Here’s why loneliness is bad for your health

Local doctor Kristie Mitchell shares tips on combating loneliness and supporting mental health.

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Kristie Mitchell, M.D., is a board-certified psychiatrist with Mid-Atlantic Permanente Medical Group. She cares for patients at the Mid-Atlantic Permanente’s Woodbridge office. She received her medical degree from the Virginia Commonwealth University School of Medicine.

Loneliness is an epidemic, not only in the U.S., but worldwide, and it’s bad for your health. Research has shown that persistent loneliness is a public health threat at least as serious as smoking, alcoholism and obesity. It has been shown to increase inflammation—now considered the precursor to most chronic illness—and has been linked to an increased risk of cardiovascular disease, dementia, accidents, suicide and other causes of premature mortality.

Plus, loneliness affects a lot more people than any other single health threat. I have been practicing psychiatry for 14 years, and have seen a steady increase in the number of patients who say they feel disconnected. Last year, a major survey found that nearly half of U.S. adults feel sometime—or always—alone. And, while age has long been considered a major risk factor, the study found that the loneliest people are between the ages of 18 and 22.

What Causes Loneliness?

One of the interesting things about loneliness is that it is a subjective measure, a discontent with the quality and/or quantity of our connections. Research has shown—and I’ve seen this in my practice—that loneliness has more to do with quality than quantity. Many of us believe that the antidote to loneliness is adding as many people as possible to our group (more dinner invitations, more followers on social media). Intuitively, though, we know it is the quality of our relationships that sustains us.

This is why young people spending more time on social media and older adults who are busier than ever may experience more loneliness. We are more connected, but we are connecting differently. And though we don’t yet have enough research on loneliness and social media, it seems obvious that we need the in-person connection that online “friends” don’t offer. Some older patients have refused telemedicine services because they enjoy the social interaction of a physical visit to the doctor. And research has shown that even greeting strangers at the grocery store can make us feel more happily connected.

Of course, we all have different needs. Some of us welcome solitude, feel anxious or depleted in groups and find one or two close friends to be the perfect number. Others feel energized in a crowd. So I try to help my clients find that sweet spot—the quantity and quality of interactions most nourishing for them.

True Antidotes to Loneliness

Like physical pain, the emotional pain of loneliness can be a good thing: a warning that there is something in your life you need to address. This could be as simple as needing to set aside time to truly engage with friends or family, to volunteer, to get to know your neighbors. Studies show that people who know their neighbors or do things for others are less likely to feel lonely.

But if you have tried reaching out and still feel lonely, there are two effective psychological techniques that can help: cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR). (Your doctor should be able to refer you to a cognitive behavioral therapist or a mindfulness program.)

CBT is a problem-solving technique that identifies and addresses thoughts and behaviors that are causing you distress. If, for instance, you believe—consciously or unconsciously—that you have nothing to offer, you might avoid other people, which is self-reinforcing. So CBT can help you identify and change beliefs and behaviors that are interfering with your social wellbeing.

MBSR is a therapeutic program based on meditation techniques that encourage you to be in the present moment and simply notice your thoughts, emotions and physical sensations without judging them. Now offered at hospitals and other medical centers all over the world, mindfulness practices can help you get in touch with your deeper, higher self and help you accept yourself, your life and the people around you as they are. It has been shown to reduce loneliness even if you don’t change other behaviors, and even to reduce inflammation.

Some patients feel, not only lonely, but especially anxious or depressed. As a result, I sometimes also prescribe antidepressant and anti-anxiety medications, which can support them while they are pursuing a mindfulness practice and/or CBT.

Whatever strategy you decide to pursue, it’s important not to suffer in silence. By taking steps to connect more fully with other people, you can boost both your mental and physical health and enjoy all that life has to offer.

For a list of opportunities to become more socially connected, read “Are You Engaged?” on the Centers for Disease Control website. To learn more about the power of mindfulness, visit the website of the National Institutes of Health.

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