Is Loneliness Making You Sick?
Research offers a way of combating loneliness without changing who you are.
Posted January 1, 2019
Kristin* was feeling tired and couldn’t kick a bad cold. Her doctor told her that her immune system wasn’t working as well as it should be, and that she thought it was because of something Kristin had told her during their discussion of what was going on in her life. “It sounds to me like you’re feeling a little depressed and lonely,” the physician said. “And that can impact your immune system.”
Recent research confirms that loneliness increases the risk of poor health – and even premature death. The reasons for this connection are not always clear, although some studies have found evidence that loneliness is linked to a decrease in some of the chemicals in our bodies that help protect us from injury and illness. Health writer Alexandra Thompson suggests that social isolation, which is impacting more and more of us these days, also often goes along with a less than healthy lifestyle; or it might be that social contact keeps the mind engaged in a way that promotes cognitive health.
Since studies have shown that being with a friend can reduce the experience of pain or discomfort, well-meaning family and even professionals often suggest that making friends is a way of combating loneliness and the physical illness that might result. But this solution is not as simple as it sounds.
On the one hand, loneliness is a rising problem in the United States and the cause of much of the political and social unrest around the world, according to a recent NY Times editorial by Arthur C. Brooks, president of the American Enterprise Institute.
And on the other, the kind of friendship that can help make us feel better is not exactly what most of us think of when we use the word “friend.” In a blog on the subject, my PT colleague Sophia Dembling writes, “We know loneliness may or may not be related to being alone. Introverts can be perfectly happy alone, or terribly lonely in a crowd.” She says that there is prejudice against lonely people in our culture, which can of course add to the pain of the condition, especially when we blame them for the problem. And she says that there is actually some evidence that loneliness has a genetic base – in other words, that some people may be born with a predisposition to be lonely.
But what Dembling suggests about introverts is also true for all of the rest of us. “We set a high bar for friendship,” she writes. “We desire and require deep connections and would rather be lonely alone than in a crowd. But realistically, those deep connections are not easy to find, and if we get caught short and our only choice is superficial socializing or nothing, we can get lonely.”
In my interviews with nearly three hundred men and women about the nature of their friendships, I discovered that many people suffer from the feeling that “real” friendships require a special kind of emotional link; and that anything else doesn’t count. Yet I also found that even people with lots of good friends can feel lonely – as one woman put it, “even when I’m surrounded by my closest girlfriends!”
What all of this means is that you don’t have to have a bunch of close friends or a super intense, tell-all friendship to reap the health benefits of these relationships. You aren’t doomed to unhappiness or poor health if you happen to be introverted, shy, socially awkward or just someone who needs lots of privacy and/or space.
Simply taking some time to have some kinds of social contact in your life can give you the physical and emotional benefits of that come from friendship. There are a number of different ways to do this without compromising your own space or boundaries. And while sometimes it can be helpful to share details of your personal life with others, it isn’t always necessary – or even the best solution.
Here are some recommendations culled from a variety of sources:
From the Mental Health Organization
- Self-help and peer support groups are often useful. You may have little in common with everyone else in the room, but you will share one thing.
- You could join a group centered around an activity: a book group, a chess club or an exercise class.
- If you don't want to join a group, try going to places where there are lots of people. You could go to your local library. Leisure centers usually have cafés. You don't have to talk to other people if you don't want to, but will be in company while you sit with a drink and a newspaper for a while.
- If you've got internet access, online communities can also be supportive, whether or not they are focused around mental health problems. It can be reassuring to know that this is an arena where nobody knows anything about your personal life.
From the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI):
- Some friendships happen naturally and some need a little more effort. It is helpful to take the initiative when it comes to maintaining your friendships. If you want to start a friendship, don’t wait for the other person to reach out to you. Post a message on Facebook, call them to share a story about something you have previously talked about or send a quick text message about something you both enjoy doing.
- Remember that having good friends means being a good friend. Listen to your friends when they talk about what is going on in their life and offer advice the best you can. Keep their secrets and be a trustworthy confidant.
- If you decide to tell your friend about your mental health condition, don’t be frustrated if they do not understand right away. Answer any questions they might have and remember that they are just trying to comprehend your experience. If they still are unable to handle it or pull away from you, be thankful for your time with them and consider it a learning experience.
- Making friends isn’t always easy. Test the waters by acting slowly and don’t be discouraged if every person you meet doesn’t turn out to be a best friend. Every friendship, whether short or lifelong, teaches us something and helps to shape the person we become.
A woman in her eighties who I interviewed told me that she had learned to paraphrase the words of a song that had been popular when she was young. “The song goes ‘If you can’t be with the one you love, love the one you’re with,’ – and that’s how I feel about friends. I can’t be with some of my oldest and closest friends anymore, because they’re far away, or not well, or in some cases no longer alive. So I’ve learned to be friends with the people who are around me. We’re all very different, and I’m not close with everyone in my life; but I am connected to some of them. They’re friends.”
Senator Ben Sasse, Republican of Nebraska, who writes that “loneliness is killing us” in his new book Them: Why We Hate Each Other —and How to Heal, appears to have figured out that the best kinds of friendships for our emotional and physical well-being are not the kind of share everything, best friend forever connections that many of us think of immediately in this context. In his opinion piece about the epidemic of loneliness, Arthur C. Brooks writes, “Mr. Sasse worries even more, however, about a pervasive feeling of homelessness: Too many Americans don’t have a place they think of as home — a “thick” community in which people know and look out for one another and invest in relationships that are not transient. To adopt a phrase coined in Sports Illustrated, one might say we increasingly lack that ‘hometown gym on a Friday night feeling.’”
But when Brooks asked Senator Sasse what he thought we should do when, for example, we move from one location to another, as so many of us do these days, “He told me I had it all wrong — that moving back home and going to the gym on Friday aren’t actually the point; rather, the trick is ‘learning how to intentionally invest in the places where we actually live.’ In other words, being a member of a community isn’t about ... how I feel about any place I have lived, nor about my fear of isolation in a new city. It is about the neighbor I choose to be in the community I wind up calling my home.”
To deal with loneliness, you don’t need to change who you are or how you operate in the world. Just be the best neighbor you can be to whoever happens to be in your life in the moment. That’s enough.
*names and personal information have been disguised to protect privacy
Johnson, K. V.-A. and Dunbar, R. I. M. Pain tolerance predicts human social network size. Sci. Rep. 6, 25267; doi: 10.1038/srep25267 (2016).
Sasse, Ben. Them: Why We Hate Each Other--and How to Heal. St Martin’s Press. 2018
White, Emily. Lonely: A Memoir. Harper Collins Publishers, 2010.