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The Harmful Health Effects of Loneliness
There’s a big difference between being alone and being lonely. Solitude can be soothing and gratifying, whereas feeling lonely, whether you’re by yourself or with other people, can be painful and distressing. That’s because loneliness is a state of mind more than a matter of circumstances; it’s a feeling of being isolated or alone or disconnected from others, even when you’re with them.
In moderation, loneliness is a normal part of the human condition. “Transient loneliness is so common that we simply accept it as a part of life,” says psychologist John T. Cacioppo, PhD, director of the Center for Cognitive and Social Neuroscience at the University of Chicago. But “at any given time, roughly 20% of people feel sufficiently lonely that it becomes a major source of unhappiness in their lives.” Often people feel lonely when they’re not getting enough meaningful or satisfying contact, intimacy and support from others in their lives, says Cacioppo, which makes them feel socially isolated whether or not they actually are.
Given this effect, it’s not exactly surprising that loneliness is a major risk factor for depression. In a 2014 study, researchers from Northern Arizona University found that adults who are lonely have a significantly increased risk of developing depressive symptoms and/or major depressive disorder. Loneliness also contributes to and fuels symptoms of eating disorders — from anorexia, bulimia, and binge-eating disorder — according to research from Penn State University. There’s also a contagious element to loneliness. “Lonely people tend to think and act negatively toward others, eventually moving to the edge of a social network,” notes Cacioppo, co-author of Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection. Before they alienate themselves from others, they transmit feelings of loneliness to their friends, who also become lonely.
Now, for the real surprise: Loneliness can have harmful effects on your physical health, too. For one thing, this negative emotion can influence your body’s hormonal, immunological, cardiovascular and inflammatory responses in fairly serious ways, according to mounting research. In particular, chronic loneliness increases the activation of the hypothalamic pituitary adrenocortical axis (the body’s central stress response system). “Loneliness creates a state of high neural alertness for social threats and it impairs the restorative effects of sleep,” Cacioppo says. “In other words, it increases the toxicity of your days and impairs the detoxifying properties of your nights.”
This is likely why loneliness has been implicated in everything from increased risk of hypertension to a reduced antibody response to the flu vaccine to diminished impulse control. In a 2016 analysis of 23 studies on the subject, researchers from the U.K. found that loneliness and poor social relationships are associated with a 29% increased risk of developing coronary heart disease and a 32% increased risk of having a stroke.
The good news is that if you’re a member of the lonely-hearts club, you can learn to connect to others in a way that feels safe and gratifying. “The solution to loneliness is not to improve the quantity but the quality of your relationships and social contact,” Cacioppo says. Here are five easy ways to do that:
Chat with strangers. Make small talk with people you encounter during the day — a clerk at the market or bookstore, a colleague in the elevator. Even casual conversational exchanges can bring a healthy dose of human contact and help you practice your social skills.
Watch social butterflies. Spend time with people who are socially adept, who make friends easily and seem to connect with others naturally. Observe how they do it and borrow their techniques. You’ll naturally put your own spin on their techniques as you try to mimic them.
Join an interest group. Take a class in vegetarian cooking or sketching or join a book club or cycling club. Participating in group activities that interest you and that you genuinely enjoy will bring you face to face with people who have common interests, which makes conversation and connection easier to foster.
Volunteer for a worthy cause. Giving your time, energy, and attention to help other people or the environment can improve your mood and make you feel more socially connected in the process. Some of it is due to the so-called “helper’s high” that can happen when you commit an act of generosity toward other people. But some of it also stems from the sense of connection you cultivate with like-minded people.
Maintain these connections. Once you begin to establish new relationships, keep them going by suggesting you get together outside your usual venue. If you enjoy the company of people from a book club, you might suggest going to see a movie and then out for coffee to chat about it. If you’ve hit it off with people from an art class, you might propose going to see a particular art exhibit together. Hopefully, they’ll reciprocate with suggestions for getting together in the future.
Remember: You have latitude in choosing where to invest your social energy, Cacioppo says, and it doesn’t take an enormous effort to alter the course of your social connections. This means you have more control over curing your loneliness than you may think you do. Plus, when you reach out and connect with someone, it has a grounding effect that can bring meaning and pleasure to your life. Once you feel and appreciate this, you’ll want to continue to take steps to preserve those bonds, and before you know it, this will have a life- and emotion-changing effect for you.