What It’s Not
Loneliness isn't simply about being alone -- some people are happy on their own. And it's not how many people you know or how often you see them, or a bad day when you don't feel connected. What matters is to have strong connections. Those who do tend to be happier, healthier, and more productive. Those who don't may feel isolated, misunderstood, and depressed: lonely. It can take a physical toll, too. But you can take steps to overcome that.
If you're lonely for a long time, it may to make it harder for your body to fight sickness. Part of the reason for this may be that loneliness triggers some of the hormones your body makes when you're under stress. And that can dim how well your immune system works, too. Many other things also affect how well your body defends itself. Your doctor can help you pinpoint what changes might help.
If you're lonely -- especially if it lasts for 4 years or longer -- your blood pressure is more likely to go up. Scientists who study this effect can't prove that loneliness is to blame. But they found that the rise isn't caused by other things like age, gender, diet, or family background.
An active lifestyle helps keep you well in body and mind. If you're lonely, you're more likely to cut back on or stop your workouts. Don't do that! Stay in the game. Walk with a friend, go to the gym, play a game of neighborhood kickball -- being active with pals is a way to start or grow relationships that make you feel better. Aim for at least 2.5 hours of activity per week. If you have health problems, check with your doctor first.
Your ability to solve problems or remember things as you age is likely to be affected if you feel lonely. And you may have a greater chance of a brain disease like Alzheimer's. Keep in mind that a lot of things affect those risks, and research doesn't prove that loneliness causes these conditions. But at any age, finding ways to connect with others is wise.
You're more likely to light up when you're lonely. But this habit is bad for you from head to toe. Smoking is linked to diabetes, heart disease, and lung illnesses, and it affects nearly every organ in your body. Some people reach for a cigarette when they're stressed. If that's you, talk with your doctor about how to quit and find other ways to manage stress. Even if it takes more than one try to kick the habit, it’s worth it. Keep at it!
Poor Heart Health
The more lonely you've been over your life, the more likely you are to have conditions that affect your heart health: obesity, high blood pressure, and bad cholesterol levels, for example. And women who are lonely may be more likely to get coronary heart disease. Why? There could be many reasons -- like if you smoke, get depressed, or don't work out when you're lonely.
It affects your body as well as your mind. If you're lonely, you may start to feel bad about your life and get depressed. And depression can be isolating, so you start to feel even worse. If you have symptoms that are severe or last more than two weeks -- including feeling down or hopeless, less interest in things you usually enjoy, low energy, sleep problems, or appetite changes -- get help. Tell your doctor or call a counselor.
You're more likely to add pounds when you're lonely. Why? You might eat more than usual or unhealthy foods to soothe yourself, or you might stop your workouts. This can make you feel worse about yourself and may also make you more likely to get conditions such as diabetes, high blood pressure, and heart disease. So if your weight is going up, it's a good idea to look at your emotions, as well as your diet and exercise.
You might toss and turn more, or have a tough time falling asleep if you're lonely. That can make it harder to focus during the day and put you in a bad mood. It may be bad for your health, too. Over time, poor sleep can make diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, depression, and obesity more likely.
Drinking and Drugs
You may be more likely abuse drugs, including alcohol, if you're lonely. It may give you a false sense of feeling better, but it doesn't last and will backfire. Over time, it can seriously damage your body, family, work life, and relationships.
What About 'Me' Time?
Everyone is different. You may need more time on your own to recharge, compared with someone who's more of an extrovert. That can be healthy and normal. It's only a problem if you feel too disconnected from other people. This can happen if you stay on your own too much. But it can also happen if you simply don't feel understood or cared for -- even if there are lots of people around.
Look for ways to connect. Interested in chess, hiking, tennis, bridge, or books? Join a club and get to know others with the same interests. Make plans with friends and family. Talk to them about how you feel. If you find it really hard to connect with people -- even those you know well -- it may help to talk with a therapist. Take care of yourself, too: Regular exercise, good sleep, and eating for wellness can boost your mood.
When You Need Help
Almost everyone feels a little lonely now and then. But if you try to reconnect and still feel isolated after several weeks, or if you're so lonely, depressed, or anxious that it gets in the way of your work or home life, tell your doctor. You can get help -- things like therapy, lifestyle changes, and medicine for certain conditions -- to get back on your feet.