In This Article
We think Valentine's Day can be isolating, regardless of your relationship status. With that in mind, this February we'd like to focus on feelings of loneliness and everything that comes along with them. We're doing a deep-dive into our own experiences with being alone—whether it's finding peace, feeling alienated, or reckoning with all those emotions at once.
Traditionally, loneliness has been considered a purely emotional experience without much depth or subjective meaning. (i.e. you are lonely if you are alone—and you are not lonely if you push away those very valid feelings of isolation). But loneliness encompasses so many different situations and feelings, there is always grey area and it's really difficult to pin everything down neatly and with a succinct explanation.
Similarly, there are other, physical effects of loneliness that can manifest as well. “There can be long term physical impacts to loneliness like health risks due to isolation,” marriage and family therapist Holly Anderson, LCMFT, LMFT, CDWF, explains. Isolation, she says, usually occurs as a result of chronic loneliness; people who are lonely are less inclined to make efforts to be social, which prolongs the cycle. Venka de Rooij, a clinical hypnotherapist with the London College of Hypnosis, agrees: “People who suffer from loneliness report more chronic diseases, hypercholesterolemia, diabetes, distress and depression, poor self-rated health, and more visits to medical doctors than people who do not feel lonely.”
Think of loneliness as you think of stress or depression. Both have physical effects on the body, which are direct results of emotional symptoms. Both mental health and physical health issues like should be treated with equal importance—as often one bleeds into the other. Below, Anderson and de Rooij explain the various physical effects of loneliness and how you (and your doctor) can work to alleviate them.
The Physical Effects of Loneliness
According to de Rooij, the effects can range from short-term ailments like general malaise to more chronic issues. “Loneliness is associated with smoking, physical inactivity, and an unhealthy diet. [It] is considered to be a contributing, maintaining and poor prognostic factor in the development of alcohol abuse and a risk factor for all stages of alcoholism.”
Similarly, Dr. Fran Walfish, Psy. D, tells Byrdie, “Loneliness and isolation can cause a person to ruminate (think negative thoughts repeatedly and obsessively). The rumination often raises anxiety and can cause physical symptoms including heart palpitations, sweating, chest pressure or even chest pains.”
Can They be Long-Lasting?
In more serious cases, yes. This is often seen in the elderly population in those who suffer from feelings of isolation and abandonment. “Research has linked social isolation and loneliness to higher risks for a variety of physical and mental conditions, [like] high blood pressure, heart disease, obesity, a weakened immune system, anxiety, depression, cognitive decline, and Alzheimer's disease," de Rooij tells says.
According to Dr. Anderson, these chance of these issues may increase depending on other health conditions a person is experiencing. “There can be long lasting depending on the health of those experiencing loneliness. This is especially true when a chronic illness and some studies show links to increased risks to cardiovascular health."
How Can They be Alleviated?
“People need to connect with other people, this can be done via hobbies, volunteering, or work, anything that brings interaction with other people,” de Rooij says. If you’re worried about someone else’s condition related to loneliness, reaching out to them and encouraging them to take a walk, get coffee, or go out for a meal with you can be a massive help in getting them away from feelings of isolation.
Similarly, Dr. Walfish comments, “the antidote to loneliness is activity. Loneliness is kicked in the butt when the person takes action doing anything. Whether it’s washing dishes, organizing papers and doing housework, making a phone call to a friend, [or] meeting someone for dinner.”
The good news is that if the loneliness is properly treated, the physical symptoms— and risk of them—can go away. Humans are hard-wired to seek out connection, and addressing that need will ensure you remain healthy and happy, both emotionally and physically.