Loneliness can hit at almost any time. When Amity Brown separated from her husband of 11 years, for instance, she felt -- understandably -- isolated and sad. "The hardest thing is not having someone with that deep emotional knowledge of me to catch me when I fall," says the 41-year-old photographer based in Oakland, Calif.
It's almost inevitable that losing a spouse or moving to a new town can make you feel lonely; but loneliness can strike even without major life changes. You can be alone without being lonely, or you can feel lonely in a crowd. True loneliness is simply a feeling of being disconnected from others; 5% to 7% of middle-aged and older adults report feeling intense or persistent loneliness.
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"Loneliness is what you say it is. You can't tell somebody you shouldn't be lonely," says Louise Hawkley, PhD, senior research scientist with the Center for Cognitive and Social Neuroscience at the University of Chicago.
Loneliness and Illness
Loneliness is not only emotionally painful; it can harm your health. It's a risk factor for a host of problems: high blood pressure; sleep problems; decreased ability to deal with the stress of daily life; and the body's reduced ability to handle inflammation, leading to conditions such as atherosclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis, and tendinitis, as well as a weakened immune system, so you're more susceptible to illness. Researchers have yet to identify the exact ways these health problems occur, but they know that loneliness seems to make them worse.
While many of these issues don't show up until middle age or later, the damage begins early, according to Hawkley. Small increases in stress chemicals released into the bloodstream can, over time, damage blood vessels all over the body.
Of course, some lonely times are inevitable in everyone's life, and you don't need to fear them. Think of loneliness as a thirst for companionship, one you can satisfy. Says Hawkley, "It's a feeling that, if it's doing its job, it gets you out there to sate that need to feel connected."
The Loneliness Cure
Louise Hawkley, PhD, says we should think of loneliness not as a state but as a motivation to get social. Here's how:
Get out and about. You don't have to be best friends with someone to benefit from interaction. Amity Brown, who is separated from her husband, takes walks around her neighborhood, smiling at people she passes. "When I started getting to know the neighborhood and the people around me, I felt like part of a community," she says.
Be selective about making friends. Hawkley points out that if you're desperate for relationships, you may be willing to tolerate unacceptable treatment. Now that Brown is feeling more stable, she says, "I'm more careful when I choose my friends to make sure they're low-drama."
Stay positive. Lonely people tend to expect rejection, which makes it more likely to happen. Social cognitive therapy can help people reframe their thoughts about how others see them.