Are Loneliness and Health Connected?
Despite living on a relatively small planet with 7 billion other people, loneliness is all too common. More people report being lonely than ever before and it should trouble all of us.
The dangers posed by loneliness to your health are only beginning to be understood. Chair of preventative medicine at Cleveland Clinic, Dr. Richard Lang, stated that addressing loneliness is as critical as addressing your nutrition, exercise, and sleep.
Current estimates suggest more than 60 million Americans are affected by chronic loneliness. Isolation and loneliness devastate the human mind and spirit. It’s difficult to approach loneliness “logically” when negative emotions are out of control.
It may provide more insight into rising suicide rates. Every 40 seconds, someone commits suicide in the United States, making it the 10th leading cause of death for everyone over the age of 10. That’s not including the nearly 500,000 suicide attempts that occur annually.
The Buddy System with No Buddy in Sight
A major aspect of our humanity is socialization. It’s wired into us at the cellular level. We may be connected at an astronomical rate due to modern technology…but are we connecting?
University of Chicago’s Center for Cognitive and Social Neuroscience director John Cacioppo has been studying the effects of loneliness on health for two decades.
In moderation, loneliness can be beneficial to how we interact with others. Too much is dangerous because your body interprets it in the same way it does hunger, thirst, or pain.
Your body enters “fight or flight” mode to save itself. The chemical effects of these reactions ramp up the stress and aging done to your body.
Long-Term Effects of Chronic Loneliness
- Decreased brain function and overall cognition
- Poor immune system function
- Higher risk of heart disease
- Increased inflammation
- Raised risk of premature death by 45%
- Raised risk of dementia by 64%
A 12-year collaborative study between Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School found that participants with the highest levels of loneliness showed a 20% faster rate of cognitive decline than participants who didn’t report feelings of loneliness.
Researchers now realize that prolonged loneliness damages health as surely as obesity, poor diet, sleep deprivation, substance abuse, and environmental factors.
University of Rochester professor Harry Reis explained, “It’s perfectly common for people to experience loneliness when their social networks are changing.” This is a natural reaction to moving to a new place or experiencing a major life change.
It’s when loneliness becomes chronic that problems arise.
Trouble moving on after a traumatic loss or life change can spur feelings of isolation and loneliness. The stigma of mental and emotional trouble prevents many from seeking help or even talking to someone about how they feel.
We need other people. Even if you don’t consider yourself a “people person,” it’s crucial to interact at some level with others. Much like the stress response, loneliness is your body’s way of telling you to pay attention.
Ignoring these signals makes the problem worse.
How Can You Fight Back Against Loneliness?
- Recognize how you feel. Forbid the negative trigger words you might be tempted to assign to your situation. Loneliness crosses every boundary. Feeling emotionally isolated doesn’t make you a loser or socially awkward.
- Understand the effect of loneliness to your health. Don’t ignore common signs of emotional distress such as changes to your eating patterns, sleep patterns, overall mood, or ability to concentrate.
- Do something about it. Pretending loneliness doesn’t exist isn’t going to make it better. It’s going to make things much, much worse. Read the tips below to find out how you can curb feelings of loneliness naturally.
There’s no “quick fix” way to rid yourself of loneliness. It might also take you a while to recognize what it is you’re feeling.
Working from home and living alone, there are times I realize I’ve been incredibly isolated for days while finishing projects. Left unchecked, it would be easy to fall into an unhealthy habit of further isolation. Here are 5 of the tricks I’ve used to shake myself back into the world where other people exist.
1. Visit with family or friends. An in-person visit is best but not always possible. Some people live too far away for a quick visit or our schedules don’t mesh most of the time. I call my long-distance friend while running errands (hands-free, of course). It gives us time to catch up and I get out of the house.
2. It’s all about the ME time. Every day, I start with a power hour. A bit of yoga, my daily to-do list, and a healthy shake. I don’t feel like I can truly connect with other people unless I give myself the love and attention I deserve.
3. Little people and little creatures. I have small people (nieces and nephew) in my life that give me unconditional love when I need it most. My friend’s kids are grown but she gets the same zap of affection and snuggles from her fur babies. If you’re single…kids and animals are great about reminding you that you’re pretty amazing.
4. Projects work wonders. A few months ago, it seemed everyone in my life (including me) was scheduled beyond reason. Too much work and not enough hours in the day wiped all of us out. One morning, I stumbled upon an ad for an antique desk that was ridiculously cheap but looked old and worn out. I bought it and refinished it in my garage. I can’t tell you the sense of pride I take in that piece (and the several that followed it). It may seem silly but a bout of crafting (or another hobby you enjoy) might be just the thing if you’re feeling lonely.
5. Go exploring. It would be nice to take a little jaunt across the European countryside but not possible most days. Sometimes, I’ll do a search in my phone to find unusual places within half an hour of me. It’s kind of shocking how many businesses, restaurants, and museums I didn’t know existed in a 20-mile radius. Usually, I pick up my little family members and we check it out. It provides something new, different, and breaks up the day in interesting ways. Inspiring smiles on other people’s faces is a great way to encourage one on your own face.
The effect of loneliness on health is clear. Being lonely won’t kill you…but it creates ideal conditions for other health problems – heart disease, diabetes, cancer, dementia – that will.
Be good to yourself. Don’t ignore it. Move around, connect with others, distract your mind, and fight your way through it.