Though our need to connect is innate, many of us frequently feel alone. Loneliness is the state of distress or discomfort that results when one perceives a gap between one’s desires for social connection and actual experiences of it. Even some people who are surrounded by others throughout the day—or are in a long-lasting marriage—still experience a deep and pervasive loneliness. Research suggests that loneliness poses serious threats to well-being as well as long-term physical health.
“When we physically isolate ourselves from others, we become more prone to feeling lonely. … According to the CDC, there is strong evidence (particularly in adults over the age of 50) that loneliness puts us at risk from premature death from all causes including dementia, heart disease, and stroke. Loneliness is also associated with higher rates of anxiety, depression, and suicide,” says Dr. Vivek Cherian, an internal medicine doctor.
Chronic loneliness occurs when feelings of loneliness and uncomfortable social isolation go on for a long period of time. It’s characterized by constant and unrelenting feelings of being alone, separated or divided from others, and an inability to connect on a deeper level. It can also be accompanied by deeply rooted feelings of inadequacy, poor self-esteem, and self-loathing. Ongoing loneliness can afflict even the most seemingly outgoing person. Being the “life of the party” doesn’t necessarily exclude someone from being chronically lonely. This type of chronic, or long-term loneliness, can eventually impact all areas of your life.
Long-term feelings of loneliness can affect your health in many ways. For example, chronic loneliness can drive up cortisol levels in the body. Cortisol is a hormone that your body creates when under stress. Over time, higher cortisol levels can lead to inflammation, excess weight gain, insulin resistance, problems concentrating, and more.2
If left unchecked, these chronic loneliness symptoms can put you at greater risk for more serious medical and emotional problems, including:
- Sleep disorders
- Type 2 diabetes
- Heart disease
- High blood pressure
- Mental health and emotional problems
- Substance use
There is even the possibility that chronic loneliness and the health risks that come with it, could shorten one’s lifespan.
Whether a person lives in isolation or not, feeling a lack of social connectedness can be painful. Loneliness can be described in different ways; a commonly used measure of loneliness, the UCLA Loneliness Scale, asks individuals about a range of feelings or deficits of connection, including how often they:
- feel they lack companionship
- feel left out
- feel “in tune” with people around them
- feel outgoing and friendly
- feel there are people they can turn to
Given the potential health consequences for those who feel like they have few or no supportive social connections, widespread loneliness poses a major societal challenge. But it underscores a demand for increased outreach and connection on a personal level, too.
Have you ever been in a crowded room and still felt lonely? The truth is you can feel lonely anywhere, anytime – no matter how many people are physically around you. But if you’re sick of feeling isolated and want to get connected, here are some things you can do to help.
- Start with small talk
- Hang out with like-minded people
- Get active
- Jump online
- Make social plans
- Write it down
- Hang out with some non-humans
- Do some volunteering
- Get some support
Be intentional about creating meaningful friendships and investing the time necessary to be a good friend. Go out of your way to inquire and support those people in your network that seem less connected or are withdrawing for whatever reason. Or just go and volunteer at a soup kitchen or some other service to the underserved where it puts you in contact with other people. Put down your phone and meet people for the purposes of investing time and emotional energy with them. As we learn to care about others, we realize that helping others is a powerful antidote to our feelings that lead to isolation, depression and loneliness and we become capable of seeing our own lives in a different, more positive way.