Although loneliness is a universal human emotion, it is also highly individual. Being lonely is far more complex than fleeting feelings of sadness and isolation, which makes treating this troubling state especially tricky. However, given that a new study out of the University of Chicago confirms loneliness can make you sick, scientists are actively trying to unravel the intricacies of this "invisible epidemic."
In the Nov. 23 issue of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, a team of researchers — including University of Chicago psychologist and leading loneliness expert John Cacioppo — published a study showing loneliness actually triggers cellular changes that cause illness. Building on previous research by the same team, the new study offers an in-depth look at how this fight-or-flight stress signaling creates a snowball effect that ultimately alters the production of white blood cells. As we all know, white blood cells are the good guys who fight off infection. However, an inappropriate inflammatory response (aka a non-reciprocated influx of white blood cell activity) can actually do more harm than good if not regulated.
This phenomenon, known as conserved transcriptional response to adversity — or CTRA for short — leaves lonely individuals more vulnerable to infection due to dampened antiviral response, and also more susceptible to chronic disease thanks to the inappropriate inflammation. Some of these potential health consequences include heart disease and stroke, increased stress levels, decreased memory and learning, alcoholism, and altered brain function. Because loneliness disrupts the regulation of cellular processes in the body, says Cacioppo, it also predisposes those suffering from it to premature aging.
Of course, it's important to point out there is a distinction between being lonely and simply being alone. Loneliness isn't merely the state of being alone. Rather, it is the perception of being alone. In other words, when you feel completely disconnected from everyone, even if you are surrounding by friends and family — or, you know, have 5,000 Facebook connections. Loneliness is a state of mind. So if you like to spend time alone, CTRA probably isn't at work in your body when you're practicing your solo zen. Still, since nearly all of us will experiences periods of loneliness in our lives (after all, loneliness may be contagious), here are a few tips for actively guarding against it and overcoming it.
1. Take The Initiative
Sometimes, saying hello can be daunting. Especially for people who are lonely, reaching out of the sphere of isolation to make contact with another human being might seem pointless. But while withdrawing into yourself is tempting, the healthiest thing you can do when you are sad or feeling alone is to cultivate connections with other people.
2. Find A Commonality — Or Create One
Judging from a recent Reddit thread picking the brains of therapists, even our deepest feelings are likely shared by others. It makes sense, right? We're all in this together, just trying not to lose our grip as this great big world keeps spinning faster. So the very act of reaching out may lead you to a connection or commonality that will make you feel less alone. Or, you could create a shared experience. Take a vested interest in what someone else is doing, and enjoy doing it with them.
3. Shift Your Focus To Someone Else
There's a reason they say it is better to give than to receive — few things in life feel more rewarding than doing something good for someone else. If you find yourself dwelling on how alone you are and how hopeless you feel, turn your attention to the needs and feelings of someone else. Even small gestures such as smiling at people passing you on the street or wrapping someone in a bear hug can make you feel a sense of solidarity with others.
4. Find A Hobby
It's easy to fall into the wormhole of despair when you have nothing else to do. It kind of falls under that whole "idle hands are the devil's tools" idiom — a full agenda can keep you out of trouble in more ways than one. So take the leap if you've been toying with taking Zumba classes or learning another language. After all, studies show that people are happy when they are busy.
5. Don't Bail
Trust me; I've done this a time or ten. When other people invite you to a party or beg you to join them for drinks after work, go. When your cousin insists you keep your standing Sunday brunch date, make an effort to show up. You might be surprised by how much you enjoy it, and you might make connections in the process who'll understand what you're going through.
6. Buy a Journal (And Write In It)
I may be partial, but I'm a firm believer that writing is a powerful tool of catharsis. When I was younger and lacked the faculties to eloquently express my feelings, I constantly scribbled my emotions into my diary. Today, writing still serves as an outlet for me. Give it a try! The great thing about chronicling your thoughts is that it helps you prioritize what's important and pinpoint the different emotions you are feeling — including loneliness.