What are the physical effects of loneliness?

Loneliness is detrimental to your mental wellbeing and your physical health.

What are the physical effects of loneliness?

Loneliness can be a crushing experience. As humans, we crave connection and social interaction with others, so periods of isolation can cause significant distress. But you don’t have to be physically isolated in order to be lonely – it’s possible to feel disconnected even when surrounded by people. If feelings of loneliness last for an extended period, they can be detrimental to not just your mental wellbeing but can also pose a risk to your physical health.

According to University of Chicago social neurologist John Cacioppo, co-author of Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection, the effects of isolation or rejection on the body are as legitimate as hunger, thirst or pain.

“For a social species, to be on the edge of social perimeter is to be in a dangerous position,” Dr Cacioppo says.

“The brain goes into a self-preservation state that brings with it a lot of unwanted effects.”

Distress can manifest itself in many ways, with physicals symptoms including:

  • aches and pains
  • susceptibility to illness and infection
  • lethargy
  • sleep problems
  • decreased appetite
  • high blood pressure
  • increased pressure on the heart.

There are many reasons why a person may feel lonely or isolated. According to Lifeline, these include:

  • losing a loved one or friend through death or relocation
  • lack of close family ties
  • living alone
  • difficulties in meeting new people due to access issues or introverted personalities
  • feelings of loss or grief
  • a mental health condition such as depression or anxiety
  • fear of rejection from others or feelings of being ‘different’ or stigmatised by society
  • inability to participate in activities due to access issues, mobility, illness, lack of transport
  • retirement from work, home relocation, starting out in a new role or community
  • lack of purpose or meaning in life
  • language or cultural barriers, or reduced connection with your culture of origin
  • geographic isolation
  • feeling lost in the crowd. 

So, what can you do for yourself or a loved one experiencing loneliness?

Connecting or reconnecting with family or friends is a good place to start. If you’re not located close enough to see them in person, phone calls, email or social media can help. However, avoid completely substituting technology for the real thing.

Getting involved in local activities can be a great way of making new friends and creating a sense of community and achievement. This could include volunteering, taking a class or joining a club or team. Even just spending time in a public space, such as a park, library or café, can foster a feeling of interaction and create opportunities for conversation.

If you’re lonely at home, consider adopting a pet. They make loyal, uplifting companions.

If loneliness is seriously affecting your health and you need support, talk to your GP or contact Lifeline on 13 11 14.

Has loneliness become a problem in your life? Have you found ways to reconnect that you would like to share with our members?



    To make a comment, please register or login
    9th Aug 2016
    Ms. Baxter

    Thanks for the article. I agree with your physical effects of loneliness. Mine is lethargy, stress and anxiety.

    However I have devised my own strategy of dealing with it by doing focused breathing.

    Have a nice day.

    9th Aug 2016
    A good article which I find is easy to relate. I lived by myself, for the most part, for 17 years after divorce until my second marriage. Constant, deliberate effort may be necessary not only to help avoid any of the adverse physical distresses listed above, but also to retain one's manners and etiquette whilst among others. I believe a person is for a great part a product, or an amalgam, of those people they associate with - in mannerisms, physical and verbal expressions, preferences in food, drink, and entertainment, etc, etc. The crux to maintaining a stable, in-balance healthy way of life in a solo lifestyle is to keep an open, honest, thought process, untainted by excessive alcohol or drugs whilst adhering to a sensible diet and having adequate exercise. Just common sense stuff.
    9th Aug 2016
    I must say getting a pet dog has been a wonderful way to meet fellow retirees without having to entertain or join a charity. I also find my dog keep me in the present. He is what I watch and control when going out with him.
    My only recommendation is that the individual researches the pet needs thoroughly first. My pup and I are rather mismatched - as cute as he is. But he gets me out of the house and walking - even if my arm is 6 cm longer than it used to be!
    9th Aug 2016
    Also, the bucket list.
    Tips for friendship.
    1. Talk online - don't you love this site :)
    2. Join Facebook - I don't care what anyone says I know exactly what the extended family is doing and when we meet up I have something to chat about.
    3. Be brave, open that address book and phone a different friend each day.
    4. Buy a lottery ticket. You need just one in the wallet all the time. (unless you win of course!)
    5. Don't shop aimlessly - its depressing. Shop at the same bakery, coffee shop, clothes shop, post office,pharmacy etc and talk to them very BRIEFLY each day. You'll be surprised how good a smile from someone who recognises feels.
    6. Try not to talk to anyone for too long. They will avoid you. They have jobs, family and are very busy.
    7. Admire someones garden on your walk and mention the weather.
    8. Smile at a foreigner you see at a park or in a small shop on a train station. You will be surprised how unwelcome they feel in our country and their smile when you are nice to them is really heart warming. (Just be sensible here)
    9. Ask a friend or neighbour around for a cup of tea.
    10. Write down a few facts about the people you meet so you won't forget their names or situation next time.
    11. Always smile and say hello on your morning walk. Doesn't matter if they don't - you will soon find the ones who will. ...and since I talk to just about everyone on my walks they usually take all morning! You will be surprised how many other people feel rather lost in retirement.
    12. Plan a trip with a group. Nothing too "one country a dayish" Start with something small just in case you don't like it.
    13. Sport - golf, bowling, croquette, tai chi, aqua aerobics, swimming, fishing
    14. Bingo - I am not there yet but people seem to love it
    15. Join a club.
    There's more - just busy ...
    Wendy HK
    9th Aug 2016
    Rosret - great advice!
    Chris G
    9th Aug 2016
    Find a local U3A (University of the 3rd Age). You will find lots of interesting "classes" on offer, and not an exam in sight :)
    9th Aug 2016
    There is a difference between loneliness and solitude. Solitude is good, loneliness isn't. Introverts cope better than extroverts as they enjoy their own space and solitary activities. However, all the advice given above is excellent as it all stimulates the mind and keeps it healthy.
    9th Aug 2016
    I like being alone but miss my late husband badly. Have picked up the pieces but have a huge block about going on holiday without him. A group tour is not for me. Neither is one to one.
    So, now what? Everything seems so much trouble. Yes, ADOPT a 'pet'. My adopted, dear cat is SUCH fun! Thanks for your list, Rosret, but I'm not ready for bingo just yet!
    9th Aug 2016
    I am not into going on holidays alone either. There doesn't seem any point.
    I enjoy going to someone - a relative I haven't seen for a longtime is lovely especially when its not at Christmas when there are so many financial and social obligations.
    12th Aug 2016
    Being ALONE is good...... I'm often alone but never lonely.

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