If You’re Lonely…
How to combat isolation, and why
Many people feel isolated or lonely at some point in their lives. If that’s you, don’t ignore it; take notice. A growing body of research suggests that loneliness can have substantial negative effects on your body and mind. Studies say this feeling can influence endocrine, immunological, cardiovascular and inflammatory responses.
“Loneliness is associated with greater physiological stress and interferes with the restorative effects of sleep. You might say it increases the toxicity of days and decreases nighttime detoxification,” says John T. Cacioppo, Ph.D., professor of psychology at the University of Chicago and director of the university’s Center for Cognitive and Social Neuroscience.
Scientific research confirms that loneliness is associated with physical and mental health problems: A study at the University of Chicago found it to be a unique predictor of elevated systolic blood pressure, including age-related increases in this form of hypertension. Meanwhile, a study at Carnegie Mellon University found that healthy people who are lonely and have a small social network have the lowest antibody response to the flu vaccine. Other research has linked loneliness to lower cardiac output, poorer sleep quality, increased inflammation and higher peripheral resistance to arterial blood flow.
“When you feel something is wrong with your place in the social fabric, you perceive things to be more stressful,” says Cacioppo, “and that causes higher rises in cortisol levels in the morning”—with a detrimental effect on nearly every system in the body. The question is: What can you do about it? Plenty, it turns out.
“Loneliness is a signal that you need to repair relationships in an enduring way,” says Cacioppo. “Just as hunger motivates you to find food, loneliness can motivate you to take care of relationships.” Try to “garner support from people who are already in your social network,” suggests geriatric researcher Katherine Fiori, Ph.D., of New York City’s Long Island University. “Be honest about your feelings. Don’t worry about being a burden.” You can also meet new people by doing volunteer work and by joining groups—a book club or yoga class, for example. Cacioppo recommends chatting with people you encounter; he also notes that if you spend time with those adept at connecting, you can learn some of their techniques. “You’re not going to form meaningful relationships if you don’t try,” he points out. The good news is that “if you are disconnected and you do something about it, you’ll probably feel better.” This is likely to be true physically as well as emotionally.