Virtually everyone experiences loneliness from time to time, with many people becoming especially aware of feelings of loneliness around the holiday season, Valentine’s Day, and during times of extreme stress. While the sheer number of people who experience loneliness is quite large (a poll on this site shows that holiday loneliness is experienced by a surprising proportion of readers, for example), people don’t always talk about feelings of loneliness, and don’t always know what to do with these feelings. Other than being emotionally painful, loneliness can affect people in many ways:
- Physical Pain: Research shows that the areas of the brain that deal with social exclusion are the same areas that process physical pain, adding a scientific explanation to the oft-romanticized experience of a "broken heart."
- Depression: One study found that lonely people showed more depressive symptoms, and that lonely and depressed people alike tended to experience less "togetherness" in social interactions. Research has also found that depression and loneliness can feed off of each other, each perpetuating the other.
- Physical Health: Several studies have linked emotional stress with depressed immunity. Other research links loneliness and depression with poorer health and wellbeing. That means that people who are experiencing loneliness are susceptible to a variety of health issues.
If you’re experiencing loneliness, there are some things you can do about it.
Join a ClassWhether it’s an art class, an exercise class, or a class at your local community college, joining a class automatically exposes you to a group of people who share at least one of your interests. It can also provide a sense of belonging that comes with being part of a group. This can stimulate creativity, give you something to look forward to during the day, and help stave off loneliness. (See this article for more on the benefits of exercise and taking classes.)
VolunteerBecoming a volunteer for a cause you believe in can provide the same benefits as taking a class — meeting others, being part of a group, creating new experiences — and also brings the benefits of altruism, and can help you find more meaning in your life, both of which can bring greater happiness and life satisfaction, as well as decreasing loneliness. Additionally, working with others who have less can help you feel a deeper sense of gratitude for what you have in your own life.
Find Support OnlineBecause loneliness is a somewhat widespread issue, there are many people online who are looking for people to connect with. You do have to be careful of who you meet over the internet (and, obviously, don’t give out any personal information like your bank account number), but you can find real support, connection and lasting friendships from people you meet online. (One place to start is the Stress Management Forum on this site!)
Strengthen Existing RelationshipsYou probably already have people in your life that you could get to know better, or connections with family that could be deepened. If so, why not call friends more often, go out with them more, and find other ways to enjoy your existing relationships and strengthen bonds? (See this article on creating supportive friendships for more ideas.)
Get A PetPets — especially dogs and cats — carry so many benefits, and preventing loneliness is one of them. Rescuing a pet combines the benefits of altruism and companionship, and leaves you with several loneliness-fighters. It can connect you with other people — walking a dog opens you up to a community of other dog-walkers, and a cute dog on a leash tends to be a people magnet. Additionally, pets provide unconditional love, which can be a great salve for loneliness. (See this article for more on the benefits of pets.)
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy And Other Types of TherapyResearch has shown that loneliness and depressive symptomatology can act in a synergistic effect to diminish well-being, meaning the more lonely you are, the more depressed you feel, and vice versa. It’s also been found that people experiencing loneliness tend to feel more lonely than others when with other people, meaning that even when they are with other people, lonely people tend to keep their loneliness to a degree. Because of this, sometimes just "getting out there" and meeting other people isn’t enough. If this is the case for you, it may be a good idea to seek psychotherapy to help with feelings of loneliness, especially if you also feel depressed. Some forms of therapy, especially cognitive behavioral therapy, can help you to change your thoughts as well as your actions to help you not only experience less loneliness, but do more in your life to prevent loneliness. (See this article for more on cognitive therapy.)
Whatever you do to combat loneliness, know that you are truly not alone, and there are many things you can do to feel more connected.
Cacioppo JT, Hughes ME, Waite LJ, Hawkley LC, Thisted RA. Loneliness as a Specific Risk Factor for Depressive Symptoms: Cross-Sectional and Longitudinal Analyses. Psychology and Aging, March 2006.
Panksepp J. Neuroscience. Feeling the Pain of Social Loss. Science, October 2003.
Tiikkainen P, Heikkinen RL. Associations Between Loneliness, Depressive Symptoms and Perceived Togetherness in Older People.
Swami V, Chamorro-Premuzic T, Sinniah D, Maniam T, Kannan K, Stanistreet D, Furnham A. General health mediates the relationship between loneliness, life satisfaction and depression. A study with Malaysian medical students. Social Psychiatry Epidemiology, February 2007.