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Source: Africa Studio/Shutterstock

Feeling lonely is stressful for your mind and body. Our ancestors lived in tribes and relied on others to hunt or gather food, raise their young, and fight off predators. Your brain is wired to connect with other people, and it interprets loneliness as a chronic stressor, triggering your “fight, flight, or freeze” response. Over time, chronic exposure to stress hormones like cortisol can damage your health.

In research, loneliness and lack of social and community ties has been linked to inflammation, gene expression, and even higher mortality rates. Therefore, it's important to recognize when you are lonely and to take steps to engage more deeply with other people.

How do I know if I am too lonely?

There are two kinds of loneliness. The first is social isolation. You may spend a lot of time alone, without a solid network of friends and family to hang out with. The second type of loneliness is feeling lonely. You can be lonely even in a crowded room if you don’t feel cared about or feel like your needs are important to others. You may have friends, coworkers, or family, but not feel that they can be relied on for emotional or practical support. The two don't always overlap. You can live alone yet not feel lonely, because you do lots of fun, social activities. And you can feel lonely even though you're married, because you and your spouse lead separate lives.

What are the causes of loneliness?

Some loneliness may be inevitable as you age: Friends die or move away, or family members are too busy juggling work and kids to visit or call. You may be more lonely at certain stages of your life, such as when you start college, after you graduate, when you have a new baby, after relocating, after your kids leave home, or after you retire or lose your spouse. Today, many parents shape their lives around their kids’ activities, with little time to deepen and invest in their own friendships, resulting in loneliness when their kids move away. But loneliness can also be a subjective feeling unrelated to any particular life stage.

What is the effect of loneliness on health?

Both social isolation and feeling lonely seem to be bad for your health, but feeling lonely may be worse. Using tools from molecular biology, researchers have been studying the effects of loneliness on people’s genes. They’ve found that genes that promote inflammation are more active in lonely people; in addition, genes that inhibit inflammation are less active in lonely people (Cole et al. 2007). This may explain why loneliness increases your risk for inflammatory conditions such as asthma and autoimmune diseases. It has also been well-established that loneliness is a significant risk factor for earlier mortality; its effects on health are the same or greater than obesity or smoking. Therefore, it is important to take steps to try to reduce loneliness if you can. And on a societal level, we need to provide more opportunities for lonely people to socialize, particularly when they are elderly.

Assessing your loneliness

Researchers assess loneliness with statements like the following. These represent just a sample of items, and is not a validated questionnaire, so it can't tell you whether you are lonelier than is healthy. But it can give you an indication of an area of your life that may need improving.

Tally all of the statements below that are true for you:

  • I don’t have people to hang out with or do things with.
  • When I need help, there’s nobody to ask.
  • I don’t have close friends.
  • I don’t feel part of a group or community.
  • I don’t have anyone to talk to.
  • My relationships are superficial.

If you counted more than half the items, you should consider whether loneliness may be a chronic stressor for you.

What can I do to prevent or treat loneliness?

1. Develop a few close, caring relationships with friends, family, or coworkers.

Put effort into maintaining your closest relationships by checking in regularly, acknowledging important life events, listening, showing up when they need you, and being there through life's ups and downs.

2. Get out more.

Think about group sporting, creative, social, or volunteer activities that you would naturally enjoy or find meaningful. Do some research and make a specific plan about how to fit these into your busy schedule. What are you willing to let go of to make more time for socializing?

3. Take inventory of your relationships.

If most of your relationships are superficial, consider if you'd like to go deeper with these people. Are they capable of being the kind of close friend you'd like? Depending on the answer, you may decide to speak up more about your needs, reach out and initiate more, or look for different types of friends.

4. Have patience with new relationships.

Don't expect too much at the beginning. Friendships take time to build naturally. Try not to be too demanding of a new friend's time, and don't take it personally if they say "no" to an arrangement. They may already have a full life and will make more space for you over time.

5. Be proactive in organizing activities.

Organize a potluck party for coworkers or neighbors. Talk to your acquaintances about starting a book club or clothing swap. Start a regular dog-walking group. Organize a weekend outing or a picnic. It takes courage and lots of effort to be a social organizer, but the rewards should be well worth it.

Feeling lonely is a sign that your relationships or community ties are not meeting your social or emotional needs. It's easy to feel like a victim when you're lonely, but that won't help. Try to see your loneliness as situational or due to a lack of effort, rather than a sign of innate personal inadequacy. Some people are lucky enough to be born into families with lots of connections, while others have to build social networks for themselves. For most of us, loneliness is a challenge that you can conquer with some investment of time, effort, and emotional energy.

If you'd like to know more, read Are Your Loved Ones Hazardous to Your Health?

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References

Cole SW, Hawkley LC, Arevalo JM, Sung CY, Rose RM, Cacioppo JT. Social regulation of gene expression in human leukocytes. Genome Biology. 2007;8:R189.

Holt-Lunstad, J., & Smith, T. B. (2015). Loneliness and social iso- lation as risk factors for mortality: A meta-analytic review. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 10, 227–237. 

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