How to deal with loneliness

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It’s easier than ever to go an entire day without interacting with another human being. We use texts and emails to say “I love you,” we use social media to wish others a “happy birthday,” we do our banking, book our travel and order groceries all with the touch of a finger. But the irony is, the more technologically connected we become, the more we find ourselves wondering how to deal with loneliness.

Our social isolation is further exacerbated by the fact that more Americans are living alone than ever before. Experts chalk it up to Americans marrying later, having fewer children, divorcing at higher rates and living longer. When those factors are combined, it doesn’t seem so abstract that at some point, many find themselves alone – and it’s no surprise that loneliness plagues nearly 60 million Americans.

We don’t often think about the effects of being alone all the time, but maybe it’s time we start. Researchers at Brigham Young University analyzed nearly 35 years of data from 3 million people on how loneliness, social isolation and living alone can impact your lifespan – and they found that feeling happy and connected to others can have massive effects on our health and longevity.

What is loneliness?

Before you can learn how to deal with loneliness, it’s important to make a clear distinction between being alone and feeling lonely. Solitude is good for everyone – it allows you to recharge and have a sense of self – but it’s important you always make a choice to be alone. When you are in a large group of people and you feel lonely, it may be time to ask yourself if you have any signs of loneliness.

Even if you enjoy spending time by yourself, too much of it may not be good for you. While being alone and feeling alone are not the same thing, the effect on longevity is similar. The BYU study found that social isolation and living alone were even more harmful to a person’s health than feelings of loneliness, increasing mortality risk by 29% and 32%, respectively.

Signs of loneliness

Do you even need to learn how to cope with loneliness? How do you know if you’re truly lonely or you’re just feeling a bit down? Be aware of these signs of loneliness.

A lack of connection

One of the clearest signs of loneliness is the inability to make powerful and intimate connections with others. It’s easy to make small talk with anyone, but it’s those emotional and heartfelt conversations that really bring people closer together.

An unshakable feeling of isolation

It’s possible to still feel alone and be surrounded by hundreds of people. Another sign of loneliness is feeling alienation and isolation, even while you’re at work, on the bus or hanging out with friends.

Difficulty being present

People who engage others and are friendly, but still feel burned out and exhausted afterward, are usually lonely. Chronic loneliness can make it extremely difficult to spend time with your loved ones and truly be present.

Antisocial behavior

Even if you have a large social network, loneliness can cause you to suddenly cut people off or not be responsive to invitations to go out. It sounds counterintuitive, but when you feel no one cares about you, you may pull away from them – even if it isn’t true.

Effects of being alone all the time

Loneliness and isolation are complex human emotions that everyone experiences at some point in their lives. Since both vary in intensity, feeling lonely can impact some more than others.

Low levels of loneliness tend to correlate with better marriage rates and higher levels of education and income. Those who experience higher levels of loneliness often suffer from poor social relationships, a limited network and potentially a range of health issues. The effects of being alone all the time can even shorten your lifespan.

Heightened fatigue

Learning how to deal with loneliness can have a profound impact on other parts of your mind and body. Those who are lonely often choose to eat “comfort foods” that are higher in fat and sugar and usually experience a decline in sleep quality and quantity. But when you are happy and fulfilled, you operate at your peak state, with energy and vitality

Premature aging

Loneliness can lead to heightened levels of stress, which alters the natural flow of various cellular processes inside the body and opens you up to premature aging. As with comfort food, loneliness may lead to indulging in alcohol or other substances to the point of dehydration, which also affects cell function that may cause signs of aging, like fine lines and wrinkles, to become more prominent.

Compromised immune system

Research shows loneliness is as deadly as if you smoked 15 cigarettes per day and that people who are lonely are 50% more likely to die at a premature age. An extended period of loneliness compromises your immune system, which can lead to heightened inflammation, heart disease and a host of other serious health conditions.

Shortened lifespan

“The effect of [loneliness] is comparable to obesity, something public health takes very seriously,” says BYU researcher Julianne Holt-Lundstad, lead author of the study. “We need to start taking our social relationships more seriously.” The BYU data found that the subjective feeling of loneliness increases risk of death by 26%.

How to deal with loneliness

The good news is that the study also found that the presence of social relationships provided the opposite, positive effect on health and longevity. But dealing with loneliness is often more complex than expanding your social circle or going out more. These three tips for how to cope with loneliness can help you find a deeper feeling of fulfillment.

1. Examine your limiting beliefs

Our limiting beliefs, or the stories we tell ourselves about who we are and what we deserve, are one of the most common causes of all negative emotions, including feeling lonely. If you don’t truly believe that you deserve human love and connection – two of our deepest human needs – you won’t allow yourself to feel it.

2. Practice self-care

The way you treat your body and mind has a direct effect on your emotions. That’s why loneliness is so closely linked to burnout and stress – and why it’s so important to prioritize your physical and mental health. Feed your mind the right fuel. Exercise every day. Take a time out with meditation or yoga. Self-care is key to dealing with loneliness.

3. Give back

Contribution is another of our Six Human Needs – and that’s why Tony always says, “The secret to living is giving.” Giving your time or skills to those less fortunate will give you a new perspective on your own life. You’ll stop living in a place of scarcity and begin to have an attitude of gratitude. And you just may find a community along the way.

Where does this leave us? The BYU researchers urge people to heed the study as a warning. “This is something that we need to take seriously for our health,” warns Holt-Lunstad. “This should become a public-health issue.”

“In essence, the study is saying the more positive psychology we have in our world, the better we’re able to function not just emotionally but physically,” says Tim Smith, a co-author of the study.

So if you or someone you know finds themselves experiencing the signs of loneliness, make the decision to do something about it. You may find that you not only live better, you live longer.

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