Just about everyone knows what it feels like to be lonely on occasion, but those who experience chronic loneliness are at high risk for a variety of mental and physical health problems. Chronic loneliness is a feeling of loneliness that persists over a long period of time. At the tail-end of a pandemic, more of us are experiencing chronic loneliness than ever– here’s everything you need to know about it.
The Definition of Loneliness
Psychology Today defines loneliness as “a state of distress or discomfort that results when one perceives a gap between one’s desires for social connection and actual experiences of it.” Basically, loneliness is caused by a discrepancy between what you expect from a relationship and what you actually receive. This can apply to romantic and platonic relationships.
This means that loneliness doesn’t come only from total isolation, but simply from not getting enough out of interpersonal relationships.
Causes of Loneliness
Loneliness can be triggered by a variety of events and situations.
- A recent loss— The loss of someone you care about can be a devastating experience. Losing someone you had a deep connection with can make someone feel as if they can no longer attain that feeling of connection.
- A break-up— Just like the death of a loved one, a severed relationship can have a devastating effect. Whether splitting from a significant other or a best friend, heartbreak is a serious contributor to loneliness.
- A new environment– Whether moving to a different city or starting a new job, finding yourself surrounded by strangers can definitely trigger loneliness. Forging new relationships is difficult and time-consuming.
- Change– Change is always hard to adapt to. When surroundings or behaviors change, failure to adapt becomes loneliness.
- Old age– Unfortunately, the elderly are at a higher risk for loneliness. Aging results in physical and mental challenges that make it more difficult to take the necessary actions to combat loneliness on their own.
Loneliness has negative effects on both mental and physical health. Loneliness contributes to a higher risk for heart disease, high blood pressure, obesity, cognitive decline, and a shortened life span. To prevent these long-term health concerns from manifesting, watch for these symptoms in yourself and in others:
- Lack of energy- Loneliness creates depression, and depression sucks away at our energy. Consistent fatigue can be a sign that someone is not experiencing the same motivations they usually gain from social connections.
- Lack of focus- Also a common symptom of depression, sadness derived from loneliness can present as an inability to focus on tasks that were once easily completed.
- Sleep issues- In one study, it was determined that lonely people were 25% more likely to suffer from insomnia than those with rich social lives. It’s certainly no surprise that isolated people would have more trouble turning off unpleasant thoughts in order to sleep.
- Changes in appetite- Loneliness can cause someone to lose their appetite, or eat more in order to cope. Loneliness is tied to obesity as well as malnourishment.
- Feelings of self-doubt- Loneliness breeds feelings of self-doubt and insecurity, leading the lonely person to isolate themselves even more. Becoming lonely makes some people feel hopeless that they will ever recover socially.
- Immune suppression- Loneliness is as detrimental to your health as excessive smoking or drinking. Loneliness causes us to take worse care of ourselves, and becoming sick more often is a common result.
- Body aches- Because loneliness triggers an inflammatory response, body aches and pains can be a direct symptom.
- Anxiety- Loneliness also causes overproduction of the hormone Cortisol, which is responsible for feelings of stress. This can cause serious anxiety.
- Impulsive decision-making- Loneliness manifests in some people as a visible increase in “retail therapy” (overspending), or last-minute tattoos. Lonely people will make impulsive decisions in search of dopamine.
How To Combat Loneliness
Dealing with loneliness can be a journey, but there are sure steps you can take to combat it.
- Plan- The first thing you must do to fight loneliness is make a plan. It’s difficult to motivate ourselves when we are lonely, so it is important to outline specific steps we want ourselves to take in order to make it a little bit easier.
- Seek professional help- If you notice changes in your mental health, it may be time to reach out to a licensed professional for help. Therapy and medication may help to absolve imbalances caused by loneliness.
- Reach out to whoever you can- Reach out to old friends or family members to make plans. If this isn’t an option to you, reach out to people online– there are dedicated forums for people going through similar situations.
- Give yourself time- It takes time to forge connections, so don’t beat yourself up for not making friends right off the bat. Meaningful relationships will come with enough time and effort.
- Be kind- Being nice to others will draw them to you. Be sure to show empathy and smile, but don’t let it evolve into people-pleasing.
- Consider investing in animal companions– Pets are great for emotional support and companionship. Having something to take care of and keep you company has huge mental health benefits. Even no-pet apartments make exceptions for emotional support animals.
- Go where the people are- Going to an art class, joining a club, volunteering, or just being any place where people gather will result in new connections. I once made friends with a drag queen at a dog park– the possibilities are endless!
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