When it comes to happiness, feeling supported and loved ranks high among our needs. Despite our need to connect, one in five people suffer from loneliness — and it affects more than the widows and wallflowers of the world. It’s not only our happiness that’s at stake; loneliness is also a health threat. “If you isolate any social species, they die earlier. The same thing goes for humans,” says Mladen Golubić, MD, PhD, medical director of the Center for Lifestyle Medicine at Cleveland Clinic. The good news: It’s a health threat that we can conquer. Here, how to spot loneliness, why you should care, and what you can do to fix it.
What is loneliness?
Loneliness is not the same thing as being alone. After all, feelings of isolation can strike when you’re in a roomful of people or among your closest friends. Rather, it’s the painful experience of feeling alone. It occurs when there’s a discrepancy between what we want out of our relationships and what we’re actually getting. Sometimes, this is due to life circumstances, like losing a partner or moving to a new town. Other times, it reflects a person’s interior state. Studies have shown that lonely people often have incorrect assumptions about how other people perceive them. As a result, they have difficulty forming meaningful connections.
How to spot it
What does loneliness look like? Believe it or not, you could have 500 friends on Facebook, a social invitation every night of the week, and still feel disconnected. According to Scott Bea, PsyD, clinical psychologist at Cleveland Clinic, people are usually aware that they’re unhappy with their relationships. You may feel like you have no one who understands; no one you can confide in, trust or take on the challenges of the world with. Even if you have a wonderful spouse or kids, you may still feel like you don’t have enough support, says Bea.
Loneliness and chronic disease
“Having social support is critical for good health,” says Golubic. In fact, according to University of Chicago professor John Cacioppo, PhD, who has spent over 20 years researching the topic, chronic loneliness should be considered a significant risk factor in achieving good health, along with things like smoking, obesity and lack of exercise. Lonely people are at a much higher risk of developing metabolic syndrome — a cluster of health conditions including high blood pressure, abdominal obesity and insulin resistance that increase the risk for heart disease, stroke and type 2 Diabetes, explains Golubic. Research suggests they’re also twice as likely to develop an Alzheimer's-related dementia.
Sleepless, sad and stressed out
Being disconnected can make everything seem harder. “When we feel alone, it activates the autonomic nervous system — the fight-or-flight stress response,” explains Bea. We register social isolation as stress, because, from an evolutionary standpoint, relationships were key to our survival. Lonely people react more negatively to stressful situations, because the nervous system is already fired up. Rather than viewing life’s hassles as a challenge, they see them as a threat. This fearful approach can more easily push a person into panic mode. Like all chronic stress, loneliness increases the risk of insomnia and depression, says Golubic.
Change your perception
People who are chronically lonely tend to have negative beliefs about themselves and about how others view them. This can make socializing feel unsafe and unfulfilling. These kinds of attitudes are tough to change on your own, says Bea. If you recognize this pattern in yourself, he recommends working with a cognitive-behavioral therapist, who can help you identify these so-called “cognitive distortions.” Since your actions are largely based on your beliefs, your fears may become a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you think nobody likes you, you may withdraw and not make friends. As a result, you end up alone. CBT can help correct these self-destructive assumptions and behaviors.
Help others to help yourself
It may sound counterintuitive, but the best thing you can do for yourself when feeling lonely is to do something for someone else, says Bea. “When we do charitable things, the reward centers in our brain get activated longer than when something nice is done for us,” he says. Volunteering creates a social obligation, where you have to show up. It often gives you a specific role that helps guide the social interaction, which can put socially awkward people at ease. “And if it’s a particularly giving action, people are going to be grateful for your help,” says Bea. Plus, research shows that people who provide support to others have a much lower mortality rate than those who receive it, says Golubic. In other words, it really is better to give than to receive.
Take (some) comfort in your pets
There’s a reason why some solitary people adopt a gazillion pets. Research shows that when we lack a sense of connection with others, we’re more likely to see our pets as human. A bond with your pet may even provide some of the health benefits that come from relationships with people. “I don’t think it hurts to be attached to animals at all,” says Bea. “There will be some people who find that satisfactory. But if we really want to beat loneliness, we have to take risks to move beyond that.”
Put yourself out there
No matter the roadblock, take a no-excuses approach to socializing. Depressed? Stressed? Wiped out? All the more reason to carve out time for friends. Leaning on others when you’re not feeling your best helps forge bonds, which can help you feel connected — and reduce stress. “People who are lonely may have a hard time asking for assistance, but you have to be willing to ask for some help,” says Bea. Put together a list of people you can call when you’re lonely or feeling down, and force yourself to use it. It might be frightening, but the payoff will be worth it.