As a social work graduate student, I worked in a medical hospital. One of my projects included studying the "revolving door" patients--those individuals who came into the emergency room on a regular basis.
Some of these patients came into the hospital for chronic issues, such as back pain and breathing difficulties. I identified the patients who lived alone. With their permission, I began calling them on a regular basis to check on them.
Sometimes they wanted to talk about their health. At other times, they wanted to share stories about the past. I allowed them to talk about whatever they wanted and just listened.
Then, we tracked their emergency room visits. Once the calls began, their hospital visits were greatly reduced.
I think there were two reasons those phone calls reduced their visits to the hospital; they felt less lonely which helped them feel better physically and feeling connected with someone meant they were less likely to go to the emergency room simply to have human contact.
That was just a graduate school project with a small sample and not exactly a peer-reviewed study. But, it did give the hospital some interesting feedback about how they might be able to support some of their frequent emergency room visitors.
Clearly, loneliness is a big problem that can lead to a variety of physical health issues, psychological problems, and societal issues.
Unfortunately, loneliness seems to be a growing epidemic. Studies show half of Americans are feeling lonely and isolated.
The Difference Between Being Alone and Being Lonely
Loneliness isn't the same thing as being alone. Some solitude is good for you.
But, being alone needs to be a choice in order to be healthy. Elderly people who want companionship yet lack visitors, for example, are more likely to experience the physical and emotional effects of being alone.
It's also quite possible to feel lonely even when you're around people. If you don't feel as though those around you truly understand you, or if you fear that they wouldn't accept you if they knew the 'real' you, being around people won't necessarily resolve your lonely feelings.
Why Loneliness Is Harmful
Researchers have found that loneliness is just as lethal as smoking 15 cigarettes per day. Lonely people are 50% more likely to die prematurely than those with healthy social relationships.
There are several reasons why loneliness can be deadly. First, it reduces your immunity, which can increase your risk of disease. But, it also increases inflammation in the body, which can contribute to heart disease and other chronic health conditions.
Stress will also affect you more if you're lonely. Financial trouble, health problems, and everyday obstacles may take a bigger emotional toll on individuals who lack social and emotional support.
Quality Relationships Matter More Than Quantity
In a world where many people have hundreds--if not thousands--of social media connections, it's clear that those connections aren't a cure for loneliness. It's not the quantity of connections that matters--it's the quality.
It's important to recognize when you're feeling lonely and isolated so you can take steps to improve your social connections.
Whether you choose to start scheduling more coffee dates with friends or you commit to volunteering for a good cause, it's important to take action. The natural tendency when you feel isolated can be to withdraw even more--which can be downright dangerous.
Get out there even when you don't feel like it and purposely try to connect with people face-to-face. If you're really struggling to combat loneliness, seek professional help. Depression, anxiety, and other mental health issues can cause you to feel disconnected, which can create a self-perpetuating cycle that's difficult to break.