It’s quite safe to say that all of us have experienced some measure of loneliness over the course of our lives, but there’s a noted difference between a temporary feeling of being lonely, and the despair of chronic loneliness.
Although the internet has allowed people from around the world to be more connected than ever before, it’s a very different kind of connection from interacting with other human beings face to face. You can chat with someone online for hours, but it’s small substitute for a hug, isn’t it?
In addition to feeling sad and depressed because we have no one to talk to, loneliness can manifest physically in all kinds of awful conditions ranging from depression to cancer, of all things. Strange to think, but isolation can wreak havoc on our bodies, minds, and souls on many different levels.
How Loneliness Affects Your Health
People weren’t meant to exist in isolation and solitude – we need regular social interaction to thrive, and the lack of it can cause depression and anxiety, along with all the side-effects of both of those conditions. Studies have shown that people who experience extended periods of loneliness have weakened immune systems and poor sleep, due to both insomnia and hypervigilance. (1)
With the latter, it’s a situation of people not feeling safe when they’re all by themselves, so the tiniest sound anywhere in their home is enough to jolt them awake. They only have themselves to depend on for protection, and that vulnerability interferes with their ability to get a decent night’s rest. Over time, lack of sleep can result in obesity, autoimmune disorders, and hypertension… which can lead to heart attacks and strokes.
Yes, indeed; it would appear that being lonely and spending too much time alone can lead to having a goddamned heart attack.
Some studies claim that loneliness can make a person more susceptible to dementia and schizophrenia, and that depression caused by extreme loneliness can cause people to become suicidal. (2) There are still a number of studies to be done to support these ideas, but at the very least, the suicide factor is one that seems to have been proven several times over. Not all lonely people are suicidal, of course, but just about every person who deals with suicidal ideation is lonely.
In addition to having higher rates of self-harm, lonely and isolated people seem to be at a higher risk of developing cancer, and of suffering from severe viral illnesses (3). It would appear that people who spend a lot of time alone have immune systems that are less attuned to fighting off bacterial infections, so when they come in contact with a virus, they’re hit hard.
If you’ve been spending a lot of time alone, this is the point at which it would be a good idea to scurry over to the closest café for some much-needed social interaction so you can fend off this year’s flu bug.
Loneliness Even in a Group (Why You Need to Find Your Tribe)
Here’s the thing: it’s possible to be devastatingly lonely even when surrounded by other people. You can be in a relationship with someone, or live in a house with a dozen family members, and still be lonely to the point of gut-wrenching despair. The key to banishing loneliness is to spend time with people you connect with; people who share your interests, your passions, your quirks.
If you’re absolutely passionate about Medieval art and architecture, but everyone in your social circle is fixated on either football or celebrity gossip, you’re going to end up desperately lonely because you don’t have anyone to talk to. Sure, you can talk at people, boring them to tears with descriptions of flying buttresses and the subtle nuances of manuscript illumination, but they’re just going to zone out and not reciprocate with any measure of enthusiasm. Similarly, they can talk at you about sports or film stars or whatever, but you know you’ll just nod and smile politely because you couldn’t care less about anything they’re talking about.
That isn’t real conversation or connection; it’s just people barking sounds at one another for a few minutes. You need to find people who fuel your soul; those with whom you can talk for hours and leave energized instead of depleted.
In addition to the very positive effect that real, authentic socializing has on our mental and emotional wellbeing, there’s also the fact that regular social interaction can keep you safe, physically.
We’ve all heard stories about a lonely elderly person who died at home and no one noticed they were gone until a neighbor caught whiff of an unpleasant smell coming from their apartment. We’ve undoubtedly thought that such a thing was quite awful, but maybe didn’t truly empathize with the person who’d died, and how unbelievably lonely they must have been.
It’s not just elders who can suffer this kind of fate; anyone of any age can kick off without warning due to illness or injury, and it would be terrible to end up in the news because you’ve been eaten by your housecats after falling down the stairs and breaking your neck.
There are few things sadder to think about than someone getting hurt or dying and not having anyone in their life to notice that anything might be wrong, or even be inclined to go and check on them if they’ve gone quiet for a couple of days. People need to look out for one another, even if it’s just to check in regularly with a phone call or email.
If you’ve been solitary for a while, you might find the idea of getting out there and meeting new people to be quite daunting. You may worry that you’re too old, or weird, or socially awkward to meet new friends, but you know what? That’s so not true.
There are undoubtedly people in your area who share at least a couple of your interests and hobbies, whether you’re into fantasy novels, metal detecting, knitting, or collecting vintage vinyl. Look around for local meetup groups, scour social media for communities, and dive in! People are a lot more accepting and welcoming than we generally give them credit for, and 99 times out of 100, if you give them the chance to be awesome, they’ll be awesome.
What have you got to lose other than your loneliness?
Catherine Winter is a writer, art director, and herbalist-in-training based in Quebec's Outaouais. She has been known to subsist on coffee and soup for days at a time, and when she isn't writing or tending her garden, she can be found wrestling with various knitting projects and befriending local wildlife.