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Can Loneliness Affect Your Health?

We know our minds and bodies are connected, but is it possible for an emotion to take a toll on your physical health?

Studies and surveys say yes. Social isolation and loneliness affect hundreds of thousands of Tennesseans, and some experts consider them a greater public health risk than obesity, smoking or alcoholism. The good news: studies have also found that social connection can decrease a person’s risk of early death by up to 50%, so we can all improve our health by learning how to build and sustain relationships.

Here’s what you need to know about loneliness, including how to overcome it:

What causes loneliness?

Humans are inherently social creatures. Throughout history, we’ve banded together for survival, companionship and so on. The lack of those types of bonds creates loneliness.

Loneliness is an unpleasant emotional response to isolation — perceived or physical — and it can be caused by many factors:

  • Losing a meaningful relationship (death, divorce, etc.)
  • Relying on technology to replace face-to-face interactions and socializing
  • Struggling with mental health
  • Acting as a caregiver for a long period of time
  • Experiencing anxiety, depression or grief
  • Living in isolation
  • Having physical limitations or problems with mobility, and
  • Aging, which often goes hand-in-hand with many of the above.

It’s important to remember that you can feel lonely even when you’re surrounded by other people. Human beings seek meaning, so if we connect face-to-face or physically with another person but don’t feel understood, heard or appreciated, we will continue to feel alone.

How does loneliness affect your life and health?

A lack of connectedness has a physical effect on humans, compromising a person’s physical and mental well-being.

Studies associate loneliness with:

  • Accelerated aging
  • Higher medical costs
  • Decreased emotional health
  • Problems paying attention, thinking clearly and regulating emotions
  • Increased risk of physical conditions such as
    • Inflammation
    • Immune problems
    • Stroke
    • Heart disease
    • Obesity
  • Increased risk of mental health issues such as
    • Stress, anxiety, depression or suicide
    • Low self-esteem
    • Dementia
    • Alzheimer’s Disease

How do you combat loneliness?

People consistently rate time spent with friends, family and coworkers are more rewarding than time spent alone. We need to feel that we belong in order to stay healthy.

Here are a few ways to do that:

  1. Make a plan: Notice when you feel lonely. Is it on weekends? At night? During your lunch hour? Once you identify when you feel lonely, schedule an activity to get you through that time.
  2. Join something: Test out a book club, Spanish class or intramural sports league. If you plug into something that already interests you, it’s easier to make friends because you all have common ground.
  3. Try something new: If you’re not ready to commit to something long-term, sign up for one cooking class or take a group tour of a local landmark. You might be surprised by the conversations or friendships that develop.
  4. Volunteer: Studies show that doing good for others makes you feel happier and helps you build social connections.
  5. Exercise: You’ve heard it a million times, but exercise decreases stress and boosts mood and energy levels. Make a plan to exercise with a friend or try these 5 easy ways to work exercise into your day.
  6. Adopt a pet: Animals lower blood pressure, provide companionship and can help make it easier to talk with new people.
  7. Talk to a professional: Extreme feelings of loneliness may be caused by clinical anxiety, depression or other mental health issues. Ask for help when you need it.
  8. Don’t be afraid to do things alone: Many people are afraid to dine out, see a movie or even go shopping alone, but doing all of those things builds independence and creates an instant feeling of empowerment.
Ashley Brantley

Ashley Brantley

Ashley Brantley has been writing about food, culture and health for more than a decade, and has lived in three of Tennessee’s four major cities (Memphis, Nashville and Knoxville).

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WellTuned provides inspiration and practical advice for healthy living.
WellTuned does not offer medical advice. Any personal health questions should be addressed to your doctor.

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