Loneliness can harm your mind and your body—here’s how

A woman grapples with her loneliness, staring out a window on a rainy day.

Loneliness is consistently one of the most searched topics on the LifeSpeak platform.

It can cause significant mental distress and lead to other challenges like depression and anxiety. But new studies show it can also harm a person’s physical health.

Researchers at the Western Norway University of Applied Sciences have discovered a link between loneliness and type 2 diabetes. The study, which began in 1984, analyzed data from more than 24,000 participants. Of those who developed type 2 diabetes, 13% reported experiencing loneliness. Those who felt the loneliest had a 100% higher risk of developing type 2 diabetes than those who did not feel lonely. In another recent study, researchers concluded that loneliness can even accelerate the aging process—maybe more than smoking!

So, how exactly does loneliness cause physical harm? And more importantly: what can employees do to prevent it?

Below, LifeSpeak experts and mental health professionals answer these very questions. Share them with your colleagues to reduce feelings of loneliness, improve mental health and wellbeing and transform corporate culture.

How does loneliness cause harm?

According to clinical psychologist and LifeSpeak expert Dr. Nasreen Khatri, mortality rates rise by 50% for people who are very lonely. Her explanation: lonely people engage more often with unhealthy coping mechanisms.

Unhealthy coping mechanisms include negative rumination, smoking and overeating. Healthy coping mechanisms, on the other hand, include eating nutritious food, exercising, spending time in nature, laughing and connecting with others.

To reduce feelings of loneliness and foster a true sense of connection with others, consistently embrace healthy coping mechanisms. It’s important to recognize that people aren’t always lonely when they’re alone or happy when they’re with other people. Dr. Khatri encourages each person to find the right balance of time spent with others and time spent alone.

Next, let’s examine how to achieve that goal.

What can you do about loneliness?

As Khatri says, the first step to feeling better is to acknowledge struggles.

She encourages people struggling with loneliness to talk about these feelings with another person. From there, they can examine how they spend their alone time so that it nurtures rather than hurts them.

Khatri recommends using alone time for enriching activities. These might include writing or spending time in nature—and they actually make a person more resilient. When you think about spending time with others, you might worry about how the interaction will go and, as a result, feel ashamed or nervous to talk to others.

But “at least 80% of things we worry about never happen,” Khatri says, “and that goes for social interactions as well.”

Leveraging social media for good

Much of the discussion around loneliness tends to focus on the downsides to social media and today’s always online culture.

But psychiatrist and LifeSpeak expert Dr. Nik Grujich would argue that “if someone uses social media to leverage niche interest groups or to develop communities where they can connect and engage, that can actually be a very effective tool to combat loneliness.”

He says those communities can foster authentic and rich discussions that can lead to a greater sense of belonging. They can be wonderful tools to foster connection among people who live very far apart or who have mobility issues. In these instances, social media platforms can help reduce loneliness rather than promote it.

The underlying causes of loneliness are unique for each person, and the solutions should be too. Next we’ll examine two specific sources of loneliness where the LifeSpeak Group of Companies is uniquely suited to support your people.

Loneliness in caregiving and substance use disorder

Caregiving and substance use disorder are two unique sources of loneliness. For caregivers, loneliness may make it physically and mentally difficult to meet obligations. For people struggling with substance use, loneliness may fuel unhealthy coping mechanisms.

LifeSpeak features expert-led content designed to support caregivers and those with substance use disorder, so they can keep bringing their best selves to work.

  1. Caregiving

According to caregiving coach and LifeSpeak expert Denise Brown, caregivers sometimes experience loneliness because they don’t let other people in.

Sometimes, caregivers refuse to ask for help with the best intentions: they don’t want to burden other people with their challenges. But she encourages caregivers to “be open to the possibility that it’s not a burden for others, it’s an opportunity.

“We have to be open to the idea that there’s support out there for us, that we can feel better.”

  1. Substance use

Substance use issues can be extremely isolating. As addiction medicine expert and LifeSpeak expert Dr. Adi Jaffe says, people who struggle with substance use typically have other mental health challenges.

“If your brain is acting in ways that you don’t like and that make it hard to function, you’re going to try to find a solution. And because of the shame and stigma that are associated, a lot of us don’t want to look for help outside of ourselves. So we try to fix it ourselves.”

This type of thinking leads to self-medication and compounds issues. For more info about the unique relationship between substance use and loneliness, check out this article by psychologist Paul Singh.

Looking for more expert guidance?

LifeSpeak companies Torchlight and ALAViDA provide comprehensive support for employees struggling with caregiving and substance use challenges.

Torchlight helps employees address everyday caregiving obstacles and prevent crises while ALAViDA gives employees on-demand substance use support through the privacy of their smartphone.

Learn more about how LifeSpeak can help you prevent feelings of loneliness, improve physical and mental wellbeing, take care of your people and boost productivity.

Ready to take the next step? Book a demo today.