Loneliness And Impact On Physical Health


Although loneliness is a universal human emotion, it is also highly individual. Being lonely is far more complex than fleeting feelings of sadness and isolation, which makes treating this troubling state especially tricky. However, given that a new study out of the University of Chicago confirms loneliness can actually make you sick, scientists are actively trying to unravel the intricacies of this “invisible epidemic.”

In the Nov. 23 issue of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, a team of researchers — including University of Chicago psychologist and leading loneliness expert John Cacioppo — published a study showing loneliness actually triggers cellular changes that cause illness. Building on previous research by the same team, the new study offers an in-depth look at how this fight-or-flight stress signaling creates a snowball effect that ultimately alters the production of white blood cells. As we all know, white blood cells are the good guys who fight off infection. However, an inappropriate inflammatory response (aka a non-reciprocated influx of white blood cell activity) can actually do more harm than good if not regulated.

This phenonamin leaves lonely individuals more vulnerable to infection due to dampened antiviral response, and also more susceptible to chronic disease thanks to the inappropriate inflammation. Some of these potential health consequences include heart disease and stroke, increased stress levels, decreased memory and learning, alcoholism, and altered brain function. Because loneliness disrupts the regulation of cellular processes in the body, says Cacioppo, it also predisposes those suffering from it to premature aging.

Of course, it’s important to point out there is a distinction between being lonely and simply being alone. Loneliness isn’t merely the state of being alone. In other words, when you feel completely disconnected from everyone, even if you are surrounding by friends and family, this can be loneliness. Loneliness is a state of mind. Nearly all of us will experience periods of loneliness in our lives, but if it continues beyond a small amount of time, here are a few tips for actively guarding against it and overcoming it.


  1. Take The Initiative

Especially for people who are lonely, reaching out of the sphere of isolation to make contact with other human beings might seem pointless. But while withdrawing into yourself is tempting, the healthiest thing you can do when you are sad or feeling alone is to cultivate connections with other people.


  1. Find A Commonality

Even our deepest feelings are likely shared by others. It makes sense, right? We’re all in this together, just trying not to lose our grip as this great big world keeps spinning faster. So the very act of reaching out may lead you to a connection or commonality that will make you feel less alone. Or, you could create a shared experience. Take a vested interest in what someone else is doing and enjoy doing it with them.


  1. Shift The Focus To Someone Else

There’s a reason they say it is better to give than to receive — few things in life feel more rewarding than doing something good for someone else. If you find yourself dwelling on how alone you are and how hopeless you feel, turn your attention to the needs and feelings of someone else.


  1. Find A Hobby

It’s easy to fall into the wormhole of despair when you have nothing else to do. It kind of falls under that whole “idle hands are the devil’s tools” idiom — a full agenda can keep you out of trouble in more ways than one. So take the leap if you’ve been toying with taking Zumba classes or learning another language. After all, studies show that people who are the happiest, are busy.


  1. Don’t Cancel

When other people invite you to dinner, go. When you have made plans with someone, make an effort to show up. You might be surprised by how much you enjoy it and you might make connections in the process who’ll understand what you’re going through.


While loneliness feels awful and can be harmful to your body, it can also benefit us. Scientists believe that aversion to loneliness evolved as a signal to tell us that our connections are broken or under threat, thereby motivating us to maintain or repair them. Thus loneliness helps promote healthy relationships with those around us, in the same way that thirst ensures we drink enough water. And even though it hurts at the time, science has shown that for most people, loneliness goes away fairly quickly, replaced by positive feelings when we reach out and connect with others. Persistent feelings of loneliness can be damaging, but the more we learn about how and why we feel the way we do, the better equipped we are to prevent or treat loneliness to become our happiest, healthiest selves.


Article Credit- Judie Sprankles (Bustle) and Yahoo Health


Laura Kay House, MA, is the founder and owner of Silver Connections, located in the Triangle area of North Carolina. Silver Connections provides numerous socializing opportunities through events and travel, personal service, quality members and connections for age 55+ (mostly Boomers!) active and single adults.