Is Loneliness a Health Risk?

Research shows that loneliness is just as risky as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. But in this era of social distancing, what can we do?

by Sarah Ellis Health Writer

Feeling cooped up these days? Three months into the coronavirus quarantine in the U.S. and most of us are still avoiding spending non-essential time outside the home. The CDC continues to recommend that people and businesses (even those that have reopened) follow social distancing guidelines.

It’s a lonely time for many people, especially those who have added health concerns that put them at high risk for serious COVID-19 illness. And unfortunately, loneliness comes with its own set of health concerns, both mental and physical. Research has shown that loneliness may have a similar impact on mortality as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. It’s also thought to be twice as harmful to physical health as obesity.

But during this time when our health literally depends on our ability to stay separate from one another… what are we supposed to do about loneliness? Read on for some ideas.

Why Is Loneliness so Bad?

In April, a study from MIT found that 34% of workers who were previously commuting to their jobs are now working from home… and depending on how your company chooses to move forward, this new work lifestyle could continue indefinitely.

According to a study by Global Workplace Analytics and FlexJobs, remote work grew 159% since 2005. And while the WFH life has perks (no commuting and all-day pajamas), it can also feel isolating, especially when you don’t have an in-person social life outside of work. Buffer’s 2020 State of Remote Work report found that 20% of remote workers are lonely–and this was before the pandemic forced us all further apart.

To better understand the effects of loneliness, think about your ancestors, says Julianne Holt-Lunstad, PhD, professor of psychology and neuroscience at Brigham Young University in Provo, UT. “Throughout human history, we have needed to rely on others for survival.” Holt-Lunstad’s research has focused on the importance of social relationships for maintaining well-being (she’s also one of the researchers behind the loneliness and cigarettes statistic). She explains that our brains are wired to crave proximity to others for the sake of protection; it’s the idea of safety in numbers. When we feel disconnected from other people, the body goes into high alert to sense impending danger on its own. “When we lack proximity to trust in others, our brains need to be more alert to handle whatever challenges may exist on our own,” Holt-Lunstad says.

This fight-or-flight response is linked to increases in heart rate, blood pressure, and inflammation. And as chronic folks know well, inflammation can lead to a host of other health issues. “Having chronically high inflammation puts you at increased risk for heart disease and other chronic illnesses,” Holt-Lunstad says. “It’s also associated with depression and cognitive decline.” So yes, your social happiness is about more than just enjoying life. It’s literally keeping you healthy.

Does Technology Make Loneliness Better or Worse?

Technology is a controversial subject when it comes to loneliness–some people believe it makes us feel more alone, even though we’re interacting with others virtually. One 2017 study in the American Journal of Preventative Medicine found that young people with high social media use were more likely to feel socially isolated than others, although it’s unclear which factor led to the other.

In a 2019 follow-up to this research, lead author Brian Primack, MD, PhD, noted the significance of linking loneliness to social media use. “Social media is, seemingly, about connecting people. So it is surprising and interesting that our investigations reveal social media being linked to loneliness," said Dr. Primack, director of the University of Pittsburg’s Center for Research on Media, Technology, and Health in Pittsburg, PA. "Perceived social isolation, which is a synonym for loneliness, is associated with poor health outcomes, such as high blood pressure, heart disease and depression. Because social media is so pervasive, it is critically important that we better understand why this is happening and how we can help people navigate social media without as many negative consequences."

Research is still being done in this area, but it’s something to be aware of. If your social media use starts to become a crutch for craving deep connection, you may want to take a step back, even if that means spending more time in isolation to reflect on what really matters to you.

But I’m Quarantining Alone. Help!

Before you freak out, read this: being alone and feeling lonely are not the same thing. Social isolation is an objective measure of aloneness, “marked by few social relationships, infrequent social contact and participation,” Holt-Lunstad says. Loneliness, on the other hand, is more subjective. “It’s often described as the discrepancy between one’s actual and desired level of connection.”

In other words, you can be alone without feeling lonely, or you can feel lonely even when you’re surrounded by people. It matters how content you are with your existing social connections.

There’s also a difference between a short period of loneliness (several weeks or months) and a long-term period of loneliness that lasts for years of your life. “Short-term loneliness is normal,” Holt-Lunstad says. “It’s thought to be an adaptive response, much like hunger and thirst, that albeit unpleasant, are biological motives. Hunger motivates us to seek out food, thirst motivates us to seek out water, and loneliness motivates us to seek out others.”

Those serious health outcomes are more likely in someone who has struggled with loneliness for a long time. “Increases in heart rate and blood pressure might be adaptive in the short term to deal with an immediate stressor, but when prolonged, put wear and tear on the body,” Holt-Lunstad says. The good news is that your pandemic-related loneliness will hopefully not last forever, and in the meantime, there are things you can do about it.

What Can I Do to Feel More Connected Right now?

In this current predicament, our phones and computers are the primary way to connect with people around us. So really, it comes down to using these tools mindfully, and getting creative in the ways you show up for others.

  • Schedule virtual hangouts, but only if you’re really in the mood for it. “We’re doing the best we can right now while trying to maintain safety, because there’s also the immediate health threat of the virus,” Holt-Lunstad says. If you are craving a FaceTime chat with your bestie, go for it! But don’t just tune into virtual events because you feel like you should be doing it.

  • Avoid mindless scrolling. “There is some evidence to suggest that how you use [technology] makes a difference,” Holt-Lunstad notes. “Some evidence suggests that passive use seems to be associated with poorer outcomes, versus actively using it to interact and connect.” Essentially, it’s better to be using your technology for a specific reason (to write up an IG post, host a Zoom call, contribute to the group chat) rather than scrolling through Facebook wondering what everyone else is doing.

  • Send texts and quick check-ins to people you’re close to. Remind yourself that you have people who care about you, even if you can’t be with them right now. “When we feel like we have others we can count on, our environment and these challenges we face aren’t nearly as threatening,” Holt-Lunstad explains. Even a quick “How are you?” text can brighten someone else’s day and make you feel great, too.

  • Contribute small acts of kindness to other people’s lives. You don’t have to know someone personally to make them feel loved and cared for. Consider signing up for a virtual volunteer opportunity, such as a call service for the elderly or a language tutoring program. “By helping others, we can also be helping ourselves, and it will bolster that sense of connection between you and the other person that will help you both weather the storm,” Holt-Lunstad says.

  • Remember that everyone’s experience of loneliness is different. Maybe you’re living alone and doing just fine, but all your friends seem worried about you. Or, maybe you’re surrounded by family but feeling like no one in the world understands you. Either way, don’t hold judgment against yourself for how you’re feeling. It’s valid, it matters, and it will get better over time.

Sarah Ellis
Meet Our Writer
Sarah Ellis

Sarah Ellis is a wellness and culture writer who covers everything from contraceptive access to chronic health conditions to fitness trends. She is originally from Nashville, Tennessee and currently resides in NYC. She has written for Elite Daily, Greatist, mindbodygreen and others. When she’s not writing, Sarah loves distance running, vegan food, and getting the most out of her library card.