Written by Haley Adams
What are the physical issues that result from loneliness?
Loneliness is now considered to be a health risk for a number of reasons, including lonely individuals being more likely to display certain health concerns, such as heart attacks, cancer, and Alzheimer’s disease. Recently, colleagues at the University of California at Los Angeles School of Medicine, the University of California at Davis, and the University of Chicago discovered new information regarding loneliness and its effects on the immune system. Ultimately, the researchers found that “social isolations turned up the activity of genes responsible for inflammation and turned down the activity of genes that produce antibodies to fight infection” (Nutt, 2016). As the number of positive social relationships increase for an individual, the physical risks that the individual experiences lower, which results in a healthier lifestyle.
When individuals are socially isolated, their body is on constant alert for threats, which greatly impacts how they respond to others. In fact, being on constant alert could lead those who are lonely to react negatively towards others, thus creating more problems with their ability to create social connections.
The negative effects of loneliness can also be explained from an evolutionary standpoint. Previously, human survival was greatly dependent on social interaction and working together in order to satisfy basic biological needs. Individuals who isolated themselves have a greater risk of succumbing to the elements. The pain that is experienced due to loneliness has been compared to the pain of hunger, meaning that the body is emitting a signal to indicate that something is wrong.
In another study, where the goal was evaluating whether or not loneliness is reflected in the brain structure, the “findings indicate that lonely individuals have deficits at a relatively early stage of processing social cues” (Kanai, p. 1977). Because the connections between brain matter, loneliness and social perceptual abilities are so complex, causation cannot be determined.
What are the psychological effects of loneliness?
One key point to understand is that loneliness is not synonymous with depression. However, the two are related. When someone is unable to find a social setting in which they belong, the feelings and symptoms that are associated with depression may soon follow.
Social media can also impact social interactions in both a positive and a negative way. If the individual is already socially accepted, they simply further their interactions through different social media platforms, such as Facebook and Instagram. On the other hand, those who do not feel as if they belong see social media as a constant reminder that they do not belong.
What does this mean for me?
Being socially isolated can impact an individual both physically and mentally. The physical risks that are associated with loneliness include heart attacks and various cancers. Those who are lonely tend to experience depression and social anxiety, which makes finding a social setting in which they feel as if they belong more difficult. Although the United States does not yet perceive loneliness as a public health issue, other areas of the world, such as the United Kingdom, have begun working to “raise… awareness of loneliness” and its impact on heath.
Kanai, R., Bahrami, B., Duchaine, B., Janik, A., Banissy, M., & Rees, G. (2012). Brain structure links
loneliness to social perception. Current Biology, 22, 1975–1979. doi:10.1016/j.cub.2012.08.045
Nutt, A.E. (2016, February 1). Loneliness Grows from Individual Ache to Public Health Hazard. The
Washington Post. Retrieved February 9, 2016.
Dr. H. Colleen Sinclair
Social Psychologist, Relationships Researcher,
Ms. Chelsea Ellithorpe
Lab Manager of the Social Relations Collaborative and Blog Editor