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Article: The dangers of loneliness

Person sitzt alleine an einer Klippe und schaut in die Ferne

The dangers of loneliness

Loneliness makes us sad. This is not news. However, what many people don't know is that chronic loneliness can also have physical consequences. When we feel alone, it also affects how we perceive our surroundings. Today we will talk about these and even more dangers of loneliness.

How common is loneliness?

Wanting to be alone every now and then or feeling lonely after a breakup, rejection or argument is normal. We all know that. It becomes problematic when this feeling of loneliness persists and becomes chronic. 46% of the entire US population feels lonely on a regular basis. In the UK, 60% of 18-34 year olds say they often feel lonely. In Germany the numbers are lower, here it affects “only” 10 to 15% of the population. At least eight percent of Germans live socially isolated lives. Unfortunately, the feeling of loneliness often increases with age. And even though we are now more connected than ever before, overall chronic loneliness has increased significantly in the last few decades.

Socially isolated vs. lonely

You can be lonely even when you are not alone.

Social isolation and loneliness don't necessarily mean the same thing. People who spend a lot of time alone at home and have little overall contact with other people are considered socially isolated. On the other hand, you are considered lonely if you maintain relationships but they do not meet your own needs for belonging and security. Loneliness also relates to personal feelings. It is closely related to our social needs and used to serve as a warning signal for people to avoid being rejected by their own group. You can read more about it here .

Nevertheless, there is of course an overlap between the two terms. In some studies they are used synonymously, which makes it difficult to clearly interpret the results. Loneliness as a “feeling” is usually recorded using questionnaires. The number of social interactions can be measured more objectively.

Crowd in public blurred

Photo by Timon Studler on Unsplash

Why is loneliness a problem?

An obvious problem with loneliness is the feeling of pain and sadness that accompanies it.

Physical consequences of loneliness

But what many people don't know is that loneliness also has an impact on our bodies. Because chronic loneliness causes stress. When we lose the “protection” of a social group, the stress hormone cortisol is released - our body is on alert. And this stress can also become chronic, and our immune system is then permanently weakened.

When we are lonely, blood sugar levels and blood pressure are elevated. We get sick faster, age faster and have an increased risk of cancer. Diseases such as Alzheimer's progress more quickly due to stress. Overall, chronic loneliness increases the likelihood of heart attacks, strokes, cancer and dementia. The risk of mental illnesses such as depression or anxiety disorders is also increased.

Conversely, some studies have shown that functioning social interactions can prevent these and other diseases. Social interactions protect the heart and immune system.

General mortality also increases among lonely people: loneliness is about twice as deadly as obesity and as deadly as a pack of cigarettes a day or alcohol addiction.

And as if that wasn't enough...

One of the greatest dangers of loneliness is its self-reinforcing effect. Loneliness feels like a threat and leads to immediate defensive behavior. This reaction is similar to physical pain inflicted on you. The brain goes into survival mode and begins scanning the environment everywhere and always for potential dangers. Everything suddenly seems hostile and dangerous.

This increased alertness of our brain also makes us more receptive to social signals. Actually sounds like a good thing, right? The problem is that we perceive social signals more quickly, but interpret them more poorly. Neutral facial expressions are suddenly classified as malicious, a friend turning away to the other side of the table is interpreted as rejection, even though he just wanted to adjust his sitting position. It's like a negative filter that covers your social interactions and always makes you assume the worst about other people's intentions.

The vicious circle

The environment appears hostile and threatening to lonely people. To protect themselves, they become more self-centered. Other people perceive you as colder, shyer or less friendly. This in turn reinforces the impression of danger that comes from social interactions. In order to avoid these, social interactions are increasingly avoided.

However, few social interactions often increase the feeling of loneliness - and the impression of danger and hostility grows. A real vicious circle. This negative spiral is getting worse and harder to break...

Chronic loneliness poses many dangers that are not just psychological. And it's not just old people who are affected by loneliness, younger people also feel lonely or socially isolate themselves. The trend that loneliness has become significantly more common in recent decades is not a pleasant observation. However, there are ways to deal with loneliness and/or social isolation and break the vicious circle of loneliness.

This article on our blog is more specific about help and tips for loneliness.

+++ If you feel acutely lonely, are thinking about suicide or would like to talk to someone, you can use the telephone counseling service . You can reach them free of charge around the clock on 0800 111 0 111 and 0800 111 0 222. You can of course remain anonymous. You can find further offers of help via this link . +++

If you would like to find out more about the topics of mindfulness, healthy eating or sustainability, take a look here .

Loneliness Dangers: Woman lying alone on a sofa

Photo by Zohre Nemati on Unsplash

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