognitive thinking, and even diets. Yet, during the winter months, holidays, or times of stress — they would regress — mainly because many of them lacked a social support system. I struggled to help my clients to find new ways to meet new people, which is made especially difficult to accomplish for someone who has given up hope and lost motivation, once they have fallen into depression again. For them, making the first move and putting the effort to creating new relationships can be terrifying and hopeless. After extensive research, I found very few social networking sites intended to promote in-person, platonic meet-ups, yet I discovered more than 8000 platforms specifically for dating! Not everyone is looking for a date. Meetup.com is a wonderful website for connecting those with very specific interests, but what about those folks who don’t know exactly what they are interested in? It can be difficult to remember what excites you when you have lost that motivation. Also, some of the groups can be very large, which a person living with social anxiety can find this quite intimidating. There was no offering specifically developed to bring hope and possibilities to this large demographic of isolated people.
This is what has driven me to create VibeGather. VibeGather is a social service technology platform that connects people and brings them together, face-to-face, over a meal. Compatibility matches are based on data from each user’s profile that is analyzed by VibeGather software, which sorts through millions of users to make sure every meetup group shares common interests, languages, budgets, age, and geographic area. VibeGather matches a group of six people for a gathering at a nearby restaurant, and makes the reservation for them, too. All they have to do is show up!
Can you share with our readers a bit why you are an authority about the topic of the Loneliness Epidemic?
My background in mental health and my research on the loneliness epidemic for the VibeGather project has increased my knowledge of the causes and how to prevent it from escalating. I feel like while many people acknowledge the condition, too few are offering meaningful, modern ways to combat it. My entire professional focus, and passion, is preventing and treating loneliness.
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?
Loneliness has been found to cause an increase in mental illness and suicide. It is also linked to conditions like Dementia and Alzheimer’s. And as Douglas Nemecek, MD, Cigna’s Chief Medical Officer for Behavioral Health reported to WebMD, “…the findings of the study suggest that the problem has reached epidemic proportions, rivaling the risks posed by tobacco and the nation’s ever-expanding waistline. Loneliness has the same impact on mortality as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, making it even more dangerous than obesity, he said in releasing the report.” Loneliness also contributes to lower immunity and an increase in heart disease.
On a broader societal level, in which way is loneliness harming our communities and society?
Hundreds of years ago, people traveled in tribes and needed to belong to a tribe in order to survive. One of the ways people punished their members in the group if they committed a crime is by ostracizing them from the community — because it was like a death sentence. Back then they didn’t have research to back it up, they knew intuitively that not being a part of a community is painful. Now that we have so much research in support of the importance of belonging to a community, we still try to glorify the independence of traveling alone or eating out alone and being brave enough to live life alone. However, we are social beings and we are not built that way. We need to create more opportunities for people to meet face-to-face, bringing virtual connections like those found in Facebook groups, to life. This should be the top priority of every town and city if they want to see a tangible decrease in gangs, mass shootings, and radical recruitment. People need to feel that they belong. People will accept anyone’s demented ideology if they feel liked and accepted, even if it means joining a destructive or evil organization.
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) Social Media
Humans are social beings, social media platforms are an outlet to produce wonderful creative work, opportunities, outlet to underserved populations, and weren’t created to intentionally cause loneliness. However, the algorithms are specifically created to keep people on their platform as long as possible. People are spending endless hours on social media and not living out life and practicing their social skills. We are losing that important element of interpersonal communication we get only through face-to-face interactions only. Social media gives the illusion of social connection, but in reality, is not. The connections are neither completely genuine nor satisfying basic human need for real interaction. People need to meet face-to-face and get to know each other on a deeper level. Also, we have lost the art of basic social skills and social etiquette due to the lack of authentic social interactions. This issue has led to an increase in social anxiety, because of the lack of opportunities to get out and meet people.
2) The Internet
For the past decade there has been an increase in the convenience of using the Internet for e-commerce, food, dating, etc. This has caused people to stay more at home and decrease the opportunities for them to interact with the outside world. Slowly they find themselves isolated and unable to get out of their comfort zone, which can lead to social anxiety, depression, and suicide.
3) Lack of Family Connection and Lack of Community
“The US Census Bureau reported that 27% of households are made up of just one person”. Research from The Institute of Loneliness Index in the United States estimates that more than 45% of people feel alone most of the time, that’s almost half of our population! The NPR Institute surveyed more than 5000 people on their eating habits; their results found that more than 35% of people surveyed eat dinner alone every single night. That’s more than 100 million people in the United States that end their day in isolation, dinnertime is a crucial time of bonding within the family system. In the 21st century, many of us are rushing through life to get things done and we forget to connect with our loved ones, because we assume that if we interact on social media and like each other’s pictures and post a few comments — this should be enough. However, the reality is, this has caused an increase in comparison, self-doubt, jealousy, and resentment between families and friends because people are usually posting about their happy occasions or accomplishments. It’s important to remember that what you see on social media is just an illusion or persona that people play to feel accepted.
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.
- Focus on You. First and foremost is to enjoy your own company, work on yourself, and improve how you feel about yourself, because if you skip this step, the following steps won’t help you. You need to learn about your likes and dislikes, what’s your passion? Who is your ideal friend? Can you be that friend to yourself and to others? Learn a new skill, it can increase your self-confidence and can increase your chances of meeting new people who share similar skills or hobbies. Dig deeper to find what caused your loneliness, and take action by following the next steps to improve your social life.
- Volunteer or Join a Cause. Find people who are struggling just like you by volunteering at a senior living center, homeless shelters, or at animal shelters. When you reach out to others who are in need, it will not only bring happiness to others but to yourself as well. It will build your confidence, self-esteem, and improve your mood. And it increases your chances of meeting people who care about similar causes.
- Use Technology to Your Advantage. There are a few websites and apps that promote face-to-face interaction like Meetup and VibeGather.com. Support technologies that can help bring people together. Also, when using Facebook groups, encourage people to meet individually or in small groups. Large gatherings may scare people who have already developed social anxiety due to prolonged isolation. Reduce social media, it’s challenging to use the steps above if you feel like everyone is already having fun, and you’re the only lonely person in the world. Remember it’s not true; many people are struggling with loneliness as much as you. Reach out to people that you may have lost contact with, they may be thinking of you, but can’t take the first step. If nothing comes out of it, at least you tried, don’t be too attached to the outcome. There are many people who are looking to meet a person just like you.
- Join a Gym or a Dancing Studio. It might be uncomfortable at first if you have already developed social anxiety due to continuous isolation, but take small steps by attending alone for 15 minutes, then increase it to 30 minutes, then join a class where you can interact with others. It’s essential to focus on having fun while increasing physical activity — don’t let yourself be intimidated by what you perceive as other people’s superior fitness or looks. Exercise can increase serotonin production and release in the brain which can reduce depression symptoms and improve overall mood.
- Seek Professional Help and Support Mental Health Initiatives in Your Community. Even though there has been a growing awareness about the Loneliness Epidemic, many people still struggle to reach out to others because of the shame associated with feeling lonely. We must be courageous enough to ask for help and reach for others when needed. When all else fails and you still feel lonely, it’s essential to reach out to professional help in your area that can help evaluate your emotions and provide therapeutic tools to combat negative feelings before it escalates. Also, It’s crucial to support your local mental health initiatives in your community because there has been an increase in budget cuts towards mental health which reduced the quality of healthcare provided to people in need.
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 bring positive social change by bringing people together. We might be all different externally but we all have the same needs and one of them is connectedness and feeling part of a community and that we belong #YouBelong.
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 🙂
I would love to meet Oprah and Ellen. They have always been my inspiration and motivation in life to do good for others. Also, I would love to get funding for VibeGather from someone who is passionate about making a difference in the world and is not motivated by money alone. I have been following Mo Gawdat “One Billion Happy Project”, which has been a source of my inspiration, and it would be an honor to work with him to combat the Loneliness Epidemic .
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