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Loneliness hurts. 3 techniques to stop it

September 12, 2016 (Updated: January 28, 2019)
Lily Moran

Remember that great old song about people who need people? It’s true that they’re “the luckiest people in the world.” And guess who those people are? They’re every one of us. We need each other. Our friends and family—even total strangers who give us a smile. And research shows that they’re actually essential for your health. And here’s how to take advantage of the gift they represent.

The dark blue blues of social isolation

Believe it or not, research shows that social engagement is so important that the lack of it—loneliness—is actually considered a potentially deadly disease.

It’s true. Recent research tells us that chronic loneliness is as deadly a health risk as smoking and obesity.

I’m not talking about a passing pang of aloneness, or missing someone near and dear. We all get that bluesy feeling sometimes. But I’m also not talking about the challenges of clinically diagnosed depression.

Chronic loneliness is a sad fog of aloneness that won’t lift. And the longer it stays, the worse it gets, just like so many other dangerous diseases.

The loneliness epidemic

When nearly half of US adults describe themselves as “lonely,” there’s clearly something wrong:

  • The percentage who self-describe as lonely has doubled since the 1980s—from 20 percent to 40 percent
  • Around one-third of Americans older than 65 now live alone
  • Around half of those over 85 live alone

We’re looking at a health crisis in the making.

Going solo is hazardous to your health

Recent research gives us convincing evidence that social separation is bad for us. Individuals with the fewest social connections tend to have:

  • Disrupted sleep
  • Weakened immune system
  • Increased inflammation
  • Higher levels of stress hormones
  • 29 percent higher risk of heart disease
  • 32 percent higher risk of stroke

Loneliness increases your vascular resistance—leading to high blood pressure and elevated risk of heart disease and stroke.

It also increases the amount of cortisol in your blood. That’s the stress hormone linked to a weakened immune system, poor metabolism and elevated blood sugar.

Loneliness, a bit counter-intuitively, also increases alertness, making it harder to sleep. Why? Back when we hunted and gathered, this made sense—a solitary human is easy prey. Today, it just makes for sleepless nights.

Additionally, loneliness can accelerate cognitive decline in older adults.

And, unsurprisingly, loneliness increases our susceptibility to stress, anxiety, and depression.

Taken together, loneliness leads to a 26 percent increase in premature death—about the same increase as we see from obesity.

Curiously, and sadly, we find chronic loneliness not just in older adults. Socially isolated individuals have a 30 percent higher risk of dying in the next 7 years—with the effect most pronounced among those of middle age.

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Other studies have found that social isolation hurts even kids. Twenty years and more after childhood, children who were socially isolated have significantly poorer health. Conversely, friends, family, even total strangers can serve as protection against poor health and a prescription to thrive.

Four giant steps out of loneliness

Here are four great ways to not only meet new people, but to connect with people you’re likely to feel comfortable with. Connection that may very well become a friendship.

  1. Get active in a religious group, or find a group engaged in an activity or hobby you think you’d enjoy. Not sure where to start? Use your zip code and do a search online for an interest or activity that piques your interest. You’ll feel better being involved in a larger community. And you’ll meet many people who share important worldviews.
  2. Take up a hobby that gets you out of the house and into a group of like-minded people. Line dancing, bridge, book clubs, wine tastings. Anything that excites your imagination, go out and try it. You’ll find plenty of others with brains that light up the same way yours does.
  3. Take classes at a local community college or other school. Keeping your mind active is important all by itself. Doing so while also meeting new people is even better. Whatever you find interesting—from art history to astrophysics—explore it, and enjoy the company of others who share your passion.
  4. Volunteer for a cause you believe in. People who volunteer their time to a cause that’s close to their heart say that it changed their lives. And, if it helps you meet other kind souls you get along with, volunteering won’t just change your life. It may also prolong it.

There’s no such thing as too many friends or even acquaintances.

Change your mindset, change your life

Here’s another way out of loneliness. It sounds a bit touchy-feely—and it is.

It’s about mindset.

Chronic loneliness is almost always linked to the way you feel about the world. If your mind and heart tell you the world is mean and dangerous, then you lose interest in connecting to the world.

A negative mindset almost always shows itself in negative self-talk—telling yourself you’re not good enough or you don’t deserve better, or focusing on all the ways you’ve messed up.

Negative thoughts, all by themselves, can lead to feelings of isolation. Recognizing those thoughts as they arise and working to change them can have a profound and positive impact.

Practice gratitude

A well-studied and effective way of combating negative thoughts is to count your blessings. Literally.

Take time each day to concentrate on what’s good in your life, and give thanks for it. Fresh fruit in the fridge? Picture and thank the farmer who grew it, and the people who harvested and shipped it to you. A roof over your head, the mail carrier who always has a big smile for you? Be thankful.

A technique that works wonders for many lonely people is to create a gratitude journal. The act of writing out your gratitude helps you remember it better and gives you a record to look back on when you need to.

Each day when you wake up or each evening before you go to bed, write down three things you’re grateful for. They don’t have to be huge, monumental experiences. They can be little niceties. “I’m thankful it didn’t rain today…I’m grateful that the shower water was nice and hot…I appreciate the letter I received from a loved one.”

Every acknowledgement of gratitude helps pave the way to a more positive outlook.

You’ll start to notice all the ways you are connected to, and helped by, others. Over time, your feelings of isolation and loneliness will begin to shrink away.

You don’t need to be lonely to benefit from these practices. Indeed, they all make for richer, longer, and happier lives.

References

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