More fragile mental health, obesity and heart problems. These are just some of the direct consequences of loneliness, but the truth is that they can also be a springboard for a person to isolate and feel alone. Two psychologists explain to CNN Portugal the real impacts of loneliness on health.
By definition, “loneliness is a subjective feeling and is related to the absence of contact and a sense of belonging or the feeling of being isolated”, writes the Directorate-General for Health. Loneliness is one of the main reasons for isolation, but it can also be a direct consequence of it, like a vicious circle in which the person isolates himself because he feels alone and feels lonely because he is isolated.
As a feeling, loneliness varies greatly from person to person and is at the mercy of several factors, intrinsic or extrinsic, as an article published in Portuguese Journal of General and Family Medicine in 2018. But one thing is certain: it doesn’t look at genders, nor at ages. And the course of life, especially when marked by “negative experiences in relationships with others”, can be decisive for a greater vulnerability to loneliness, says Marta Calado, a psychologist at Clínica da Mente.
There are several triggers that make a person more vulnerable to loneliness and the desire to isolate themselves, and psychologist Ana Valente gives examples: “living alone, more fragile economic conditions, diseases that affect mobility, being an informal caregiver, widowhood, unemployment, place where you live, whether you are closer to others or not”. But, he points out, loneliness “often has to do with our psychological health and our life history, which can contribute to us being more alone and isolated and to the development of a feeling of loneliness”.
And how is loneliness diagnosed? Assessing how well the person is doing with himself. “Health professionals have to know how to distinguish a satisfactory tendency towards isolation, towards modesty, to have time to develop their own reflections, from what it is like to feel loneliness. When we feel lonely, we don’t necessarily want to be alone, we feel a tightness in our chest, an emptiness, we feel that other people’s lives are full, we have to deal with the emotion of sadness, disappointment, frustration “, explains psychologist Marta Shut up.
Feeling alone without being alone
Despite being associated with isolation, loneliness can affect a person even when they are at home, with their family, close to their friends, at their place of work. There are those who feel alone even when they have company and the person can perceive it “when they don’t feel integrated, they feel rejected”.
This ‘accompanied solitude’ “is one of the many experiences that makes the individual gain defense and protection mechanisms and not expose himself so much to others”, however, “without realizing it, he ends up leading a more goal-centered life”. individual or restricted to groups”, not least because the person can feel alone in the presence of certain people or groups and not always when accompanied, says Marta Calado. According to the psychologist, the person may lack a sense of belonging at home with the family, but find it “in the family of the heart, which are the friends he chose”.
Psychologist Ana Valente adds that this feeling of loneliness when you are not effectively alone was notorious in times of a pandemic, especially with the younger ones, who “could not have feelings of belonging, they could not identify” with whom they shared a roof.
The feeling of loneliness in the presence of other people causes what Marta Calado calls “internal conflict”, an “emotional ambiguity, with psychological and behavioral impact”, especially when loneliness is felt with people you are constantly with, such as It can happen in a family or work environment. And what is the result of that? “The person distances himself more, doesn’t talk as much, is not so interventionist, tries to get away from these situations as quickly as possible to protect himself in his bubble”, explains the psychologist at Clínica da Mente.
How loneliness affects physical and mental health
Loneliness and social isolation – each one for itself or one intensifying the other – is capable of driving a series of mental and physical problems, at the same time that it can also be a consequence of themselves.
“Loneliness is associated with psychopathologies, such as anxiety, depression and stress, but also on a physical level, such as hypertension and cardiovascular problems”, says Ana Valente. And by “associate” it is understood that it is cause and effect, which can lead to the feeling of loneliness, but that this same feeling can impact the person’s physical and mental health. A person who constantly deals with the feeling of loneliness may have “sleep alterations, such as insomnia, changes in appetite, the person may cry, have a greater deconcentration, feel sadness, have intrusive and constant thoughts that make them think because it is not interesting enough for others”, continues Marta Calado.
Looking at the impact on physical health, there is no lack of scientific evidence proving the relationship between loneliness and isolation with health problems. In 2019, a study published in PLOS One reveals that social isolation is associated with a greater propensity for physical inactivity, poor diet and use of psychotropic medications, factors that can trigger health problems, such as obesity or depression, for example. “Social isolation may be less prevalent at younger ages, but it is even more strongly associated with poor health and behavior than at older ages,” the research reads.
Another study, from the same year but published in the journal BMC Public Health, realizes that the elderly are also more vulnerable with social isolation and consequent loneliness. Research suggests that “greater social isolation in older men and women is related to reduced objective daily physical activity and longer sedentary time”, two factors also with a direct impact on physical health.
“Perceived social isolation (PSI) (loneliness) is linked to increased risk of chronic illness and mortality,” explains a 2015 study published in PNAS, which accounts for a greater tendency to inflammation and a lower ability to respond against viruses. A study published in 2017 by the American Psychological Association gives an example of this, stating that lonely people who were exposed to the rhinovirus were more likely to develop symptoms of constipation than people who were not lonely. But there are other equally painful impacts, such as an increased propensity for physical ailments such as hypertension, heart disease, obesity, a weakened immune system, anxiety, depression, cognitive decline, Alzheimer’s disease and even death, reveals the US National Institute on Aging. States, in addition to making the elderly even more vulnerable to the effects of aging on the brain: a study says that elderly people in social isolation or in a state of loneliness show worse cognitive function four years later.
On a mental level, the effects of loneliness and mental health are equally notorious and do not choose ages. “Without a doubt, someone who feels lonely does not feel well-being and psychological satisfaction”, says Marta Calado, explaining that, in the elderly, it is common to take antidepressants when the feeling of loneliness is a constant.
“It is natural for people who are more alone to take an antidepressant to be able to tolerate this emotional management more easily, the lack of enthusiasm, joy and opportunities to find courage. Especially because this life situation with these psychological repercussions will have physical repercussions, because isolation makes people tend not to move so much, to have physical ailments, such as muscle contractures, pain, cramps, accumulated tension”.
Scientists at McGill University in Canada last year revealed a signature of sorts in the brains of lonely people, mirrored in variations in the volume of different brain regions, as well as the way these regions communicate with each other in brain networks, reads on the website of the educational institution.
In practice, says the study published in Nature Communications that the brain changes of lonely people were centered on what is called a “pattern network”, a set of brain regions involved in internal thoughts, such as remembering, perspective or thinking about other people. “Scientists found that lonely people’s default networks were more tightly linked and, surprisingly, their gray matter volume in default network regions was greater,” however, lonely people continue to be at the mercy of earlier and earlier cognitive decline. faster onset of signs of dementia, explains Science Daily.
Despite being an association that has already been made several times by science, the truth is that it is still “uncertain” whether the effects of social isolation or loneliness “are independent or if loneliness represents the emotional path through which social isolation harms health” , reads a study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Letting prevent loneliness and avoid isolation
“It is up to all of us to play a community role and within society”, says Ana Valente. The psychologist argues that “taking care of our own, whether family or neighbors” helps those who are alone to stop feeling (at least so) alone, either because they are being helped or because they are helping. “We can all do something to combat loneliness, not least because this is very positive for the well-being and mental health of those who help”, she emphasizes.
Ana Valente also considers that “self-care” should be the starting point, including habits such as “taking care of physical and mental health, doing physical activity and having a healthy diet” in this task. But it is also necessary to know how to filter and, about this, the psychologist talks about the importance of “being careful and filtering information and television programs”, especially those who opt for more dramatic content and that can lead to states of sadness – “it makes that we live the pain and suffering of others”, adds Marta Calado.
One of the secrets for people not to feel the need to isolate themselves is “doing things they like and this is tailored to each one, it can be listening to music, going for a walk, doing volunteer work, finding an active role within the community in which they live.” the person is inserted”, this last point being more advantageous even for the elderly, especially when they retire and lose their usual routine and even, in some cases, their purpose.
“Taking an active role within the community brings out positive emotions and causes the most negative feelings to subside, including loneliness”emphasizes Ana Valente.
Maintain routines and have daily planning “in the sense of occupying the 24 hours of our day with tasks, be it calling a friend or family member, walking the pet, having the task of doing the daily shopping, talking to neighbors, accompanying or taking care of the neighbor’s grandchildren” is, for Marta Calado, also a way of dealing with loneliness.
Although social networks are associated with isolation, in some cases they can be the essential tool to maintain contacts and shorten distances, reducing the feeling of loneliness – physical isolation remains, but maintaining connections with others, even if digital, can help the person to feel less alone.
“We must make a healthy use of our technologies, as I usually say, there is no beauty without but, but [a tecnologia] it can be a very positive resource in the fight against loneliness, not isolation but loneliness. We should encourage contacts via technologies, which should not be the only way to do it, but they allow feelings of loneliness to be reduced”, concludes Ana Valente.