Fact or Myth: Can The Effects of Loneliness Make You Sick?

This is a FACT.

Scientists are studying the physical effects of loneliness on the human body as they compare to those caused by chronic stress. In fact, researchers believe loneliness may cause stress.

Lead author and fellow at the Institute for Behavioral Medicine at Ohio State University, Lisa Jaremka explained, “Loneliness has been thought of in many ways as a chronic stressor – a socially painful situation that can last for quite a long time.”

Their study also found increased levels of proteins that result in inflammation when subjects were exposed to stress situations.

Loneliness = Inflammation = Illness

Normal levels of inflammation are part of your immune system and are crucial to fighting infection. When the immune system malfunctions, inflammation gets out of control and launches a chain reaction throughout your body.

Conditions Caused by Inflammation

  • Heart disease
  • Arthritis
  • Neurodegenerative disease
  • Diabetes
  • And much more…

People who are lonely have more severe reactions to anxiety than those who have more social and personal relationships. Jaremka continued, “It is clear…that poor-quality relationships are linked to a number of health problems, including premature mortality and all sorts of other very serious health conditions.” effects of loneliness

A questionnaire was used to judge subjects’ feelings of loneliness and isolation. “We saw consistency in the sense that more lonely people in both studies had more inflammation than less lonely people. It’s also important to remember the flip side, which is that people who feel very socially connected are experiencing more positive outcomes,” Jaremka said.

We all get lonely sometimes. Leaving home for the first time to go to college, relocating to an unfamiliar place for your job or being unable to join family and friends going on vacation. But when loneliness is unrelenting, it wears your entire body down.

Not All “Friends” Are Created Equal

Having a very active online life – with large “friend” lists on platforms such as Twitter and Facebook – may not do anything to alleviate the effects of loneliness. If the friendships are not real, if there is no real connection to your life, the interactions do nothing to improve your outlook.

University of Arizona communication department head and lead author, Chris Segrin, says, “Loneliness is the discrepancy between your achieved and desired level of social contact, and that has important implications. The portrait of a lonely person is very difficult to paint because what is really important is what is in your head.”

In other words, calling someone a “friend” does not make them one.

This is also true of people living close to family or even those married to someone they see every day. “When it comes to relationships, quality, not quantity, is the decisive factor,” said co-author and doctor of communication and psychology, Stacey Passalacqua.

“There are so many people we have in our day-to-day interactions. Sometimes we don’t realize how important these close relationships are to our health.”

“Loneliness is not feeling part of the world. You might be surrounded by loads of people but…you are [still] lonely.” Mind.org.uk

In addition, they found that lonely people do not feel as much of a positive benefit from vacations, hobbies and sleep as people who are not lonely do. Passalacqua pointed out that lonely people who believe fun activities “won’t make a difference” end up enacting a self-fulfilling prophecy. The UA study was published in Health Communication.

Loneliness Changes Brain Function

The University of Chicago linked loneliness to the part of the brain that determines whether a person feels rewarded. The ventral striatum, which is also responsible for learning and defines our perception of others, is changed in those suffering from loneliness.

Professor of psychology at the University of Chicago, John Cacioppo, is an expert on loneliness. He estimates that one in five people in the United States are afflicted with this condition and considers it more detrimental to physical health than smoking.

According to research from the Amsterdam Study of the Elderly, published in the Journal of Neurology Neurosurgery and Psychiatry, loneliness increases the risk of developing a neurodegenerative disease such as Alzheimer’s by more than 70%.

The authors of the article wrote, “Interestingly, the fact that ‘feeling lonely’ rather than ‘being alone’ was associated with dementia onset suggests that it is not the objective situation, but, the perceived absence of social attachments that increases the risk of cognitive decline.”

What Causes Loneliness?

  • Losing someone close to you through death or divorce
  • Being a caregiver which may leave you feeling isolated
  • Retirement or job loss that results in a loss of socialization at work
  • Age or physical conditions that make it difficult for you to mingle with others
  • Relocation to an area where you don’t know anyone
  • Racial, religious or gender discrimination or a sense of being excluded
  • A history of abuse may make it harder for you to form close relationships

If the effects of loneliness continue for too long, feelings of hopelessness may begin to take hold. It is important to talk to a mental health provider to determine the root causes of your loneliness and work through them. However, there are steps you can take to ease the toll loneliness takes on your mental and physical health if you are committed to getting better.

Top 3 Methods to Cope With Loneliness
  1. Join clubs, classes, churches or groups that offer you a scheduled social outlet doing activities you enjoy. Meeting new people is easier if you already have one thing in common.
  2. Take the first step when you’re out – say hello, good morning and have a nice day. When shopkeepers and teachers respond, it validates the feeling “I exist.”
  3. Work on YOU. Recognize your loneliness and work to make it better. Embrace positive thinking, get regular exercise and eat right, sleep at least seven hours a night and consider taking up yoga or tai chi, which foster feelings of inner peace.

Don’t let the effects of loneliness rule your life. Take back control and work toward a happier, and ultimately healthier you.