The Health Impact of Loneliness
We've been hearing a lot about loneliness lately. When discussing the impact of the pandemic, loneliness is often included in discussions that centre around mental health, including stress, anxiety and depression, because of the forced isolation and limited social interactions brought on by measures used to slow the spread of the disease.
And while it is correct to say that being physically alone, can bring on feelings of loneliness, this is not the complete picture. That’s because there are lots of people who don’t experience loneliness when they’re alone and lots who do even when they are around other people.
So, what exactly is loneliness?
Loneliness is an unpleasant emotional response to perceived isolation and social pain that motivates people to seek social connections – a feeling of dissatisfaction by the level of intimacy one has with other people, and includes overwhelming feelings of emptiness, rejection, or being misunderstood.
In present circumstances, where people are required to limit social interactions for the greater good, it’s no surprise that people are reporting “alarming” rates of loneliness. Why? Because loneliness poses a significant health problem with increased risks in terms of distress (depression, anxiety), suicidal ideation and behaviour and health care utilisation, in turn also impacting alcohol and drug use, often as a maladaptive coping mechanism.
The effects of loneliness on health
A study of 308,849 individuals, followed for an average of 7.5 years, showed that the influences of social relationships on the risk of death is comparable with well-established risk factors for mortality such as smoking and alcohol consumption and exceed the influence of other risk factors such as physical inactivity and obesity. To put it into perspective, the health risks of loneliness are equivalent to the effects of smoking as many as 15 cigarettes a day.
Loneliness has also been linked to increased risk of chronic diseases such as coronary heart disease and stroke, as well as compromised immune functioning, and cognitive decline with evidence of people who are lonely having higher biomarkers of inflammation, increased activity of inflammatory genes, and reduced activity of anti-viral genes to indicate compromised immune functioning, cardiovascular functioning, and cognitive decline.
So if loneliness impacts health negatively, do positive social connections reverse these trends?
Absolutely – and more than previously thought.
A Harvard study following people for some 80 years, found that people with stronger social connections were the healthiest and happiest.
And even “weak” social interactions, like those with classmates or casual acquaintances, predicted happiness, which suggests that we might not need to have only “deep” interactions to reap the psychological benefits of social connection. Just casual conversations with neighbours or colleagues on a daily basis might do something similar.
Connection provides psychological comfort and increases resilience to stress and trauma. Relationships can create context for finding purpose and meaning.
The lesson? Look for opportunities to meet people and cultivate new friendships and social interactions. This can be through community service, club activities, or classes, avenues that can occur online and in-person as people adapt to the current situation.
There is a kicker, however.
Combating unwanted feelings of isolation with more social connectedness does work, but it’s harder than it sounds. That’s because loneliness leaves people feeling vulnerable and hypervigilant against potential threats. As much as lonely people want social connectedness, they have a fear of negative evaluation that causes their self-preservation instincts to kick in, with increased activity of the sympathetic nervous system, the part of the nervous system responsible for the fight-or-flight response to stress or threats.
That’s why professionals support services, community groups and frequent casual check-ins should be used to help break the cycle.
Naluri offers all members looking to improve their physical and mental health the support of a multidisciplinary team of healthcare experts for bite-sized daily coaching and support via the Naluri app. For more information about Naluri and to get started, click here.
For immediate help, please reach out to Naluri’s 24-hour Careline:
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- Written by:
- Asma' Jailani