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Here’s what happens to your body when you’re lonely

Crissy M.

Independence is an ideal. In American culture, few things seem as prioritized as the freedom of the individual. Loneliness, though, feels like a threatening concept. This creates a bit of a tension, at least for a garden-variety anxiety-and-depression-suffering-sad-girl like me.

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Whenever I feel the sweet, blissed-out high that is canceling all my plans via text message, it’s usually followed by a quick burst of existential dread. Before cracking open a smooth 32 tabs on my browser and reading Wikipedia entries about cults for two hours, I often wonder, “am I isolating myself?” I mean, yeah. So how does one’s constant struggle for maximum independence actually affect their health? Can being lonely have actual, physiological markers that you can see and feel with your bod? Of course! Existence is a nightmare! Just kidding. Managing our exposure to each other is a complicated thing, though. Everyone needs alone time, but experts agree that we need a considerable amount of human interaction and a few deep, meaningful connections to feel that ever-elusive thing known as contentment.

The physical manifestations of feeling lonely are real. Luckily, the solutions to loneliness are also real and very simple. Let’s talk loneliness together, beginning with your body. (Intimate, I know.) Here are six things that go down when you’re lonely. (And a few encouraging words on how to balance out your solitude).

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1. Your stress hormones elevate

You probably know that your body produces more cortisol when you’re stressed, so it won’t surprise you to know that cortisol levels are lower when you’re able to socialize. Studies show that those who complain (or, more gently put, share their issues) with a friend about their problems feel physical relief after commiserating. When you aren’t bottling it up and are instead able to talk about your petty problems with a co-worker or a friend, you’re less physically stressed. An excess of cortisol is something your system might not handle well, so talk out your issues with a friend before you bottle up the problems and get overwhelmed.

2. Your nervous system goes into fight-or-flight mode, making it harder to sleep

When you’re lonely, research shows that your brain can produce an excess of norepinephrine, a hormone that’s a crucial “signal during the fight or flight response.” Loneliness can feel, to our social selves, like dire straits. When your body responds to stress by activating fight-or-flight responses, it becomes harder to shut down at the end of the day and rest, even if you desperately want to just be alone and crash. Being part of a social species is kind of a bitch, huh? We often isolate ourselves socially—by canceling plans and sending those sweet, sweet “omg, totally forgot this was tonight!” texts—when we get stressed out. Unless you have plans to be productive in your solitude, try leaving your apartment to meet a friend or just walk in a populated place, like a park, to take a break from your brain.

3. Your white blood cells elevate, causing possible long-term inflammation

While the hormone cortisol fights inflammation, the fight-or-flight response that loneliness causes drives your body to produce norepinephrine, which actually elevates your white blood cell production and shuts down your bodies natural viral defenses. It’s a sort of vicious cycle: you’re stressed and your cortisol levels are elevated, but you’re a little panicky, so your body is less sensitive to the beneficial, inflammation-lowering aspect of cortisol. In the long-term, lonely people are more likely to fall victim to issues associated with chronic inflammation: cancer, sensitivity to viruses, and infection, to name a few. Try exercising in a gym, taking a workout class, or just go for a jog in the park to be social and healthy at the same damn time.

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4. You become colder—literally

In 2012, researchers in the Netherlands found that just the idea of being ignored socially was enough to make a person’s body temperature drop. Furthermore, the same lab discovered that just the memory of being socially excluded is enough to make people feel colder. Simply put, loneliness can give you the chills. As those researchers (and grandmothers around the world) would suggest, that cold chill of loneliness can be remedied by both the figurative, psychological warmth of social interaction and actual physical warmth that mimics it, like a cup of hot coffee held between your hands. The mind-body connection between physical warmth and the feeling of being loved is real—and good for Starbucks’ business.

5. Your lovey-dovey brain falls victim to co-dependent cuffing season

Cuffing season is what happens when temperatures drop in the fall and winter months and the number of engagements, relationships, and casual hookups in your social circles rise tenfold. This phenomenon is mostly social—as Fusion’s consultations with experts note, the cultural pressure to be in a relationship around the holidays is more to blame than biology—but the impulse to rush into a relationship does have a biochemical root in loneliness. When you’re lonely, you miss out on the dopamine that’s produced when you’re physically close to another person. That lack of “warmth” will leave you cold and craving, and so you might rush into a codependent, less-than-stable connection, in the absence of something more timely and sturdy.

Crissy Milazzo

"When you’re lonely, you miss out on the dopamine that’s produced when you’re physically close to another person."

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6. You die faster

OK, this one is a bit dramatic. As you’ve read with the previous examples, loneliness can have all sorts of adverse effects on your immediate health. Over time, this affects your mortality rate, because generally, poor health leads to a shorter lifespan. Research shows that married men die slower, which is good news for monogamy, but bad news for people who neurotically doubt the institution of marriage itself, like me! Perhaps I’m overthinking it. I’m definitely overthinking it, given that I shouldn’t expect to die sooner just because I’m single and healthy, and neither should you. In fact, learning to be lonely in a good way—independent!—is what will help you in your relationships in the long-term. In turn, your health will prosper and you’ll die slower. Existence isn’t a total nightmare, right? In general, making your alone time more meaningful—through exercise, relaxation techniques like meditation, and structured work time for productivity—is key. With mindful alone time balanced with social interaction, you’re sure to counteract the negative effects of prolonged or chronic patterns of isolation.

Artwork by JING WEI
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