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How loneliness affects your body (and what to do about it!)

Dr Preeya Alexander

Four ways loneliness could be affecting your health

A middle-aged man stares out his door into the backyard
A middle-aged man stares out his door into the backyard

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.

What is loneliness?

What are the main causes of loneliness?

4 ways loneliness could be affecting you

Ways to overcome loneliness

What is 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.

What are the main causes of loneliness?

Loneliness can be caused by a number of different factors or circumstances, including:

  • Living alone

  • Relocating to a new city

  • Not being in a relationship or the end of a relationship

  • A sense of disconnection from the community

  • Unemployment

  • A continued lack of social connection

  • A mental illness such as depression or anxiety

A young woman rests her head on her arm as she leans on her balcony and stares out at the street

4 ways loneliness could be affecting you

Here are four effects of loneliness on your body, and a few tips on how to offset them.

1. It can increase your stress levels

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.

2. You might feel the cold more

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!

Related: Winter warming Thai curry pumpkin soup

3. It can increase inflammation

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!

4. It may become harder to make decisions

Studies show that feeling alone can have such an impact on our brain that it can cause cognitive decline, progression of Alzheimer’s and impair decision-making abilities.

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

Ways to overcome loneliness

“I often tell my patients who are experiencing loneliness to stay connected to the world,” says Preeya.

Some practical ways to beat loneliness are:

1. Connect in person

Reach out to people and schedule in regular catch-ups, or join a community group, like a Men’s Shed.

2. Connect online

Chat online in a digital forum, perhaps one linked to a hobby you enjoy.

3. Write in a journal

Write down your thoughts and feelings, which can help you process your emotions.

4. Spend time with animals

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.

5. Take up a team sport

It's a great opportunity to exercise, as well as to make new friends.

6. Spend more time outdoors

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.

Dr Preya Alexander

Dr Preeya Alexander

Dr Preeya Alexander is a Melbourne-based GP. Between running a busy clinic load and family life, she is passionate about educating Australians with evidence-based health information across a range of channels and loves nothing more than bringing out her 'inner Beyonce'.