Katherine Schreiber MFA, LMSW

The Truth About Exercise Addiction

Cold and Flu Season: Being Lonely Makes You Feel Worse

New study that finds our closeness to others influences our symptom severity

Posted Apr 03, 2017

By Katherine Schreiber

Loneliness is no trivial experience. Feeling disconnected from others has been linked to increased morbidity and mortality, premature aging, cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure, depression, impaired cognitive functioning and an increased risk of Alzheimer's, stress, anxiety, anger, and a diminished ability to control one's impulses and outbursts.

As if this weren't enough, a new study has now found that loneliness can make coming down with a cold feel much worse than it would if you experienced yourself as more connected to people.

A team of researchers from Rice University led by psychologist Angie S. LeRoy convinced 159 people between the ages of 18 and 55 to become voluntarily infected with a cold for the sake of science. Prior to being given "cold-inducing nasal drops" (according to a press release) and quarantined in a hotel room for five days, all participants filled out two measures of loneliness and social isolation, the Short Loneliness Scale and the Social Network Index.

Lonely people were no more likely than socially connected people to become ill. But those individuals in the entire sample who did get sick were more likely to report worse cold symptoms if they had scored higher on the loneliness measures — irrespective of how many people they actually had in their social network.

So does this mean you should buck the advice of doctors and continue going to work and socializing next time you catch a cold? Not exactly. 

As this and previous studies explain, the mere fact that you know many people and come into contact with many people on a regular basis doesn't always mean you're any less lonely than someone who spends the majority of his or her days alone. Rather, it's your perception of closeness (and/or meaningful connections) with others that determines whether or not you feel lonely and suffer its ill effects.

As lead researcher LeRoy explained in a press release, it's not so much the quantity of your connections as it is their quality that matters most (for your mental and physical health): "You can be in a crowded room and feel lonely. That perception is what seems to be important when it comes to these cold symptoms."

Or, as previous researchers have astutely put it: "a perceived sense of social connectedness serves as a scaffold for the self—damage the scaffold and the rest of the self begins to crumble." (Including our ability to keep our heads above water during minor illnesses, like the common cold.) 

The best we can all do is plan in advance to strengthen our social ties so that when setbacks (like colds) happen to us, we're less likely to feel like we're drowning and nobody cares. If cultivating and maintaining relationships is something you struggle with, consider reading these fellow PT Bloggers' tips on how to make new friendships and enhance the meaning of the ones your currently in.

Follow Katherine on Twitter.

References

Hawkley, L. C., & Cacioppo, J. T. (2010). Loneliness Matters: A Theoretical and Empirical Review of Consequences and Mechanisms. Annals of Behavioral Medicine : A Publication of the Society of Behavioral Medicine, 40(2), 10.1007/s12160–010–9210–8. http://doi.org/10.1007/s12160-010-9210-8

LeRoy, Angie S.; Murdock, Kyle W.; Jaremka, Lisa M.; Loya, Asad; Fagundes, Christopher P. (2017). Health Psychology, Mar 30 , 2017, No Pagination Specified. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/hea0000467