When we are lonely, we lose impulse control and engage in what scientists call “social evasion.” We become less concerned with interactions and more concerned with self preservation.

by Allen Weiss, MD, MBA, FACP, FACR President and CEO, NCH Healthcare System

by Allen Weiss, MD, MBA, FACP, FACR President and CEO, NCH Healthcare System

It may be more deadly than obesity. It is a major risk factor for dying prematurely.

This malady is called loneliness. It has been described as social pain, a psychological mechanism meant to alert an individual of isolation and motivate him or her to seek social connections. Loneliness is a complex and usually unpleasant emotional response to isolation or lack of companionship.

As our community aspires to have more folks live longer, happier, and healthier lives, we need to learn more about social isolation—its causes, consequences, and treatments.

Loneliness can be experienced even when you are surrounded by others, in marriage, at work, or in any situation when you feel disconnected from those around you. Being self-aware is key to identifying this state of mind and not confusing it with depression, anxiety, or other similar feelings, which can be comingled with loneliness.

When we are lonely, we lose impulse control and engage in what scientists call “social evasion.” We become less concerned with interactions and more concerned with self-preservation.

LonelinessEvolutionary psychologists speculate that loneliness triggers our basic fight or flight mechanisms, causing us to stay away from people we are not sure we can trust. People who are lonely are far more likely not to sleep well—which suggests the brain is on constant alert status as there maybe threats throughout the night. People who sleep well have a secure feeling that others around them will be protective. Loneliness implies a lack of belonging to a team, family, tribe or other protective group, according to Jessica Olien, a writer for the Medical Examiner.

The frequency of loneliness has doubled in four decades, according to surveys conducted first in the 1980s and repeated recently. In terms of human interactions the number of people we know is not as important as having a few trusted people who we can depend on through thick or thin. Two decades ago the average number of trustworthy friends was three. Now we are down to one and one-half.

Interestingly, in the age of the internet we may be making our loneliness worse. A recent Facebook study found that the amount of time you spend on the social network is inversely related to how happy you feel throughout the day. Other studies have shown that people who meet on the internet have a lower chance of divorce than those who offline. It has been suggested that some of the psychological screening done in the course of participating in an online dating service helps with long term compatibility while simultaneously decreasing loneliness.



  1. Realize you are not alone. At various times of our lives we are all lonely, particularly during life transitions. Moving to a new city, starting a new job, getting married, major illnesses, loss of a loved one are all major stresses and can potentially cause loneliness.
  2. Get involved in activities. Nothing happens when you stay at home. Join a sports league; take a class, volunteer—there are so many good and worthwhile activities to engage in.
  3. Don’t participate in a “Pity Party.” Dwelling on how youfeel—particularly when you are not well—only makes thingsworse. Stay busy, make up projects, have a purpose in life andmake detailed plans to keep yourself busy and engaged.
  4. Do social activities by yourself. This is hard but is similarto “fake it until you make it.” Go out and “take yourself on a date.” Get involved in activities you enjoyed in the past. You’llenjoy these undertakings again.
  5. Get a pet. President Harry Truman once said, “Ifyou want a friend in Washington, get a dog.” Pets have beensuccessful domestic companions for eons. They are trustworthyand affectionate. And you’ll meet other dog owners while walking your pooch.
  6. Call or get together with people you know. Human contact is so important and even if this is the first step to connecting, get started. Martin Luther King said, “Take the firststep even though you can’t see the top of the stairs.” Connecting is more important than anything else.
  7. Challenge yourself to take the initiative in socialrelations. It can be painful at first but once you make contactand have even modest success you will change your spirits forthe better.
  8. Spend time with your family(which is always a good idea even when you are not lonely). Sharing past memories, breaking bread together, enjoying comfort food, orwhatever gets you reconnected.
  9. Be a pleasant presence as folks gravitate to happy people and avoid grumps. We bring our own weather and aggregate with like-minded folks. Your attitude is reflected in those around you.
  10. Join an online community. Communication comes in all forms you can join others digitally. The over-65 age group is the fastest growing segment of internet users. For one thing, they often have more time.
  11. Differentiate between loneliness and solitude. Loneliness is when you are unhappy to be alone. Solitude is being happy to be by yourself which is more than okay in this frantic world with instant 24/7 access to everything.
  12. Take advantage of the time of being alone by doing things you enjoy doing. If you like to read, write, do puzzles or whatever, then indulge. You will be back in circulation soon enough so enjoy the time alone.
  13. Learn a new skill such as playing an instrument, learning a new language, drawing, writing or whatever you have longed to do but never had the time.
  14. Exercise. It releases endorphins which are endogenous hormones associated with feeling good. Exercise can also be done in a group which adds interaction.

So, there you have ways to cope with loneliness, a common problem that most of us experience sometime in our lives. These commonsense, simple-to-do and practical activities will break the cycle. It is up to us to help ourselves. In other words, make a better life by creating it for yourself.

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