Loneliness: Not just an emotional state, but a physical risk too
This is the third, concluding post in our World Health Day series. The first one was on lack of routine and its impact on physical health and the second one spoke about how developmental trauma could cause psychosomatic symptoms. Today’s post, written by Prerana Dharnidharka, a couples and sex therapist who worked with us from 2018-2020, looks at how loneliness affects your physical health and what you could do about it.
The quality of our relationships determines the quality of our lives – Esther Perel, a famous relationship therapist.
This is not just a philosophical stance. The lack of fulfilling relationships or loneliness, in fact, makes us prone to poor physical heath and a lower quality of life. In honor of world health day, I want to highlight the significant risk loneliness poses to our health and happiness, especially among older adults.
Impact of Loneliness on Physical Health
Loneliness (or the perceived gap between the relationships we want and the relationships we have) is a common and universal human experience.
Feeling persistently lonely however, increases the likelihood of death loneliness and can harm our bodies too.
Loneliness can reduce our lifespan, just like smoking, physical inactivity and obesity do. We have public advisories about the harmful effects of smoking but no one tells us that not having a solid network of friends and family (i.e. social isolation) can harm us by increasing the risk for coronary heart disease, high blood pressure, chronic diseases and a dysregulated immune system. It can also make it difficult to sleep restfully which has a cascading effect on our physical health. So loneliness hurts and it hurts more physically than we imagine.
Why do we feel lonely?
We could experience loneliness for a host of reasons. Life events such as moving to a new place, children moving away or getting divorced can trigger a period of loneliness. Even positive life changes such as getting married or having a baby can make you feel very lonely as you transition into a new life phase and struggle with the inherent challenges. As we age, we may lose family members friends to death or health issues might restrict our ability to be social. Or we could just feel subjectively lonely even if we have a network of friends and family.
Why is loneliness so harmful?
How and why loneliness affects us so negatively is a complex answer involving our genetics, physiological functioning, immune system, sleep and the perception of stress. To simplify however, one way in which loneliness hurts us is by making us feel unsafe and perceive the world as an unfriendly place. When we perceive this lack of safety, we expect more negative experiences with others. When we expect negative interactions with others, we tend to get negative interactions and this becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Disappointed by this negativity, we might withdraw socially and feel more anxious, stressed and pessimistic. This might then contribute to the development of health problems.
Loneliness can also make us poor at self-regulation, i.e. the way we manage our thoughts, feelings and behaviors. We might have a harder time doing things that take effort, coping with negative emotions and engaging in health promoting behaviors like exercise and monitoring alcohol use. All of this would increase our risk for poor physical health.
What can you do?
Evaluate your own level of loneliness:
Reflecting on your own level of loneliness is a good first step. Respond to the 3-item loneliness scale (Hughes, Waite, Hawkley, & Cacioppo, 2004) below. This is not a clinical measure that can tell you if your level of loneliness is unhealthy or not. But it is one way you can quickly assess if loneliness is an area of stress for you.
- How often do you feel that you lack companionship: Hardly ever, some of the time, or often?
- How often do you feel left out: Hardly ever, some of the time, or often?
- How often do you feel isolated from others: Hardly ever, some of the time, or often?
If you responded with “often” to all 3 statements, then loneliness might be a stressor for you.
Reflect on your existing relationships:
Ask yourself, how are my current close relationships going? Do I feel understood and connected? Am I getting what I need? Am I making active efforts to make them fulfilling? Based on this reflection, you can decide if your relationships need more time, effort and communication.
Proactively invest in building and maintaining your relationships:
Next time you’re faced with a choice, to binge watch something on Netflix or go out and do something social, go out. Take initiative, plan more social experiences, reach out without being asked, show up for your friends and family and ask for what you need. It’s worth it.