The impact of stress in Australia
Stress, its link to mental health and coping strategies
We all need social interaction, so when we become lonely it can affect our health.
Around one in four Australian adults report feeling lonely, with one in two saying they feel lonely at least one day a week.
“The impact of loneliness on our mental health can be significant. Staying connected – be it with face-to-face interactions or via technology – can be great for the brain,” explains GP Dr Preeya Alexander, also known as The Wholesome Doctor.
In this article we’ll break down what loneliness is and its main causes. We’ll then dive into the four main ways loneliness could be affecting you and provide four ways to combat them. Finally, we’ll go over the general health risks and how to avoid loneliness.
Loneliness is the negative feeling you get when your social needs and surroundings are unmet. It can cause people to feel empty, drained, disconnected or alone, even when surrounded by other people.
Loneliness can be caused by a number of different factors or circumstances, including:
Here are four effects of loneliness on your body, and a few tips on how to offset them.
When you’re feeling lonely your body’s cortisol levels – the stress hormones that trigger a ‘fight or flight’ response – increase and this can have a big knock-on effect to several of your body’s systems.
A rise in cortisol can have a variety of side effects from disrupting digestion to altering the immune response.
However, being part of a community can help lower stress levels, and research suggests those who can share their feelings with a friend feel physical relief afterwards.
Just the idea that you’re being ignored is enough to cause your body temperature to drop, according to Dutch researchers.
We can mimic the psychological warmth we feel from being with a loved one by experiencing physical warmth ourselves – for example, by enjoying a warm drink or eating some warm food, so if you’re feeling lonely, rug up!
A team of scientists from the University of California discovered that one of the impacts of feeling lonely on the body was an increase in a type of white blood cell called the monocytes. In the long term, the study found, lonely people are more likely to be sensitive to viruses and infection.
However, taking part in some physical activity, such as a workout class or enjoying a power walk in the park, can counteract feelings of loneliness. And who knows, it could lead to new friendships too!
Some research suggests this may be because it makes us hypervigilant for social threats – contributing to a ‘negativity bias’.
In the long term, lonely people are more likely to be sensitive to viruses and infection
“I often tell my patients who are experiencing loneliness to stay connected to the world,” says Preeya.
Some practical ways to beat loneliness are:
Reach out to people and schedule in regular catch-ups, or join a community group, like a Men’s Shed.
Chat online in a digital forum, perhaps one linked to a hobby you enjoy.
Write down your thoughts and feelings, which can help you process your emotions.
If you don’t have a pet, consider walking a neighbour’s dog or volunteering at an animal shelter – plus, volunteering is another great way to connect with other humans.
It's a great opportunity to exercise, as well as to make new friends.
Just being in a public space can help alleviate feelings of loneliness.
If you’re struggling with loneliness and unsure how to get help, it’s best to visit your GP for personalised advice. If you have an urgent need for help with your mental health, contact one of the national helplines below.
Lifeline (24 hours): 13 11 14
Kids Helpline (24 hours): 1800 55 1800
MensLine Australia (24 hours): 1300 78 99 78
SANE Helpline (mental illness information, support and referral): 1800 18 7263
For more articles on mental health, including tips for managing it, factors that can affect it and programs you can use for support, visit our Mental Health page on The Check Up.
Please note: The tips throughout this article serve as broad information and should not replace any advice you have been given by your medical practitioner.