DEPRESSION: 9 SECRET SIGNS OF LONELINESSCategory:
9 SECRET SIGNS OF LONELINESS
Madeline R. Vann, MPH
Medically Reviewed by Justin Laube, MD
One may be the loneliest number, but research shows that a lack of acquaintances isn't the only warning sign of solitude.
Ever wonder to yourself why you feel alone even in a crowded room? Even in the midst of family and friends, all of us can feel alone and lonely. After all, from Elvis to Cher to Akon, musicians have been crooning about loneliness for years.
Do you know the definition of loneliness? According to the Merriam-Webster online dictionary, loneliness means being without company; cut off from others; sad from being alone.
That's because the emotions that get set off when you're feeling alone can be quite powerful — they can trigger dejection and depression, and in extreme cases, loneliness can lead to earlier death, says John Cacioppo, PhD, a psychologist from the University of Chicago in Illinois.
According to the Mayo Clinic, having a strong social support network is essential during tough times, whether from job stress or a year filled with loss or illness. A social support network is comprised of family, friends, and peers. Having intimate relationships with others helps you feel cared for and maintain optimism, and aids in stress management. All of these emotional benefits lead to stronger immunity to help you fight disease and stress.
Alternatively, according to Dean Ornish, MD, in his book Love and Survival: The Scientific Basis for the Healing Power of Intimacy, among heart patients, depression is as good a predictor of imminent death as smoking, obesity, or a previous heart attack.
"Study after study shows that people who are lonely, depressed, and isolated are three to five times more likely to die prematurely than people who feel connection in their life,” says Dr. Ornish.
In a Duke University Medical Center study of 1,400 men and women with at least one severely blocked artery, the unmarried patients without close friends were three times more likely than the others to die over the next five years. Similar findings came in a Canadian study of 224 women with breast cancer. Seven years after diagnosis, 72 percent of the women with at least one intimate relationship survived; only 56 percent of those who did not have a confidant survived. The kind of intimacy necessary appears to be an emotional connection to someone, not necessarily a sexual relationship.
Another supporting study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association revealed that people with more diverse social networks (less social isolation) have a greater resistance to upper respiratory infections.
But how do you resolve loneliness? Everyone feels a little lonely now and again, and experts say that this forlornness can actually be a good thing, as long as you do something about it. "Loneliness is actually an evolutionary adaptation that should spur us to get back to socializing, a state in which we are happier and safer," says Dr. Cacioppo.
Could you be lonely without even realizing it? These signs point to "yes."
1) Loneliness Can Wreck Restful Sleep According to research published in the journal Sleep, loneliness can wreck your chances of getting a restful night's sleep. Researchers measured the sleep cycles of 95 people in South Dakota, comparing them with the participant's self-reported loneliness scores. None of them lived isolated lives, but some reported feeling lonelier than others.
The results? The lonelier the participant, the higher the levels of fragmented sleep. "What we found was that loneliness does not appear to change the total amount of sleep in individuals, but awakens them more times during the night," lead author Lianne Kurina, PhD, said in a press release.
"When you feel lonely, you show more micro-awakenings," noted Cacioppo, a coauthor of the study. This means you wake up a little bit at night even though you aren't aware of it.
2) Steamy Showers and Hot Chocolate May Soothe Loneliness How does a steamy bath or piping-hot cup of coffee sound to you? If it sounds downright comforting, you may want to read this:
"The lonelier a person is, the more showers and baths they take, the hotter the water, and the longer they stay under the water," says John Bargh, PhD, psychologist and researcher at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut, who conducted a study on physical warmth and social connection. For his research, published in February 2012 in the journal Emotion, Bargh surveyed 51 college students about their levels of loneliness and everyday habits, and concluded that some people use physical warmth as a substitute for social warmth. The students who reported feeling lonelier also tended to linger in the shower longer.
There's nothing wrong with this, Bargh contends — people are not always in control of the reasons they feel alone. It could be due to a breakup, or a recent move. You can also use this finding to your advantage: Next time you're feeling lonesome, whip up a cup of hot cocoa.
3) Love People, Not Stuff The reason you're so attached to your new computer, souped-up bike, or overpriced purse? According to research published in the Journal of Consumer Research, some people go gaga over inanimate objects because they're lonely.
The researchers call this "material possession love," and you've probably witnessed it a number of times: your neighbor who calls his car "baby," or your great aunt who prides herself on her gun collection. Because these folks suffer from a lack of social connections, they start doting on their things.
And as you can probably guess, most experts say possessions aren't a healthy substitute for real live relationships. In fact, a number of studies indicate that having stuff has little effect on your happiness levels; you'd be better off spending the money on an experience, such as a vacation.
4) Can You Catch Loneliness From a Friend? You can catch a cold from your friend — but did you know you can catch his loneliness, too?
According to research published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology by Cacioppo and colleagues, lonesomeness can be contagious. In fact, you're 52 percent more likely to feel lonely if someone you're directly connected to is lonely as well, says Cacioppo.
Why? When you're feeling empty or isolated, you may behave in more hostile and awkward ways toward another person, who in turn behaves a bit negatively toward someone else, and so on. The result can be an outbreak of social isolation and rejection.
5) More Facebook 'Friends' Than Real Friends Worsens Loneliness You know all about your cousin's recent jaunt to Hawaii — but not because she told you about it; you saw her pictures on Facebook.
According to Facebook, user spend an average of fifty minutes each on its Facebook, Instagram, and Messenger platforms. "Social networking feels temporarily satisfying for people who turn to that as means of interacting," explained Cacioppo. When you're feeling alone, you might spend more time posting on social networking sites or online game forums than actually picking up that phone and arranging a lunch or dinner date. But having a lot of Facebook friends or Twitter followers won't do much to stave off loneliness. Instead, research shows it can exacerbate the problem.
Next time loneliness sets in, Cacioppo suggests using these sites to get in touch with your old friends — instead of just gawking over their wedding photos.
6) Being Lonely Makes You Blow Things out of Proportion How many nerve-racking experiences have you had in the past month?
If you can count them up without much hesitation (traffic jams, terrible weather, rude waitresses), that doesn't necessarily mean your stars were crossed this month — instead, it could point to loneliness.
According to Cacioppo, who has studied the effects of loneliness on our health and stress levels, feeling alone often means you spend too much time ruminating. Research published in the journal Current Directions in Psychological Science showed that people who reported being lonely also reported more sources of stress and childhood adversity in their lives. "The brain goes on the alert for social threats," says Cacioppo.
7) Socializing May Help You Stay Skinny Have you packed on the pounds? Loneliness and weight gain often go hand in hand, possibly because we tend to compensate for our blues with food. In addition, loneliness can zap motivation — keeping us on the couch instead of on the treadmill. And that means it may also be a predictor of health problems, such as high blood pressure and unhealthy cholesterol levels, says Cacioppo.
But can socializing help you stay skinny? Perhaps, according to a report published in the journal Cell Metabolism. Although the study looked at mice instead of people, the rodents living in lonelier lab settings tended to weigh more than those in social environments.
8) Feeling Alone Can Make You Ill Sniffling, sneezing, and feeling crummy overall? It could be a bad case of loneliness.
Loneliness has a systemic effect, possibly raising our stress hormone levels and making it harder for our bodies to repair the daily wear and tear of life, says Cacioppo. We humans are a social species. In fact, being part of a social network is so biologically fundamental that feeling alone and disconnected might actually hurt our immunity.
9) Nip Loneliness in the Bud to Prevent Depression Loneliness often goes hand in hand with one major health problem — depression. In fact, the American Psychological Association says that loneliness is a specific risk factor for the mental health condition.
But just because you've been feeling lonely doesn't mean you are doomed to become depressed. Here's what it does mean: You should start taking steps to nip loneliness in the bud — call up a friend, make dinner plans for next week — so you can prevent depression.