Philosophers like Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau believed in the life-restoring effects of solitude. They claimed that spending extended periods of time in the woods without people or responsibilities was healing for the wounded soul.
However, science today calls this mindset into question. Spending a couple of days in chosen solitude and meditation may restore some peace, but loneliness for an extended period of time can actually wreak havoc on the mind and body.
Love and Belonging on the Hierarchy of Needs
A popular psychological theory is Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. It essentially lists the basic needs of humans in order of most importance. First, there are physiological needs, like eating, reproduction, and shelter. Next are mental and physical safety. These are essential components for keeping you alive.
The very next portion of the hierarchy includes love and belonging—in other words, family, friendship, and social status. If this hierarchy is accurate, the most important thing (after staying alive) is interacting with other human beings.
Without Close Social Interaction, We Fall Apart
Though there’s controversy regarding this hierarchy as a whole, virtually all psychologists agree that love and belonging are essential to living a healthy and happy lifestyle.
According to John Cacioppo, a social neuroscientist at the University of Chicago and co-author of “Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection,” loneliness can generate serious health risks. “For a social species, to be on the edge of the social perimeter is to be in a dangerous position,” he says. “The brain goes into a self-preservation state that brings with it a lot of unwanted effects.”
If we don’t have people in our lives, the effects literally have us falling apart, as we can’t get over the stress hormones and our body deteriorates from the toll.
Stress contributes to a lack of sleep, which we know has deteriorative effects on the body. “We get a flatter diurnal cycle in that cortisol, which means it’s not shutting off as much at night,” Cacioppo says. When you can’t sleep, your health takes a hit.
Physical health issues that come from loneliness include:
- Physical pain
- Lack of sleep
- Increased risk of dementia
- Higher risk for premature death
- Heart disease and cancer risks
Though there are many factors that go into these negative health effects, loneliness is the primary trigger.
Loneliness is a Chronic Problem in the Elderly
Loneliness is particularly harmful to the elderly. After mature adults watch loved ones go and lose some of their mental and physical capacity, the ability to remain social is a struggle.
According to studies from the Alzheimer’s Association International Conference, the elderly experience quicker cognitive decline when they’re lonely. Their minds deteriorate at a rate of about 20 percent faster over a decade. They’re more likely to develop dementia or Alzheimer’s, and less likely to participate in activities they once loved.
This mental degradation increases their risk factors for certain health concerns like obesity, substance abuse, injury and violence, cancer, and environmental discomfort. Their bones may weaken and muscles might atrophy simply because they lose much of the desire to stay healthy.
Combating Loneliness for a Healthier Lifestyle
If you’re lonely, you might feel like you don’t have a choice, especially if you’re older and don’t have family nearby. However, you do have some control over your social interaction. If you want to take charge of your physical and mental health, here are some things you can do to combat loneliness:
- Make the first move. You may feel lonely because no one has reached out to you, but that shouldn’t stop you from making an effort. Others might be shy or uncertain of how to make friends. You can cultivate healthy friendships by asserting yourself in social situations.
- Shift your mindset. Recognize that loneliness is a feeling, and it’s only when you succumb that your health suffers. If you change your attitude and recognize the things you’re grateful for, you can remove some of those lonely feelings.
- Join groups with like minded people. If you’re elderly, you may hate the idea of a nursing home, but you have to recognize the potential for social interaction. Residents are your age and they’re probably going through similar trials. Their presence and support can be very comforting – exactly what you need to banish feelings of loneliness.
Interested in Learning More about Health?
If health and medical related information have always been a point of fascination and interest for you, then you should consider entering the medical field. At Orion College, we offer online courses in a variety of health related fields. You can learn more about health, follow your passion, and save lives. For more information about the programs we offer, contact us today!