- Loneliness is a negative state of mind that can be harmful to our mind and body. Prolonged periods of loneliness are as harmful as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.
- Not only does dealing with loneliness increase our risk of suffering a stroke, heart attack, or immune system damage, loneliness can contribute to depression, anxiety, and suicidal thoughts.
- Even though learning how to be alone as we develop independence is an important stage in our personal development, dealing with loneliness in the long-term is far different.
- Re-evaluating how we contribute to our relationships, using social media to find supportive virtual communities, and volunteering are immediate ways to begin dealing with loneliness.
Spending time alone can be a blissful way to recharge our batteries when we feel our social energy levels starting to dip low. We all need some alone time every now and then—but when being alone becomes our daily default mode, the benefits of solitude disappear. And then loneliness sets in.
Loneliness is a state of mind, not just a physical and emotional experience. Someone can be constantly surrounded by people that they know and yet still feel as though the room is devoid of life. Loneliness hurts on so many levels and increases a person’s risk of developing mental health conditions such as depression or anxiety. It may also lead to heart disease, heart attacks, or stroke, which makes dealing with loneliness essential to our long-term health.
Prolonged Loneliness Can Alter Brain Structure
By analyzing the brains of 40,000 U.K. adults between the ages of 40 and 69, researchers discovered that prolonged periods of loneliness actually altered the brain structure of loners. The changes cause profound effects; decision-making and social-based regions of the brain start to function irregularly. Besides affecting the brain and increasing the risk of cardiovascular injury or stroke, loneliness can also contribute to:
- Shortened life expectancy
- Immune system dysfunction
- Suicidal thoughts
What’s more, the health risks associated with being alone long-term are believed to be as damaging (or even worse) than smoking 15 cigarettes a day. Dealing with loneliness isn’t easy, and it makes sense that such a negative emotion is often described as a painful, heavy feeling—highlighting just how connected our minds and bodies truly are.
Being Lonely Isn’t the Same As Learning to Be Alone
Learning to be alone is a crucial stage in any person’s cognitive development and offers a significant challenge—but it’s also how we learn to become independent. However, independence shouldn’t equate to long-term loneliness, and loneliness may only start to set in after a significant life transition has begun. Events that might trigger feelings of loneliness include:
- Graduating from high school or college
- Losing a romantic partner, family member, or friend
- Moving to a new location
- Experiencing a breakup or a partner’s infidelity
- Ending a toxic friendship
- Family conflict
- Legal trouble, including incarceration
Too often, those who become lonely start to internalize their feelings and blame themselves. But becoming lonely is a normal phenomenon—it’s our brain and body’s way of warning us that we need to seek out social support and healthy interactions from other people. Building a strong social network helps protect us emotionally, and physically, and also offers opportunities to enhance our quality of life. When we’re altruistic, physically or emotionally intimate, and can share our experiences and thoughts with others, our brains and bodies are rewarded with endorphins that encourage us to keep socializing and connecting.
5 Key Ways to Start Dealing with Loneliness
Dealing with loneliness can be arduous, particularly considering that our brain starts adapting to being alone. The longer we go without social support, the more difficult it becomes for us to start socializing again. Here are 5 key ways to begin dealing with loneliness include:
- Focusing on other people in your life and evaluating what you bring to the table in each relationship: Perhaps you’re feeling lonely because you’ve been expecting your friends or family to contact you. But when was the last time you picked up the phone and reached out without them prompting you? Maybe you haven’t been there for your loved ones as much as you’ve wanted—your loneliness may have been in the way. Kick start your relationship back up by taking some initiative to contact them.
- Using your social media accounts to connect with people who share similar interests, instead of lurking anonymously: TikTok is the foremost platform for seeking out mental health-related social content, but Instagram, Reddit, and Facebook also offer support groups, profiles, and pages that are dedicated to helping people begin dealing with loneliness.
- Volunteering, especially at an animal shelter: Spending time with animals is proven to help lower our stress levels, and volunteering may even help you feel like you have more time on your hands when you’re done—which means more opportunities to socialize and keep dealing with loneliness.
- Focusing on yourself and your existing relationships: It isn’t uncommon for people to enter a relationship once they become lonely, but this often creates a cycle of toxic, unstable romantic connections that end and leaves the lonely person back where they started. The best way to ensure that you’re ready and healthy enough for a romantic relationship is to ensure that your ordinary connections are thriving, healthy, and helping you live your best life.
- Talking with a therapist; they may be able to offer you a helpful, more rounded perspective on why and when you became lonely: It can be incredibly difficult to process intensely negative feelings and sensations, especially when dealing with loneliness, as it can cause physical pain, too. That’s why connecting with a mental health professional can reduce the amount of time you spend dealing with loneliness. As a helpful guide, a life coach or therapist may be able to offer you support and assistance when you aren’t sure where to turn.
At some point or another, all of us will have to spend some time dealing with loneliness. It hurts to feel socially isolated, but the pain and frustration that come along with loneliness don’t need to last forever. Even if we feel lonely, there are endless ways and opportunities for us to experience validation and genuine connection with other people. And that starts with putting ourselves in the right place and mindset.