Skip to content
My WebMD Sign In, Sign Up

Health & Balance

Font Size

Why Loneliness Matters

Loneliness really does hurt -- not just your emotions, but your physical health, too. Here's how to reconnect.
By
WebMD Feature

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.

Recommended Related to Mind, Body, Spirit

End-of-Life Care

Parents are partners with doctors in decisions about their child's end-of-life care. Even though new and better treatments have increased the chances of a cure or remission, some types of childhood cancer do not get better. When a child's cancer does not get better or comes back, parents may not be sure about whether to continue treatment and, if so, what kind. Parents who are caring for a child at the end of life need a lot of support that includes family members and the child's health care team...

Read the End-of-Life Care article > >

"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.

Reviewed on January 03, 2011

Today on WebMD

Hands breaking pencil in frustration
Quiz
Dark chocolate bars
Slideshow
 
teen napping with book over face
VIDEO
concentration killers
Slideshow
 
man reading sticky notes
Quiz
worried kid
fitArticle
 
Hungover man
Slideshow
Woman opening window
Slideshow
 
Woman yawning
Health Check
Happy and sad faces
Quiz
 
brain food
Slideshow
laughing family
Quiz