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How Loneliness affects the body

Human beings thrive off of community and right now, we’re trapped inside our houses. We haven’t had very much human contact from anyone in a while and we’re probably all feeling a little more disconnected than usual. It’s OKAY! You are not alone! It’s so easy to feel lonely when the only way to stay connected is to scroll through social media. Loneliness stems from the lack of connections with other people which causes distress. If you are experiencing headaches, anxiety, depression, cognitive decline, high blood pressure, worsening diabetes, upset stomach physical aches and pains, weakened or overactive immune system you may be experiencing Chronic loneliness. Now, let’s take a look on how our bodies and our physical well-being is affected by loneliness.

Stress Management

Humans are social beings and many of us use our social interactions to vent out frustrations and stress.  In order to help us cope with stress, our bodies produce high levels of a steroid hormone called cortisol. Our cortisol levels are generally low when we are able to have genuine human connections.  However, our body’s ability to manage stress becomes impaired when we are experiencing high levels of stress; ergo, consistently high levels of cortisol and not feeling socially connected (like we are now in quarantine) force our bodies to struggle to regain a restful state.

Inflammation, Aches and Pains

Are you naturally prone to headaches, digestive issues or other forms of physical pain?  If so, the emotional pain caused from loneliness can exacerbate your physical pain. Furthermore, loneliness may be associated with Conserved Transcriptional Response to Adversity (CTRA).  CTRA increases the expression of genes that play a role in inflammation and decreases the expression of genes involved in antiviral responses. If you are experiencing more inflammation, headaches or other physical pain than usual, take a deeper look into your social network.

Reduced immunity

Having meaningful connections with others allows our immune system to work more efficiently and effectively.  However, being lonely can also make you more susceptible to illness due to our bodies not being able to produce antibodies quite as well. A 2005 study of 83 healthy first-semester college freshman found that those who reported feeling lonely also responded poorly to the flu vaccine, “Those with both high levels of loneliness and a small social network had the lowest antibody response.” Loneliness increases the risk of early mortality by triggering chronic illness. The increased risk for chronic illness is due to the disruption and high levels of the neurotransmitter norepinephrine which is involved in the fight-or-flight response. This leads to increased production of immature monocytes causing lower antiviral responses, which may impair the production of white blood cells. Overall, having quality and meaningful connections with people is essential for our health.

Lack of energy and sleep

During this time of quarantine, you may be experiencing trouble sleeping and a lack of energy.  The fact that we are unable to engage in social activities regularly means that we are not stimulated emotionally and/or physically.  When we experience loneliness, we may have less structured lives, lack of stimulation, and we may end up going to bed without feeling tired. As a result, less sleep means less energy throughout the day.  In addition, why we may be experiencing lack of sleep is due to our cortisol levels.  When we are lonely, we are unable to manage stress very well, therefore, we have consistently high levels of cortisol which makes it harder for our bodies to relax properly in order to fall and stay asleep.

If you or a loved one feels lonely, it’s important to reach out to a friend, family member, or therapist. In order to elevate endorphins and serotonin, soaking up the sunshine, getting active and working out can help improve your mood and sleep. Make an effort to include a family and friend at risk of loneliness and schedule a phone or video conference on a regular basis rather than leaving the contact by chance. Has anyone else been spending more time on the phone or video chatting and catching up with friends and family? I would urge you to reach out, you may put a smile on someone’s face. Let’s stick together and support each other!!

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