Loneliness: Causes and Health Consequences

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Loneliness is a universal human emotion that is both complex and unique to each individual. Because it has no single common cause, the prevention and treatment of this potentially damaging state of mind can vary dramatically.

For example, a lonely child who struggles to make friends at school has different needs than a lonely older adult whose spouse has recently died.

This article discusses what we mean by the term "lonely," as well as the various causes, health consequences, symptoms, and potential treatments for loneliness.

How loneliness can affect your health
Verywell / Brianna Gilmartin

Definition of Loneliness

While common definitions of loneliness describe it as a state of solitude or being alone, loneliness is actually a state of mind. Loneliness causes people to feel empty, alone, and unwanted. People who are lonely often crave human contact, but their state of mind makes it more difficult to form connections with other people.

Researchers suggest that loneliness is associated with social isolation, poor social skills, introversion, and depression.

Loneliness, according to many experts, is not necessarily about being alone. Instead, if you feel alone and isolated, then that is how loneliness plays into your state of mind.

For example, a college freshman might feel lonely despite being surrounded by roommates and other peers. A soldier beginning their military career might feel lonely after being deployed to a foreign country, despite being constantly surrounded by other troop members.

Loneliness vs. Solitude

While research clearly shows that loneliness and isolation are bad for both mental and physical health, being alone is not the same as being lonely. In fact, solitude actually has a number of important mental health benefits, including allowing people to better focus and recharge.

  • Loneliness is marked by feelings of isolation despite wanting social connections. It is often perceived as an involuntary separation, rejection, or abandonment by other people.
  • Solitude, on the other hand, is voluntary. People who enjoy spending time by themselves continue to maintain positive social relationships that they can return to when they crave connection. They still spend time with others, but these interactions are balanced with periods of time alone.

Recap

Loneliness is a state of mind linked to wanting human contact but feeling alone. People can be alone and not feel lonely, or they can have contact with people and still experience feelings of isolation.

Causes of Loneliness

Contributing factors to loneliness include situational variables, such as physical isolation, moving to a new location, and divorce. The death of someone significant in a person's life can also lead to feelings of loneliness.

Additionally, it can be a symptom of a psychological disorder such as depression. Depression often causes people to withdrawal socially, which can lead to isolation. Research also suggests that loneliness can be a factor that contributes to symptoms of depression.

Loneliness can also be attributed to internal factors such as low self-esteem. People who lack confidence in themselves often believe that they are unworthy of the attention or regard of other people, which can lead to isolation and chronic loneliness.

Personality factors may also play a role. Introverts, for example, might be less likely to cultivate and seek social connections, which can contribute to feelings of isolation and loneliness.

Health Risks Associated With Loneliness

Loneliness has a wide range of negative effects on both physical and mental health, including:

  • Alcohol and drug misuse
  • Altered brain function
  • Alzheimer's disease progression
  • Antisocial behavior
  • Cardiovascular disease and stroke
  • Decreased memory and learning
  • Depression and suicide
  • Increased stress levels
  • Poor decision-making

If you are having suicidal thoughts, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 for support and assistance from a trained counselor. If you or a loved one are in immediate danger, call 911. 

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

These are not the only areas in which loneliness takes its toll. For example, lonely adults get less exercise than those who are not lonely. Their diet is higher in fat, their sleep is less efficient, and they report more daytime fatigue. Loneliness also disrupts the regulation of cellular processes deep within the body, predisposing lonely people to premature aging.

What Research Suggests About Loneliness

People who feel less lonely are more likely to be married, have higher incomes, and have higher educational status. High levels of loneliness are associated with physical health symptoms, living alone, small social networks, and low-quality social relationships.

Close Friends Help Combat Loneliness

Statistics suggest that loneliness is becoming increasingly prevalent, particularly in younger generations. According to one 2019 survey, 25% of adults between the ages of 18 and 27 reported having no close friends, while 22% reported having no friends at all.

The rise of the internet and ironically, social media, are partially to blame.

Experts believe that it is not the quantity of social interaction that combats loneliness, but the quality.

Having a few close friends is enough to ward off loneliness and reduce the negative health consequences associated with this state of mind. Research suggests that the experience of actual face-to-face contact with friends helps boost people's sense of well-being.

Loneliness Can Be Contagious

One study suggests that loneliness may actually be contagious. Research has found that non-lonely people who spend time with lonely people are more likely to develop feelings of loneliness.

Tips to Prevent and Overcome Loneliness

Loneliness can be overcome. It does require a conscious effort to make a change. In the long run, making a change can make you happier, healthier, and enable you to impact others around you in a positive way.

Here are some ways to prevent loneliness:

  • Consider community service or another activity that you enjoy. These situations present great opportunities to meet people and cultivate new friendships and social interactions.
  • Expect the best. Lonely people often expect rejection, so instead, try focusing on positive thoughts and attitudes in your social relationships.
  • Focus on developing quality relationships. Seek people who share similar attitudes, interests, and values with you.
  • Recognize that loneliness is a sign that something needs to change. Don't expect things to change overnight, but you can start taking steps that will help relieve your feelings of loneliness and build connections that support your well-being.
  • Understand the effects of loneliness on your life. There are physical and mental repercussions to loneliness. If you recognize some of these symptoms affecting how you feel, make a conscious effort to combat them.
  • Join a group or start your own. For example, you might try creating a Meetup group where people from your area with similar interests can get together. You might also consider taking a class at a community college, joining a book club, or taking an exercise class.
  • Strengthen a current relationship. Building new connections is important, but improving your existing relationships can also be a great way to combat loneliness. Try calling a friend or family member you have spoken to in a while.
  • Talk to someone you can trust. Reaching out to someone in your life to talk about what you are feeling is important. This can be someone you know such as a family member, but you might also consider talking to your doctor or a therapist. Online therapy can be a great option because it allows you to contact a therapist whenever it is convenient for you.

Summary

Loneliness can leave people feeling isolated and disconnected from others. It is a complex state of mind that can be caused by life changes, mental health conditions, poor self-esteem, and personality traits. Loneliness can also have serious health consequences including decreased mental wellness and physical problems.

A Word From Verywell

Loneliness can have a serious effect on your health, so it is important to be able to recognize signs that you are feeling lonely. It is also important to remember that being alone isn't the same as being lonely. 

If loneliness is affecting your well-being, there are things that you can do that can help you form new connections and find the social support that you need. Work on forming new connections and spend some time talking to people in your life. If you're still struggling, consider therapy. Whatever you choose to do, just remember that there are people who can help.

Get Advice From The Verywell Mind Podcast

Hosted by Editor-in-Chief and therapist Amy Morin, LCSW, this episode of The Verywell Mind Podcast shares ways to stay strong even if you feel lonely.

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