Amanda Gregory, LCPC
You can feel lonely in the presence of hundreds of friends and family members, and many people do. Loneliness is your perception of a lack of social connection, regardless of your level of social support or participation. People who spend most of their time alone do not necessarily experience loneliness, just as people who spend most of their time with others are not immune to feeling lonely.
The experience of loneliness is more common than once thought. Researchers long assumed that elderly populations were the most susceptible to feelings of loneliness or isolation. However, Dr. Julianne Holt-Lunstad and her colleagues analyzed studies of over 3.4 million people and concluded that loneliness is prevalent among adolescents, young adults, and those age 60-plus. If you are in one of these groups, you have a greater likelihood of experiencing loneliness.
Unfortunately, loneliness tends to be stigmatized. Some people feel more comfortable discussing their struggles with depression, anxiety, or substance abuse than admitting that they’re lonely. This stigma makes it difficult to admit when we experience loneliness and to seek support from others. It’s also common to judge ourselves for feeling lonely and question our self-worth. Former clients who have been troubled by loneliness told me they wrestled with the following thoughts: Why don’t people like me? Why don’t I fit in? There must be something wrong with me. Such self-judgment only makes us feel more alone and makes it more difficult to confess our loneliness to others and seek help.
In addition, pervasive loneliness can be harmful to both your physical and mental health:
Loneliness and Physical Health
A persistent feeling of loneliness is something that should not be ignored due to the possibility of serious health consequences. Many studies have shown that loneliness can have a direct negative impact on your health. Jane E. Brody of The New York Times reported that studies have likened unrelieved loneliness to heightened inflammation in the body due to the resulting increase in stress hormones. Brody noted that chronic inflammation has been connected to heart disease, arthritis, and Type 2 diabetes—all very serious medical conditions.
Loneliness and Mental Health
Depression and loneliness are separate experiences that are usually connected. Researchers John T. Cacioppo and William Patrick observed that depression reflects how you feel generally while loneliness reflects how you feel about your relationships specifically. You can experience loneliness without experiencing depression and vice versa. Yet the two often go together and reinforce each other. For example, persistent loneliness can be a factor that leads to symptoms of depression. Common depressive symptoms—fatigue, lack of pleasure in favorite activities, feelings of worthlessness and helplessness—can lead to social isolation and increased loneliness, which can, in turn, perpetuate depression. Like chronic loneliness, depression can also worsen your physical health.
Although loneliness has many negative consequences, the experience itself can be a positive sign if it motivates us to make much-needed changes. When we’re dehydrated, we might feel thirsty, and when we are in need of food, we might experience hunger pangs or become irritable. These feelings are unpleasant but useful because they remind us of what we need to do to feel better—have a glass of water or a snack. Similarly, when we need more social connection, we feel lonely. Dr. Karyn Hall wrote in Psychology Today that loneliness may protect us from the dangers of isolation by prompting us to change our behaviors in order to reap the benefits of close relationships.
Loneliness is an emotional experience that should be addressed in order to manage or prevent the negative impacts of isolation on physical and emotional health. Do you or your partner experience pervasive loneliness? If so, individual and couples counseling can help. Contact Symmetry Counseling today to schedule an appointment with a skilled counselor.