Why Loneliness Is Hazardous to Your Health
Psychologists explain why we're so lonely and what we can do about it.
Posted Jan 22, 2020
If you’ve been feeling lonely, stressed, and isolated, you could be part of the loneliness epidemic sweeping America. A new study at the University of California, San Diego found that 75 percent of Americans feel lonely and left out. A recent CIGNA study found that one in five Americans don't feel close to people and one in four feels no one understands them. Although many retired people are lonely, the loneliest Americans are Generation Z, young adults between 18 and 22 (Lee, Depp, Palmer, et al, 2019; CIGNA, 2018).
In her research on loneliness, Brigham Young University psychologist Julianne Holt-Lunstad found that adults in other Western industrialized countries including the United Kingdom, Germany, and Australia are also experiencing loneliness in record numbers. She cited research showing that over 8 million older Americans are experiencing social isolation (AARP, n.d.), explaining how Americans as a whole are becoming “less socially connected” with declines in community involvement, volunteer work, religious participation, and living conditions (Holt-Lunstad, 2017). Household size in the United States has declined in the past decade, with over a quarter of the population, and 28 percent of older adults now living alone (US HRSA, 2019).
The negative effects are staggering. Chronic loneliness is worse for our health than smoking up to 15 cigarettes a day, and loneliness has been linked to a weakened immune system, and an increased risk for cardiovascular disease, stroke, depression, cognitive decline, dementia, and a shorter life span. (Cacioppo, J.T.,& Cacioppo, S. (2014); Holt-Lunstad, 2017; US HRSA, 2019).
Concerned about this loneliness epidemic and wondering what we can do about it, I spoke with Seattle psychologist Meg Van Deusen, author of the new book, Stressed in the US (Van Deusen, 2019: Van Deusen, December 2019).
As a psychologist in clinical practice, Van Deusen recognizes the inner causes of loneliness. Many people are lonely, she says, because they’re “extremely sensitive to rejection. Lonely people are intimidated, feel flawed and, therefore, are less likely to engage with others because they are afraid of being hurt further.”
“Loneliness is already painful,” she explains, “and lonely people often feel that they cannot take any more pain—that interacting with others is risky. They also live with critical voices inside their own heads which makes them feel even lonelier.”
Loneliness is so debilitating because having nurturing relationships is a basic human need. Van Deusen points out how, as infants, we form an attachment with our parent or primary caregiver, gazing at this person who, in secure attachment, meets our gaze and connects with us. With the power of eye contact and touch, this connection helps develop our brains, our nervous systems, and “our sense of empathy in the world.” With “secure attachment,” Van Deusen says, “we feel seen and understood by another person.” Without it, we can develop chronic anxiety and loneliness.
But even if we lacked secure attachment in infancy, Van Deusen says we can begin healing our loneliness by learning how to have “nonjudgmental, compassionate relationships with ourselves.” One way to do this is through mindfulness and loving-kindness meditation, which, she says, “builds an internal working model of secure attachment, helping us engage in the world honestly and openly.”
One of her clients had lacked warm and loving parents and become lonely, anxious, and insecure. This woman “had not been in partnership with anybody, lived alone, and hadn't actually been touched in decades.” Van Deusen worked with her in therapy to help build her sense of security, which enabled her to get out into the world, to become more confident reaching out.
One thing the woman did was to begin getting massages. Van Deusen explained how her client had moved from “What had been an avoidant attachment in which she feared other people, avoided other people, and even the idea of being touched appeared threatening to her” to gradually building up her inner acceptance. She then joined a gym, began to reach out in interactions with other people, and began creating a more balanced and meaningful life.
While studies have shown how exercise can help alleviate stress and depression, Van Deusen points to research showing that “exercise among people can increase the effect of reducing stress and loneliness” (Plante, Coscarelli, & Ford. 2001). To achieve this effect, we don’t even have to have exercise partners. Just going to a gym or yoga studio or walking on a nature path with other people around can “really can help reduce stress and reduce that sense of loneliness,” she says, and “nature seems to be key because it elicits a sense of awe which helps us feel more connected to something greater than ourselves. And, feeling connected to something greater than ourselves helps us feel less alone.” (See Keltner, & Haidt, 2003).
Meditation is another healing practice. “Practicing mindfulness,” Van Deusen says, helps decrease loneliness “because you're learning to have an empathic relationship with yourself, to accept yourself no matter what. And so much of our stress is caused by our own minds. We threaten ourselves all the time, telling ourselves that we’re not good enough, too fat, too old, too ugly to be loved, which makes us feel even worse.
“But when you learn to practice, non-judgmental acceptance of yourself,” she says, “these self-critical thoughts begin to dissipate, and a different kind of relationship forms with the self,” one that increases our sense of well-being and helps us “connect with other people more easily. With a stronger internal relationship, you feel less intimidated and less insecure.”
She referred to one of her friends who lives in a remote part of the Eastern Sierras. “He does not have a partner and is not surrounded by people of like mind. But, he has a strong meditation practice, lives close to nature, and has a deep spiritual connection. He is not lonely. The relationships he does have are real, honest and, therefore, meaningful. His relationship with himself is kind and loving,” she emphasized. “The latter is so important to combating loneliness.”
With all of this in mind, here are some steps we can take to help heal the loneliness in our lives and our world. You might try:
- Practicing Mindfulness Meditation. To begin, simply close your eyes and focus on your breathing. Take a slow, deep breath and release it. Feel the sensations in your body, feel your shoulders relax, and breathe in, noticing your feelings. Then breathe out, noticing these thoughts and feelings flow along in the river of your consciousness as you take one mindful breath at a time. Then when you are ready, open your eyes.
- Practicing Loving-Kindness Meditation. Taking a deep mindful breath and closing your eyes, say to yourself, “May I be filled with loving-kindness. May I be safe. May I be well. May I be happy.” Then send loving kindness to someone in your life, saying “May you be filled with loving-kindness. May you be safe. May you be well. May you be happy.” Take a moment to feel this loving-kindness filling your mind and heart.
- Exercising with Others. Sign up for a yoga or Pilates class, go to a gym, or take a walk around your neighborhood or on a local nature trail. Enjoy the benefits of exercise and the expanded sense of oneness and community.
- Spending Time Outdoors. Where can you spend more time in nature? This can be anything from taking a walk around your neighborhood to walking in a nearby park or hiking on a nature trail. Put your phone away and remember to take time to pause and look up at the trees and sky.
- Getting a Therapeutic Massage. Relax, experience the stress-relieving effects of healing touch, and feel more connected to your body.
- Practicing Love 2.0, those “micro-moments” of connectivity that psychologist Barbara Fredrickson has found so healing and nurturing. Just a brief connection with another person can dramatically raise our mood, relieve stress, reduce inflammation, relieve loneliness, and build physical and emotional well-being (Fredrickson, 2013). These connections can be shared not only with close friends and family members but the grocery store clerk or anyone else you encounter in daily life. A simple smile, eye contact, presence, perhaps a kind word—that’s all it takes.
With these simple practices, you can begin healing the loneliness within and around you.
This post is for informational purposes and should not substitute for psychotherapy with a qualified professional.
AARP. (n.d.). About Isolation. Retrieved from https://connect2affect.org/about-isolation/
Cacioppo, J.T.,& Cacioppo, S. (2014). Older adults reporting social isolation or loneliness show poorer cognitive function 4 years later. Evidence-Based Nursing, 17(2), 59–60.
CIGNA. (2018). US loneliness index report. https://www.cigna.com/about-us/newsroom/studies-and-reports/loneliness-epidemic-america
Fredrickson, B. (2013). Love 2.0: How our supreme emotion affects everything we feel, think, do, and become. New York, NY: Hudson Street Press. See her short video, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AxxIh8NtGfw
Holt-Lunstad, J. (2017). The potential public health relevance of social isolation and loneliness: Prevalence, epidemiology, and risk factors. Public Policy & Aging Report: 27(4), 127-130, https://doi.org/10.1093/ppar/prx030
Kabat-Zinn, J. (2014). Guided Meditation Series 1. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8HYLyuJZKno
Keltner, D. & Haidt, J. (2003). Approaching awe, a moral, spiritual, and aesthetic emotion. Cognition and Emotion, 17, 297-314.
Lee, E., Depp, C., Palmer, B., Glorioso, D., Daly, R., Liu, J, Xin, M. T., Kim, H.C., Tarr, P., Yamada, Y., & Jeste, D. V. (2019). High prevalence and adverse health effects of loneliness in community-dwelling adults across the lifespan: Role of wisdom as a protective factor. International Psychogeriatrics, 31(10), 1447-1462. https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/international-psychogeriatrics/article/high-prevalence-and-adverse-health-effects-of-loneliness-in-communitydwelling-adults-across-the-lifespan-role-of-wisdom-as-a-protective-factor/FCD17944714DF3C110756436DC05BDE9#
Plante, T.G., Coscarelli, L. & Ford, M. Does Exercising with Another Enhance the Stress-Reducing Benefits of Exercise? International Journal of Stress Management 8, 201–213 (2001).
US Health Resources and Services Administration (US HRSA). (January 2019). The loneliness epidemic. https://www.hrsa.gov/enews/past-issues/2019/january-17/loneliness-epidemic
Van Deusen, M. (2019). Stressed in the US: 12 tools to tackle anxiety, loneliness, tech addition, and more. Los Angeles, CA: Story Merchant Books.
Van Deusen, M. (2019, December 9). Personal communication. All quotes in this article are from this interview.