The strong association between loneliness and depression is well documented; but, loneliness also triggers serious health risks, impacting our endocrine, immune, and cardiovascular systems, and accelerating death. According to a recent study, the lonely have increased risk for cancer, neurodegenerative disease, and viral infections. Perceived loneliness triggers a flight-or-fight stress response. Stress hormones and inflammation rise, and exercise and restorative sleep decrease. Norepinephrine surges, shutting down immune functions and ramping up production of white blood cells that cause inflammation. Meanwhile, it makes us less sensitive to cortisol that protects us from inflammation. In commenting on the research, neuroscientist Turhan Canli points out that loneliness one year affects our genetic inflammatory response the following year, confirming the self-reinforcing, negative, emotional spiral discussed above: “Loneliness predicted biological changes, and biological changes predicted changes in loneliness.” (Chen, 2015)
Coping with Loneliness
For many of us, when we’re lonely, we tend to isolate even more. We may not feel like talking to someone, even though it would help. Now we have the data to explain why biological, even genetic changes make loneliness hard to overcome. We may turn to addictive behavior instead of seeking social connection. There is a high correlation between obesity and loneliness.
We really have to fight our natural instinct to withdraw. Try admitting to a friend or neighbor that you’re lonely. To motivate socializing with other people, commit to a class, meet-up, CoDA or another 12-Step meeting. Exercise with a buddy. Volunteer or support a friend in need can to take your mind off of yourself and lift your spirits.
As with all feelings, loneliness is worsened by resistance and self- judgment. We fear experiencing more pain if we allow our heart to open. Often, the reverse is true. Allowing feelings to flow can not only release them, but also the energy expended in suppressing them. Our emotional state shifts, so that we feel invigorated, peaceful, tired, or content in our aloneness. For more suggestions, read “Coping with Loneliness” in Codependency for Dummies.
©Darlene Lancer 2018
John T. Cacioppo, Stephanie Cacioppo, “The Phenotype of Loneliness” European Journal of Developmental Psychology, 2012 Jul 1; 9(4): 446–452.
John T. Cacioppo and William Patrick, “Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection,” The Wall Street Journal, Nov. 28, 2008.
Angus Chen, “Loneliness May Warp Our Genes, And Our Immune Systems,” NPR, Your Health, November 29, 2015.
Lau, S., & Gruen, G. E. (1992). “The social stigma of loneliness: Effect of target person’s and perceiver’s sex.” Personality & Social Psychology Bulletin, 18, 182-189.
Turkle, Sherry, “Stop Googling. Let’s Talk,” The New York Times, Sept. 26, 2015.
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Written by Darlene Lancer JD, MFT
Originally appeared on WhatIsCodependency.com
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