What Does Loneliness Do to Your Body?
We are a social species. Our hardware has been fine tuned over millions of years to prefer to be with others in our species. The group has benefits, resources, protection, mating opportunities, and so on. So when a human being is disconnected from its tribe, the hardware begins to break down. Loneliness raises stress hormones and inflammation which then leads to an increased probability of developing type 2 diabetes, heart disease, dementia, arthritis and suicide attempts. Being disconnected from others can lead to disrupted sleep patterns, compromised immune functioning, and accelerated cognitive decline. The nervous system can become overrun by anxiety and depressive symptoms all at once. Things are not good for those who are alone.
What Does One Do About It?
Being lonely means that you don’t have anyone who will listen to you – not in a meaningful way, that is. This of course is a part of the problem with being disconnected. You can post stuff on social media, or take an art class with other people. But unless you are engaged in a meaningful conversation with someone who you get an honest sense that they are really listening to you, and they really care about what you’re saying, the class or the post probably won’t help that much. Now that isn’t to say that it can’t help. But you need authentic, quality, face to face interactions with people who you feel care about you. And so you need an actionable plan to actively combat your feelings of loneliness. And you might say to yourself, “It isn’t worth it. I don’t want to. It’s too much work. People don’t like me anyways. No one would want to hear what I have to say.” These are the very thoughts that poison your plan from being actualized. Remember what loneliness is costing you – see the opening paragraph.
Begin to Make a Plan to Actively Combat Loneliness
First there’s you. So let’s start there. What can you do by yourself, that gives you meaning? Or, at least what healthy options are there to distract you from acute loneliness? What can you create, build, fix, learn about? How can you get your body moving? Move the body in a way that is new. Remember, you’ve got to begin with “baby steps”. Try something new. Go somewhere new. Eat something new. Go somewhere where you can be alone with other people. Go to the library, a museum, a meet-up group, a community event. These are not the end all be all solutions, but you need a place to start.
Build on Your Plan and Pay Attention to How the Sensations of Loneliness are Changing
Try making a meaningful contribution to the community in which you live. Give back by volunteering. You could serve meals at a homeless shelter, walk dogs at an animal shelter, visit the elders in your community at a nursing home. Connecting with others in your community by giving back can be a very powerful antidote to temporarily stave off loneliness. Not of these suggestions will work if you are constantly lost in your own negative thoughts while you are out trying these steps in your plan. When you put yourself into these new experiences, it is important to be fully present with others and yourself.
You May Want to Consider How Therapy Can Directly Help Combat the Loneliness
A well trained therapist can help you develop a plan that you will actually follow through on. They can help you identify the behaviors that you are currently doing that are contributing to the loneliness. They can help you to understand why you are continuing to engage in those behaviors. And, they can help you develop a philosophy of life based on your values – that is, what matters most to you – and get you to clearly see when it is that you are acting in line with those values and when you are betraying those values. And perhaps most important of all, if your therapist is a good fit for you, you will feel heard, understood and connected in a meaningful way with a professional who really does care about you. If you have had thoughts of self-injury or suicide SAMSHA’s bi-lingual National Hotline is open 24/7/365 1-800-662-HELP (4357)
Robin S. Smith, MS, LCMFT is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in clinical practice in Bethesda MD. As an MFT, he specializes in relationship issues for couples, families, and individuals, for improved quality of life. His areas of expertise include: transition to parenthood for new and expecting parents, infidelity, sex and intimacy issues, premarital counseling, and trauma. Robin has given talks to various groups including hospital administrators, graduate students, fellow psychotherapists, and child birth educators. He is the primary contributor to The Couple and Family Clinic Blog.