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The Psychological and Health Consequences of Loneliness

Are You Lonely?

By

Updated April 15, 2014

Science has shown that humans have an innate need to feel connected. We are social beings with a fundamental need to belong. This need is not only essential to our growth and development when we are young, but continues to play a role in our overall sense of well-being throughout our lives. In fact, feelings of loneliness have been linked to a variety of mental and physical health consequences.

Many people with panic disorder or another anxiety disorder experience loneliness that is pervasive and overwhelming. This can be especially true if one becomes isolated due to agoraphobia. Or, sometimes shame, embarrassment and a desire to keep our condition a secret, prevent us from making the connection we need with others.

Defining Loneliness

Loneliness is a feeling. It has often been defined as a feeling of disconnectedness or isolation. All humans can, and probably do, experience loneliness from time to time. Experiencing the loss of a friendship or significant other can lead to normal feelings of loneliness. This type of situational loneliness usually resolves as one comes to accept the realities of the current relationship and move on to forming other social connections.

Loneliness is subjective in the sense that is based on one’s individual perceptions about his relationships with others. For example, someone with panic disorder may be surrounded by supportive friends and family. But, inside he feels an overwhelming sense of loneliness. Panic disorder can lead to feeling fearful, different or defective in some way, and this can affect one’s self-esteem and sense of self-worth. This perception may be irrational, illogical and just plain untrue. Nevertheless, it holds the kind of power as if it were factual.

Loneliness and Aloneness

Loneliness is not the same as being alone. In fact, a person can feel lonely even when surrounded by many. Some studies show people living in large cities have higher degrees of loneliness than those from close-knit small towns. Just because many are around us doesn’t automatically mean we have the sense of connectedness and emotional belonging to thwart loneliness.

The existentialist school of thought proposes we are all involved in a human paradox -– we are alone and yet related. To have healthy relationships with others, we must first be comfortable in our own company. By experiencing “aloneness,” we become more confident and secure in our sense of who we are. Our value comes from within as we gain a level of independence that doesn’t need the approval of others. If we are unable to experience aloneness, we may develop unhealthy patterns of dependency on others.

Consequences of Loneliness

Some studies have suggested that loneliness can be linked to a number of psychological and physical difficulties, including:

The bottom line is that overwhelming and pervasive loneliness is a factor in psychological stress that may ultimately culminate in serious physical disease.

What You Can Do

A sense of connectedness allows us to better adapt to life’s many challenges. Loneliness can chip away at our psychological well-being and impact our physical health. But, you can do other things to cope with feelings of loneliness and regain your sense of belonging. Building a support network is another great way to reduce loneliness and the impact of its consequences.

Sources:

Corey, Gerald. (2009). Theory and Practice of Counseling and Psychotherapy (8th ed.). Belmont, CA: Thomson Brooks/Cole.

Hawkley, Louise C. & Cacioppo, John T. (2002). Loneliness and Pathways to Disease. Institute for Mind and Biology, University of Chicago.

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