Loneliness and Health

Many of us will experience loneliness from time to time but for some people, this can be much more permanent. Chronic loneliness can be detrimental for both mental and physical health but is often not widely acknowledged. In this blog post, we’re looking at what causes loneliness and the impact that it can have on everyday life.

What is Loneliness?

Loneliness is a state of mind, although it is not a mental health condition as such.

Being alone and being lonely are not necessarily the same thing, although they are often confused. Loneliness can be a lot more complex than this. Some people are perfectly content with their own company and don’t actually feel lonely despite the lack of social interaction, while others feel lonely even though they have lots of people around them.

Loneliness can be caused by not having much or any social contact with other people but it can also stem from a lack of meaningful and true connections, even when surrounded by friends, family and acquaintances.

Symptoms of Loneliness

If you are experiencing some of these symptoms, you may be lonely:

  • Feeling sad about a lack of social connections in your life

  • Feeling resentful or bitter towards people who do have strong, meaningful social connections in their life

  • Trying to mask true feelings of loneliness by doing things such as working more, exercising more, trying to stay as busy as possible to fill your time

  • Not having strong friendships, even if you have a lot of acquaintances and people that you would call friends

Why Does Loneliness Happen?

Experts believe that our family background and social interaction in our early life set the scene for the degree of social connection that we feel comfortable with. These varying degrees of “sensitivity” to loneliness and explain why the triggers are different from person to person.

If the level of social connection that we “expect” isn’t met, it can mimic feelings of being physically threatened and affect physical and mental health.

Loneliness can be triggered by life events such as moving home, taking a new job, becoming unemployed, bereavement, relationship breakdown, the arrival of a new baby and seeing adult children fly the nest. These changes can lead to the breakdown of existing social connections. A strong focus on work also means many people prioritise this over social relationships.

The Health Effects of Loneliness

Loneliness can trigger a number of physical and emotional symptoms, including:

  • Physical aches and pains; headaches, and worsening of existing health conditions

  • Low energy levels; lethargy and lack of motivation

  • Sleep problems including not able to get off to sleep, not being able to stay asleep and oversleeping

  • Appetite loss, weight loss and weight gain

These type of physical symptoms happen because of the body’s response to feeling lonely. Experts have suggested that loneliness encourages the brain to go into self preservation mode and makes the body react by producing the stress hormone, cortisol, to prepare for the “threat” (i.e. loneliness).

This is known as the “fight or flight” response, which is a big factor in triggering anxiety symptoms. As well as encouraging the production of adrenaline and stress hormones, it is also believed to encourage the production of white blood cells while also decreasing antiviral proteins so that the body is less able to fight off infections.

Research has shown that people who are chronically lonely have much higher levels of the stress hormone, cortisol, which is thought to encourage inflammation to build up in the body.

This is one of the main reasons why chronic loneliness has been linked with a range of health problems and is now known to also encourage sleep deprivation and negatively affect the cardiovascular system.

In fact, experts now believe that being lonely most or all of the time can have the same health effects as being a smoker or being obese- even if you do not actually smoke and are not overweight.

Studies have shown that chronic loneliness significantly increases the chance of early death by up to 45 per cent, and increases cognitive decline in older people by as much as 20 per cent for people who are chronically lonely.

Loneliness and Its Impact on Mental Health

Loneliness isn’t actually a mental health condition in itself but social isolation and chronic loneliness can evoke feelings of depression, anxiety and other mental health conditions.

This can become a catch 22 situation in which you are even less inclined to get involved in social situations because of depression or anxiety, which means that you become even more lonely.

At its most extreme, this can lead to:

  • Feeling encouraged to smoke, drink and/or use drugs and medications to cope

  • Feeling hopeless, worthless and/or suicidal

How to Tackle Loneliness

It’s important to understand that loneliness can be overcome and it doesn’t need to be a permanent state of mind.

Many people who are lonely bury their feelings, which can make the situation worse. The first step is therefore to realise that loneliness is actually a natural response to having a lack of meaningful connections in your life and is no different to depression, anxiety and other mental health conditions in this respect. This can avoid the urge to fill the void by engaging in unhealthy behaviours such as overworking, overeating and alcohol or substance misuse.

Meeting new people: Having more social interaction with people is one of the key ways to start counteracting chronic loneliness. This can be through things like classes, groups and volunteering. Learning a new skill is a low pressure way to do this. Joining a group can bring a sense of belonging due to shared interests and experiences.

Getting a pet: Pets are thought to reduce stress levels and provide companionship. Beyond this, they can also open up social opportunities, such as being able to interact with other dog walkers.

Counselling and other therapies: Getting out there can be a good first step but it won’t always be enough by itself. Counselling can help to deal with loneliness on a deeper level, and Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) can be used to change your attitude and behaviour, which may be long held if you’ve been experiencing loneliness for a while. This can help you to alter how you see yourself and others so that you experience less loneliness in the future.