Who does loneliness affect?
A study on undergraduates at Ohio State University found that those who felt lonely weren’t any less physically attractive, of lower socioeconomic status, or less accomplished than their non-lonely peers. Nor did those who felt lonely belong to fewer clubs or have fewer roommates. It seems that loneliness can happen to anyone, and it’s not uncommon. About 20% of Americans are lonely. For adults over 45, that rate rises to about 35%.
There are some factors that seem to stave off loneliness. People who are married report being less lonely, but only if they feel they can confide in their spouse. Having friends you can count on helps combat loneliness, but small-talk-only relationships don’t seem to cut it. People who experience a personal relationship with God or a higher power feel less lonely, but only if the relationship is perceived as positive and non-threatening. Safe, meaningful relationships are key.
Still, loneliness seems mostly linked to neurobiological mechanisms rather than to specific outside actors. A person’s gene expression may determine their loneliness much more than the size of their contact list.
Long story short: loneliness does not have a specific profile, and it can happen to anyone.
What does loneliness do to our health?
At a very basic level, we have a need for connection. According to Dr. Cacioppo, “We’re a fundamentally social species, and a social animal that is isolated is almost certain to live a shorter, more miserable life.” Before modern times (and arguably still today), human beings needed to work together to survive. Being alone was dangerous. When we feel alone, we receive the same signals in our brain as we do when we are in physical danger. Chronically lonely people have higher levels of stress hormones, and this affects their day-to-day life.
Those who are lonely experience less restorative sleep, increased negativity, depressive thinking, and heightened sensitivity to social threats. The stress of being lonely depletes a person’s mental capacity to interact positively with their surroundings. When their basic need of connection is not being met, people move into survival mode and are less able to respond appropriately to social situations and control impulses. Loneliness is supposed to motivate us to care for ourselves, but if those needs aren’t met our loneliness will grow worse.
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What can be done to combat loneliness?
Understanding that loneliness is neurobiological and not linked to certain behaviors or traits is helpful on the road to acceptance, but perhaps less helpful when trying to figure out what to do about loneliness. While there is no shortage of internet lists on how to make friends, addressing loneliness at its core takes more than signing up for a Zumba class (thought exercise is a great way to boost your mood). How can you truly break a self-defeating cycle?
Dr. Leslie Becker-Phelps, a licensed psychologist, cites three steps for overcoming loneliness: awareness, acceptance, and compassion.
Awareness allows us to recognize our negative thinking. A lonely person cannot address their loneliness if they don’t first admit to it. Then the hard work of changing thought patterns can begin. It takes a brave person to admit that how they perceive a situation may not be correct and imagine that things may be better than they assume.
Dr. Cacioppo writes, “The simple realization that we are not passive victims, that we do have some control, and that we can change our situation by changing our thoughts… can have a surprisingly empowering effect.”
Still, it’s hard work to change thoughts, and it’s scary. A lonely person will need to reach out to others, and assume a positive, non-threatening interaction even though they tend to feel threatened and left out. This is a daunting task.
But Dr. Becker-Phelps recommends that we don’t ignore the challenges. We need to acknowledge our feelings of loneliness and not blame ourselves or others.
Her last recommendation, to embrace compassion, may be the hardest. We must both care for others and accept that we deserve to be cared for. If you have people that you can reach out to, do so. And in-person interactions are best—get offline and interact with a human face.
Facing loneliness takes courage. Treat yourself with kindness and remember that many people feel lonely, and everyone who feels lonely deserves compassion and companionship. Face your challenges one day at a time, and don’t be afraid to seek professional help if necessary. Stay healthy, friends!