“Loneliness is proof that your innate search for connection is intact.” ~Martha Beck
Humans are social beings, we require connection and a sense of belonging to thrive. In fact, new research shows that loneliness can be hazardous to your health. The odds of dying an early death when experiencing chronic feelings of loneliness are at 45%. This is more than excessive drinking at 30%, Obesity at 20% and Air Pollution at 5%. Mortality rates of isolated individuals are as high as those who smoke heavily, creating a public health threat, loneliness is epidemic. The social media culture provides outlets of connection, however superficial at best, it does not replace the benefits of real connection. Today, everything we need is available to us at the click of a button. Does this convenience come at a cost?
Studies on loneliness indicate the physical effects of loneliness, real or perceived, can lead to poor cardiovascular health, reduced sleep quality, increased cortisol levels, and an increase in pro-inflammatory cytokine activity (which promotes systemic inflammation). Loneliness also leads to increased rejection sensitivity, higher defensiveness and likelihood of invoking the “fight or flight” response when encountering a social interaction that can be perceived as negative, contributing to increased stress and aging of the body.
What is loneliness?
Loneliness occurs when an individual’s desired level of social involvement is perceived to be less than what they want it to be. While some individuals may enjoy periods of isolation and less connectedness than others, the measure of loneliness is actually more about how connected you feel with others versus how much social activity you are actually engaging in. Individuals who have many friendships, large families or even a spouse, may still experience high levels of loneliness.
Who is at risk?
80% of those under 18 and 40% of adults over 65 report being lonely at least sometimes. 15-30% report loneliness as a chronic state. Social deficits are more predictive of death in those under 65.
How can you prevent loneliness from affecting your health?
There are ways to experience solitude in life and not feel the effects of loneliness:
1. Find meaning in the experience
Maybe you are lonely because you have had some relationships come to an end, maybe you have moved to a new place, or started a new job. Loneliness can be an indicator that changes are occurring and it might just give you the time that you need to focus on building your life the way you want it to be.
2. Find your passion
Loneliness can be an indication that the things you are doing in your life right now are not creating joy for you. Use the time you have to dig deeper within and find out what you really want to do. Maybe you are unable to connect in your current situation, because the situation doesn’t fit your genuine self. It might be time to explore a path that is true to your nature.
3. Reach Out
If you want to build connections, now is the time to reach out. Studies show that it is not quantity of relationships but quality that have protective effects on our health. Call that old friend you haven’t reached out to in a while, or maybe that aunt that you know would love to hear from you. Make plans and keep them to nurture relationships you may have been neglecting. Consider volunteering, support groups, getting involved in community events, the feeling of being part of something larger than ourselves can help ameliorate the feeling of loneliness.
4. Make Changes
Have you struggled with feeling like an outsider for a long time? Maybe your style, topics of conversation or behaviors are creating distance from others? Perhaps an examination of all these factors will help you to see where you can make changes to become more mainstream to people you’d like to connect with. If you want to decrease loneliness, you must be acceptable so that you can fit in with a group that represents you.
5. Get some assistance
Sit down with someone whose opinion you trust and ask for their help to see with objectivity why you are not making friends. Don’t forgo the help of a professional who can guide or counsel you to make positive changes and decrease loneliness.
While there is no way to avoid periods of loneliness, it doesn’t have to be dangerous to your health. If you can change the way you think about loneliness and use it instead as a guide, you will not only build a deeper connection with yourself, but with others as well.