Maybe you are an introvert who finds it anxiety provoking to reach out and get to know people? Is everyone so busy with their own lives that they don’t want to build new friendships or maintain the ones they have fostered? One thoughtful question: Is the heartbreak of loneliness and social anxiety sometimes just too much to bear?
Another scenario. You’ve dreamt of this day when your house didn’t hum incessantly with noise and activity. Yet, you didn’t envision it quite this way. You didn’t think you would feel so lonely and anxious with the change. Your spouse doesn’t seem phased by it but dealing with your anxiety and the empty nest challenges you more than you imagined it would.
Or…You’ve finished college and are settling into your first “real job.” You see your friends getting married, having a family or moving away to start an adventure in a new city. Sometimes you feel like your life really isn’t going anywhere. These friends are all too busy now or are no longer around. You’ve lost the go-to Friday night happy hour crowd. Social isolation and loneliness weighs on you.
Most loneliness usually passes with time, as you make slight adjustments to change the situation. You begin volunteering for a cause that lights your fire (cue a dopamine rush, making you feel better), and you meet like-minded people. You naturally and regularly meet together for outings or events, and you start to build relationships. The process seems to drag. Nonetheless, you’re encouraged as you inch forward toward meaningful connection.
Yet for some, loneliness and anxiety may have become a way of life, a way of being in the world. Despite your best efforts, the disconnections with people crash in. You spend another Saturday night alone with Netflix. You’re too anxious about the situation to chill.
Loneliness and anxiety may be affecting you in ways that you never imagined. It can affect our health as negatively as obesity or smoking.
Risk of Heart Disease Rises
Did you know that our bodies respond physically as we experience loneliness? Our stress responses ease into high gear causing blood pressure and cholesterol to rise. The release of cortisol triggered by the stress response increases a state of inflammation in our bodies. This sustained environment of responding to stress strains our cardiovascular system and over time can potentially lead to cardiovascular disease.
Scientists have found an association between loneliness and performance on cognitive tasks. Loneliness causes our bodies to produce less of the protein which keeps our neurons healthy, impacting our ability to think and remember. Older adults experiencing loneliness increase their risk of cognitive difficulties. Loneliness is also a factor in the shift from cognitive impairment to dementia.
Having trouble sleeping?
Do you experience interrupted sleep? Your nightly rest doesn’t leave you feeling refreshed. I spoke earlier of the interaction between social isolation and anxiety. If you feel lonely, your anxiety may cause the trickle-down effect of fragmenting your sleep.
Loneliness can cause physical pain
Have you ever felt physical pain when enduring social isolation? Naomi Eisenberger, a professor of psychology at UCLA, has done research supporting that sensation.
She asked participants to play a computer game where they tossed a ball back and forth with another “player” (a computer). The end of tossing the ball by the player signaled rejection to the participant. She found that the pain centers in the brains of participants demonstrated an increase in activity. The more a participant felt this “rejection,” the brain’s pain center showed a greater level of activity. If a participant had taken acetaminophen before playing the game, the pain centers of their brain showed less activity.
These findings sadden but do not necessarily surprise me.
Pandemic isolation or general loneliness. What can you do to increase interaction?
Let’s just start with this: just because you are alone, does not mean that you feel lonely. The feeling of loneliness comes from having a desire for social interaction and not having that need met adequately.
One of the best ways to deal with the heaviness of social isolation is to maintain sound social relationships. Though it can be challenging, you may want to make a more intense effort to phone, text, or FaceTime family and friends.
Pick those connections with care. Find someone who you believe has unconditional positive feelings for you. You will have a more satisfying encounter than if you jump into a discussion on Clubhouse with a “room” full of people you don’t know well. “You need to increase contact in the relationships that are important and very positive to you.
Reach Out for a free counseling consultation in Evanston Il
Satisfying, deep social connections keep us alive, literally. These relationships give us vitality and encourage our mental and physical wellness. If you are experiencing loneliness, anxiety, or social isolation and would like to speak to someone to help you in this season of your life, please reach out. We would be happy to offer you a free 15 minute telephone consult to see if we can help you feel more connected and less lonely.
Your body and your mind will thank you!
Evanston Counseling provides Anxiety Therapy, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, Hypnotherapy, and Relationship Therapy in Evanston, IL and online in Illinois. Experienced counseling and care for individuals who feel isolated, anxious, and overwhelmed in their lives. We help people find more happiness, satisfaction, and self-acceptance.