February 22, 2018

What Happens in Your Body When You’re Lonely?

How loneliness affects health + tips to cope

What Happens in Your Body When You're Lonely?

Ah, look at all the lonely people. There’s more of us than ever before despite so many convenient ways to connect, including texting, Facebook and other social media sites.

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“Loneliness is an epidemic,” says psychologist Amy Sullivan, PsyD. “We’re the most socially connected society, yet so many people experience extreme loneliness.”

The problem of loneliness has a surprising impact; it can drill into both mental and physical health, she says.

How does loneliness hurt?

Feeling lonely is an unpleasant experience that can also have long-term health consequences.

“We know clearly that sitting, smoking and obesity are linked to chronic disease,” Dr. Sullivan says. “But I think of loneliness as another risk factor for chronic health conditions.”

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Dr. Sullivan points out that loneliness isn’t the same thing as social isolation. It’s more about how you perceive your level of connectedness to others.

“Someone who’s socially isolated and doesn’t have a lot of social contacts may not feel lonely at all, but someone else may feel lonely even when they’re surrounded by lots of people,” she says.

What happens to your body when you’re lonely?

“When you’re experiencing loneliness, your levels of cortisol, a stress hormone, go up,” she says. “Cortisol can impair cognitive performance, compromise the immune system, and increase your risk for vascular problems, inflammation and heart disease.”

Loneliness is also a risk factor for more serious mental health problems such as depression and anxiety.

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Dr. Sullivan suggests the following to turn loneliness around:

  • Become more aware of your feelings. It’s normal to feel lonely occasionally, but if you’re noticing that you feel lonely more often than not, it’s time to take action.
  • Understand the health impacts. Many people who take care of their health by eating well and exercising ignore this important aspect of wellness. But social connection is just as important as following a healthy diet and getting enough sleep.
  • Work for greater social connection. Some examples? Plan to spend time with a friend instead of catching up via text. Even opting for a phone conversation over an email can help you feel more connected. Small daily decisions can also help. Make a point of walking down the hall to speak to a coworker instead of sending an instant message or email.
  • Do small favors for people or random acts of kindness. “Those kinds of things are really powerful and help to improve your connection,” says Dr. Sullivan. Also, as you give to others, it also takes your mind off yourself.
  • Take a social media break. “What we find is that when people pull back from social media, they become much more intentional in seeking out real relationships,” she says.
  • Focus on quality, not quantity. A coffee date with a friend with whom you have an authentic connection will do more to quell your loneliness than having thousands of Facebook friends or Instagram followers.
  • Seek out a professional counselor if you need one. Feeling lonely is sometimes a symptom of depression. A therapist can help you work through this and develop strategies for reconnecting with others.

Sometimes loneliness becomes a difficult rut to get out of. It may mean pushing yourself out of your comfort zone a bit.

“I think it can be scary for people to reach out,” says Dr. Sullivan. “If you put yourself out there then there’s a risk of rejection. But in the end, the payoff is much greater than the risk.”

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