February is here and it means Valentine’s Day is right around the corner. For some, it’s an exciting time. However, there are many other people that are reminded of how lonely they feel. Loneliness can happen all year and in many different circumstances. It can also be debilitating and lead to numerous physical and psychological issues.
Katie, a 22 yo female, came to see me after being referred by several specialists for an anxiety evaluation. She reported that her health was declining and no one could figure out why she felt so bad. She had been feeling “tired and having pain” for several months. After going over her history, she revealed that she had been “ousted” by her close- knit friend group. In addition, she had conflict with her mom and sister and felt they were “ganging up” on her. She admitted that she felt alone and isolated and this was new territory for her. As a result of this loneliness, she started to have physical ailments, including body aches, fatigue, and low immune system.
Recent studies indicate that social isolation can have a great impact on physical health. One study reported that our immune system will start to weaken when we feel disconnected from others. This inadequate social connection is a bigger risk factor than obesity and can act on the same parts of the brain as physical pain.
After treating her anxiety with medication and referring her to a therapist to address social skills and conflict resolution, Katie started to rebound. She became more involved in new social groups and her fatigue and pain improved. She was shocked that “feeling alone” could cause so many physical problems.
David, a 53 yo male was recently divorced and started having anxiety attacks at work. He worked in the corporate world and was worried he was going to lose his recent promotion. Although he enjoyed his job, he admitted that he did little else with his time. He stated that he lost most of his friends after his divorce and hadn’t made “much of an effort to meet new people”. Even though the divorce had taken a toll on him, he admits that he felt “lonely during his 8 year marriage”. He and his wife had stopped being intimate and connecting with each other. He filled the void with his work and “became great at my job”. “I had no idea how used to being alone I had become until my divorce”. He reports that his anxiety attacks started when he “had to socialize with people for work”. “I couldn’t go home and isolate and this started to make me panic”.
Research has focused on the cycle of loneliness that can lead to a fear of being in social groups. One study concluded that loneliness is a perceptual state and can trigger fear and anxiety. Data suggest that a if one thinks they are socially disconnected, their sense of self can crumble and lead to phobias and anxiety.
Once David started understanding that his loneliness was causing his anxiety attacks, he committed to therapy to change his negative thought patterns and fear of rejection. In turn, he was able to control his anxiety attacks and climb the corporate ladder.
All of us are susceptible to feeling “lonely” and it’s not always a bad thing. It’s when we are isolated and socially phobic, that it can be detrimental to our physical and mental health. Putting energy into staying connected with friends and family, not relying too heavily on social media as our main social outlet, and participating in social events at least once a month can keep the “cycle of loneliness” at bay.
- Floyd, K. (2015) The loneliness cure: Six strategies for finding real connections in your life. Avon, MA: Adams Media.
- Latson, J. (2018) The loneliness cure. How to make connections that count. Psychology Today, 51, 45-51.