This Is The Surprising Way Loneliness Can Impact Your Health — And What To Do About It

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Spending time alone is necessary — I'm extremely extroverted, but at the end of a busy day, I often tell my husband to leave me alone and unwind by myself. But if you feel like you're constantly alone even though you want to be around people, that's a different story. According to Psychology Today, chronic loneliness can impact your health in distressing ways — can make it harder to sleep, increase your blood pressure and make social interactions difficult, and a new study from King's College London, Duke University and the University of California found that lonely young adults are at a higher risk for mental health problems and negative coping mechanisms. Millennial loneliness doesn't just create FOMO — it can actually severely impact your health.

The researchers analyzed the Environmental Risk Longitudinal Twin Study, an existing dataset of more than 2,200 young adults born in the 1990s. Their findings, published in journal Psychological Medicine, are pretty straightforward. From the study's conclusion:

Lonelier young adults were more likely to experience mental health problems, to engage in physical health risk behaviours [sic], and to use more negative strategies to cope with stress. They were less confident in their employment prospects and were more likely to be out of work. Lonelier young adults were, as children, more likely to have had mental health difficulties and to have experienced bullying and social isolation.

According to the full study, participants answered these four questions:

  1. How often do you feel that you lack companionship?
  2. How often do you feel left out?
  3. How often do you feel isolated from others?
  4. How often do you feel alone?

Based on their answers about how frequently they felt alone, researchers were able to determine a loneliness score. Between 23 and 31 percent of participants reported experiencing the feelings ‘some of the time’ and 5 to 7 percent said they often felt lonely. Those participants were more likely to have experienced anxiety, depression, alcohol or cannabis dependence, and self-harm. They were also more likely to be unemployed or underemployed, and have unhealthy ways of dealing with stress.

They also found childhood predictors of loneliness, or things to look for in a child that could indicate they'll have a hard time making friends as an adult. Being more neurotic, having mental health issues, being bullied and experiencing social isolation as a kid all put someone at a higher risk. The researchers didn't find any associations between gender or socioeconomic status and loneliness — millennials from all backgrounds were susceptible.

Granted, there's no guarantee that you'll be lonely as an adult, even with these childhood predictors. I was painfully shy as an adolescent and experienced many of the risk factors mentioned, but I eventually became self-confident and outgoing. Interestingly, the study found that loneliness isn't just associated with spending time alone, and making friends is a simplistic solution. If you're trying to get rid of loneliness, simply going to a mixer or party won't solve the root of the issue. From the conclusion:

However, simply increasing individuals' amount of social contact with others is unlikely to be sufficient, as loneliness can be experienced even in the company of others. A meta-analysis of interventions to reduce loneliness indicates that the most successful strategies involve addressing destructive patterns of social cognition in a counselling [sic] or psychotherapeutic setting.

One of the saddest findings, in my opinion, is that loneliness causes people to undervalue themselves and feel less optimistic about their work prospects as a result, which means they may not aim for competitive jobs. Loneliness has lifelong effects — physical, emotional, and financial — and seeking help is the best way to get ahead of it, especially when you're still young enough to stop it from completely changing the way you view things.