Why do we feel lonely, and how does it affect us?

Affinity Health, a leading provider of high-quality health coverage, explores the reasons behind loneliness and how it affects health and well-being.

“Many of us experience loneliness from time to time. Loneliness is a personal feeling; thus, everyone’s experience will vary,” says Murray Hewlett, CEO of Affinity Health.

“Contrary to some beliefs, loneliness is not synonymous with being alone. It’s about feeling isolated and disconnected, even in a group setting.”

Understanding loneliness

Loneliness is a subjective experience that varies greatly among individuals and is influenced by personal expectations, social skills and life circumstances. Certain life events or experiences may make you feel lonely, including:

  • The loss of a loved one.
  • Going through a breakup.
  • Retirement.
  • Changing jobs.
  • Discrimination and stigma because of gender, race or sexual identity.
  • Becoming a parent.
  • Moving to a new location.
  • Financial struggles.

You may also experience loneliness at particular times of the year, such as on holidays like Christmas, Ramadan and Valentine’s Day.

Psychological impact of loneliness

Chronic loneliness can lead to sadness, anger and fear, and worsen symptoms of depression and anxiety.

Loneliness also affects cognitive functioning and perception. Lonely individuals are more likely to perceive social interactions negatively, expecting rejection or indifference from others. This skewed perception can lead to withdrawal and further isolation, reinforcing the feeling of loneliness.

Research also suggests that loneliness can impair cognitive performance, reducing the ability to concentrate, make decisions and think clearly.

Physiological consequences

Studies have shown that prolonged loneliness can be as harmful as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, highlighting its impact on mortality rates. It’s associated with increased stress levels, higher blood pressure and weakened immune function. These physiological changes not only exacerbate existing health conditions but can also lead to the development of new ones, such as cardiovascular diseases and stroke.

Loneliness can also disrupt sleep patterns, leading to insomnia or poor-quality sleep.

Addressing loneliness

Building solid and meaningful connections is at the heart of addressing loneliness. This can involve fostering deeper relationships with family and friends, engaging in community activities, or seeking professional help through therapy or support groups.

It’s also essential to challenge the stigma surrounding loneliness, recognising it as an ordinary human experience rather than a personal failing. Encouraging open discussions about loneliness and mental health can help individuals feel more comfortable seeking support and sharing their experiences.

Tips to prevent and overcome loneliness

Loneliness can be overcome. While making a change requires a conscious effort, in the long run it can make you happier and healthier and allow you to have a beneficial impact on others around you.

Affinity Health provides 8 tips to prevent and overcome loneliness:

  1. Consider doing community work or engaging in another activity you enjoy. These settings provide excellent opportunities to make new friends and interact socially.
  2. Expect the best. Lonely people frequently expect rejection, so focus on positive ideas and attitudes in your social contacts.
  3. Concentrate on building quality relationships. Seek out people with similar attitudes, interests and values as yourself.
  4. Recognise that loneliness indicates a need for change. Don’t expect things to improve quickly, but you may begin taking action to alleviate your loneliness and develop connections that promote your well-being.
  5. Understand the impact of loneliness in your life. Loneliness has physical and mental consequences. If you notice any of these symptoms influencing your feelings, make a concerted effort to resist them.
  6. Join a group or create your own. For example, consider starting a meetup group where others in your neighbourhood who share similar interests can come together. You could also consider taking a community college course, joining a reading club or enrolling in an exercise class.
  7. Strengthen an existing relationship. Building new connections is vital, but enhancing relationships can help overcome loneliness. Try calling an old acquaintance or family member.
  8. Talk to someone you trust. Communicating with someone in your life about how you are feeling is critical. This can be someone you know, such as a family member, but you could also consult your doctor or a therapist.

Image credit: mindandi/Freepik

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