Loneliness: Surprising Ways It Impacts Our Health and Wellbeing

Loneliness Surprising Impacts Our Health Well being

Do you know that feeling lonely is injurious to health? We all feel lonely at some point or the other, but for millions of people across the globe loneliness has become chronic.

The loneliness epidemic

Loneliness epidemic is the new buzzword in the most connected time in history. Today a majority of Americans are lonely according to Cigna’s survey{1} of 20,000 adults in the U.S. One out of every two adults irrespective of gender or race feel alone (46%) or left out (47%).  Around 27% of the survey participants were found to hardly feel that there is anyone who really understands them and 36% of them reported that they have no one to turn to at times of need. What’s more shocking is that the youngest adults (aged 18-22) were found to be loneliest whereas the oldest adults aged 72 and above were least lonely. 

One 2020 study found that the prevalence of loneliness has increased by almost 13% since 2018. “Pervasive loneliness has widespread effects and is strongly linked to mental health issues such as anxiety and depression,” adds the study. {2}

Chronic loneliness is a very damaging state of mind but this human emotion has no single cause. It is unique for each individual! According to a 2017 study, “loneliness poses a significant health problem for a sizeable part of the population,” as it increases the risk of distress, unhealthy behavior, and suicide. {3}

A child unable to make friends in school may be feeling lonely. On the other hand, an old lady may feel a different sort of loneliness after the death of her spouse. People living alone in a new city or in their apartment may or may not be lonely. On the other hand, you may feel lonely, even when surrounded by people. Whether the house you live in is 500sq ft or 5000 sq ft, loneliness is the same.

Do not confuse solitude with loneliness
Loneliness: Surprising Ways It Impacts Our Health and Wellbeing

What exactly is loneliness?

Loneliness is a chronic negative emotion that is experienced due to a lack of social connection or isolation. Although alone time can be beneficial, a lack of intimacy and connection with others can cause this unpleasant psychological construct. It’s a state of mind where you want human contact but due to an unpleasant state of mind, you fail to connect with other people. In short, loneliness is feeling alone and isolated. 

However, loneliness is not a clinical disorder. It is different from more serious feelings of isolation and alienation, but it can be a sign of deeper psychological issues. Loneliness may be a temporary feeling but feelings of isolation/alienation may arise from withdrawal from relationships, rejection by others or can be the result of chronic illness.

Related: Loneliness In Children: This Is What You Can Do As A Parent

There are various external and internal causes of feeling lonely including –

  • Physical isolation 
  • Disturbed family relationships such as divorce
  • Death of a loved one
  • Feeling of worthless and low self-esteem  
  • Psychological issues like social anxiety or depression 
But rarely do you ever tell people
Loneliness: Surprising Ways It Impacts Our Health and Wellbeing

Loneliness is a vicious cycle

The more we experience social isolation, the more we feel lonely and threatened which forces us to seek more isolation, which in turn amplifies the feeling of loneliness. 

Loneliness affects social cognition
Loneliness: Surprising Ways It Impacts Our Health and Wellbeing

Do you know that the pain of chronic illness is highly detrimental to your health? 

What researchers are saying about loneliness and its impact on our health

Research shows that chronic illness severely impacts our brain health. Several studies have shown an association between loneliness and an increase in risk for developing dementia and Alzheimer’s.{4} Long-term feelings of loneliness can lead to negative thinking, self-doubt, poor decision-making skills, concentration issues, and eventually depression. 

Loneliness is controlled by the brain according to researchers. Roy Baumeister, a psychologist at Florida State University in Tallahassee conducted some lab experiments between 2000  and 2005 and found that loneliness declines executive control.

Neurobiologist Richard Smeyne of Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia experimented with multiple generations of mice. Initially, they were kept in large enclosures that allowed them to play and grow up with other mice. When they reached adulthood, some of these animals were transferred to a typical shoebox cage, subjecting them to social isolation. After the month of isolation, the researcher compared the changes in the brain (mainly the sensory cortex). It was found that the overall size of nerve cells, or neurons, shrunk by about 20% and was steady for three months as the mice remained in isolation. Also, there was broken DNA and a reduction in a protein called BDNF that triggers neural growth. Another 2013 study found that social isolation can lead to depressive-like behavior in mice. {5} 

Further research has shown that loneliness is highly toxic to health and the level of toxicity is startling. Social isolation is the strongest social risk factor of loneliness.

Related: 10 Pertinent Facts About Loneliness And How It Effects The Mind And Body

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