How Does Loneliness Affect Us?

February 6, 2020

With the invention of the internet, smartphones, and social media, it’s reasonable to assume we’re more connected than ever – we’re all just a text or DM away. But according to a survey by Cigna, loneliness in America is actually on the rise.

Since the survey was first conducted in 2018, a 13% rise in loneliness has been reported. And while loneliness affects people of all ages, Gen Z (people 18-22, in 2018) is shown to be the loneliest generation.

So, what does this rise in loneliness actually mean for us?

Loneliness vs. Being Alone

It’s important to acknowledge that being alone isn’t necessarily a negative thing but feeling lonely or isolated can be.

Studies suggest that single people who live alone may actually have stronger social ties than their married counterparts. One survey found that single people who live alone were more likely than non-single people to spend a night out with friends, go to restaurants, and attend art classes.

Furthermore, being around people may not ease feelings of loneliness or isolation. A new parent, for example, may feel cut off from the outside world and experience feelings of isolation.

So, while spending time alone can be a great way to recharge and check in with yourself, prolonged feelings of loneliness or isolation may be harmful.

Loneliness and Mental and Brain Health

Unsurprisingly, loneliness is linked to higher rates of depression and anxiety. Depression and anxiety have both been linked to structural degeneration of the hippocampus and prefrontal cortex. So not only do these conditions affect mood, they can also affect the brain itself.

Chronic loneliness may also impact cognition, like the ability to concentrate, problem solve, and make decisions.

Research suggests that isolation could also change our brain chemistry. One mouse study found that isolation caused a neurochemical imbalance, which may impact the amygdala and hypothalamus, parts of the brain involved in emotion.

While it’s not common for most people to live in actual isolation, these findings could suggest a connection between feelings of isolation and mental and brain health.

Loneliness and Physical Health

Loneliness doesn’t only affect our mental wellbeing, though. It can cause an increase in cortisol, which can “impair cognitive performance, compromise the immune system, and increase your risk for vascular problems, inflammation and heart disease,” according to the Cleveland Clinic.

Studies have found that loneliness may also negatively affect sleep quality, raise cholesterol, and increase the risk of type 2 diabetes.

Hope to Cope with Loneliness

If you’re struggling with loneliness, there are things you can do to help feel more connected.

  • Become aware of your feelings. If you notice that you’re feeling lonely more often than not, are more irritable or aggressive, or are turning to drugs or alcohol more often, it may be time to make some intentional changes.
  • Reach out. It can be easy to feel like friends and family aren’t reaching out because they don’t want you around, but this likely isn’t the case. People frequently get stuck in their routines but would be more than happy to spend some quality time with you. Try reaching out to a few friends for dinner or coffee and see how you feel.
  • Get involved. Try signing up for a class, a gym, or volunteering. Getting out is the first step towards making new connections. And helping others is a great way to improve your mood.
  • Consider a social media break. Social media can be a great way to stay connected, but it can also trigger unhealthy comparisons or jealousy. Try taking a few days or a week off and see if your mood improves.
  • Give therapy a try. Because loneliness is often tied to anxiety or depression, therapy can be a great strategy for coping with multiple issues. They’ll be able to offer coping strategies, objective insight, and helpful tools specific to your concerns.

Although loneliness can feel overwhelming at times, it’s important to take steps towards overcoming it. If you’d like to schedule with one of our in-center or telehealth therapists, give us a call at 800.600.4096.

Cleveland Clinic. (2018, February, 23). “What Happens in Your Body When You’re Lonely?” Retrieved from https://health.clevelandclinic.org/what-happens-in-your-body-when-youre-lonely/
Brueck, Hilary. (2018, July 3). “We’re learning more about how social isolation damages your brain and body — here are the biggest effects.” Retrieved from https://www.businessinsider.com/why-loneliness-bad-brain-body-what-to-do-2018-5
Donovan, Nancy J, et al. “Loneliness, Depression and Cognitive Function in Older U.S. Adults.” International Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry, U.S. National Library of Medicine, May 2017, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/27162047.
Klinednberg, Eric. (2012, February 4). “One’s a Crowd.” Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2012/02/05/opinion/sunday/living-alone-means-being-social.html
Raypole, Crystal. (2019, June 25). “Is Chronic Loneliness Real?” Retrieved from https://www.healthline.com/health/mental-health/chronic-loneliness
Robinson, Sarita. (2019, February 3). “Isolation Has Profound Effects on The Human Body and Brain. Here’s What Happens.” Retrieved from https://www.sciencealert.com/isolation-has-profound-effects-on-the-human-body-and-brain-here-s-what-happens