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.
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.”
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.
“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.
Dr. Sullivan suggests the following to turn loneliness around:
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.”