The Dangers of Loneliness

Friendship is a lot like food. We need it to survive. What is more, we seem to have a basic drive for it. Psychologists find that human beings have fundamental need for inclusion in group life and for close relationships. We are truly social animals.

The upshot is, we function best when this social need is met. It is easier to stay motivated, to meet the varied challenges of life.

In fact, evidence has been growing that when our need for social relationships is not met, we fall apart mentally and even physically. There are effects on the brain and on the body. Some effects work subtly, through the exposure of multiple body systems to excess amounts of stress hormones. Yet the effects are distinct enough to be measured over time, so that unmet social needs take a serious toll on health, eroding our arteries, creating high blood pressure, and even undermining learning and memory.

A lack of close friends and a dearth of broader social contact generally bring the emotional discomfort or distress known as loneliness. It begins with an awareness of a deficiency of relationships. This cognitive awareness plays through our brain with an emotional soundtrack. It makes us sad. We might feel an emptiness. We may be filled with a longing for contact. We feel isolated, distanced from others, deprived. These feelings tear away at our emotional well-being.

Despite the negative effects of loneliness, it can hardly be considered abnormal. It is a most normal feeling. Everyone feels lonely sometimes—after a break-up with a friend or lover, when we move to a new place, when we are excluded from some social gathering.

Chronic loneliness is something else entirely. It is one of the surest markers in existence for maladjustment.

In children, it leads to all kinds of problems. Failure to be socially connected to peers is the real reason behind most school dropouts. It sets in motion a course on which children spin their way to outcast status and develop delinquency and other forms of antisocial behavior.

In adults, loneliness is a major precipitant of depression and alcoholism. And it increasingly appears to be the cause of a range of medical problems, some of which take decades to show up.

Psychologist John Cacioppo of the University of Chicago has been tracking the effects of loneliness. He performed a series of novel studies and reported that loneliness works in some surprising ways to compromise health.

  • Perhaps most astonishing, in a survey he conducted, doctors themselves confided that they provide better or more complete medical care to patients who have supportive families and are not socially isolated.
  • Living alone increases the risk of suicide for young and old alike.
  • Lonely individuals report higher levels of perceived stress even when exposed to the same stressors as non-lonely people, and even when they are relaxing.
  • The social interaction lonely people do have are not as positive as those of other people, hence the relationships they have do not buffer them from stress as relationships normally do.
  • Loneliness raises levels of circulating stress hormones and levels of blood pressure. It undermines regulation of the circulatory system so that the heart muscle works harder and the blood vessels are subject to damage by blood flow turbulence.
  • Loneliness destroys the quality and efficiency of sleep, so that it is less restorative, both physically and psychologically. They wake up more at night and spend less time in bed actually sleeping than do the nonlonely.

Loneliness, Cacioppo concludes, sets in motion a variety of "slowly unfolding pathophysiological processes." The net result is that the lonely experience higher levels of cumulative wear and tear.

In other words, we are built for social contact. There are serious—life-threatening—consequences when we don't get enough. We can't stay on track mentally. And we are compromised physically. Social skills are crucial for your health.

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