NEW YORK (CBSNewYork) — This is the time of year when we think of gathering with family and friends.

But what about those who have no one to gather with, who are left lonely?

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As CBS2’s Dr. Max Gomez reported Monday, doctors have surprisingly found that loneliness is actually bad for your health.

As she nears her 80th birthday, Marylin Warner says she has lived a full life, but she’s lived most of it in an empty house.

“I’ve lived alone for 55 years,” Warner said.

Some of those years she was a single mom to her son, or spent time with her granddaughter, but adult companionship has eluded her.

“The difference is not having somebody next to you, attending a wedding without a partner, and you don’t have someone holding your hand when you walk down the street. I miss that,” Warner said.

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“Everyone struggles, to some degree or another, with connecting with others,” said Dr. Jeffrey Nobel of LIJ Medical Center.

Nobel has made loneliness his life’s work.

“We’re trained in our culture, reflexively, that being lonely is something awful. It is a character flaw for many people as they perceive it,” Nobel said.

Nobel has been arguing for years that taboo — our discomfort discussing loneliness — is fueling a public health crisis.

“Loneliness increases inflammation, it reduces immune capabilities, it increases blood pressure,” Nobel said.

Just from being lonely, and so, when coronavirus pushed billions of people into ever more insular lives, Nobel said he saw the hallmarks of a crisis, but also an opportunity.

“During the pandemic, what went from a topic no one wanted to talk about, which is ‘I don’t have the connections I need,’ became a topic everyone was willing to talk about and, in fact, we were united in our loneliness facing a common enemy: the pandemic,” Nobel said.

Nobel finds hope in rooms like the one at Northwell Health.

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The format, called a “creativity circle,” was developed by Nobel’s foundation for art and healing.

“Some chance to make something that allows you to express thoughts and feelings, in a way that’s often hard to express,” Nobel said.

CORONAVIRUS PANDEMIC

Shannon Carey rode out the pandemic mostly alone.

“I’m usually by myself,” she said.

It’s something she had begun to accept after getting divorced.

“I was with somebody for almost 20 years, so to not have them in my life anymore was definitely scary,” Carey said.

What we do with that fear is what Nobel is trying to change.

“People are often surprised at how easy it goes, when they can somehow summon up the courage to tell even a little bit of their story and allow themselves to be seen by others,” Nobel said.

For Carey, that connection came when an old high school friend mentioned she was taking adult dance classes.

“It had been a really long time since I wore a pair of tap shoes, but I found my old tap shoes and it was like no time had passed at all,” she said, “and I’m very grateful for her for that because she had no idea what kind of influence that was going to have anybody at the moment. Never mind me saying ‘Hey, can I come with you? Is that okay?'”

“I found I could communicate better. I found that I was open to conversations more, which was not something I did easily, let’s put it that way. I held on to a lot of stuff for a long time. But the healing has happened because of it,’ she added.

Through a Zoom call, Warner formed a bond with Nathaniel Tananbaum, a senior at Brooklyn Tech High School.

“I think we need things like this just to get our social engines working again. It’s like talking with a stranger and getting to know them definitely takes certain skills that are intimidating to develop,” Tananbaum said.

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The first step is often recognizing that you’re lonely, and then getting past the stigma and fear of admitting that you’re lonely. And then seeking help and taking advantage of resources like the creativity circle that are in many communities is good for your mental ad physical health.

Dr. Max Gomez