How Loneliness Affects Your Body (and How to Feel Better)
Feeling lonely is universal. Whether you’ve moved to a new city where you don’t know anyone or struggle with getting out during the winter, loneliness is something we all experience. But it’s a growing problem – so much so that U.S. Surgeon Dr. General Vivek Murthy sounded the alarm in a 2023 advisory.
According to a 2020 review published in National Academies Press, 1 in 3 adults over the age of 45 in the United States reports feeling lonely. Other research indicates it may be more like 58% of adults, and hitting younger people aged 18 to 24 even harder.
Though we most associate loneliness with its effect on mental health and emotional well-being, it can also have a significant negative impact on our physical health. We tapped experts to find out more about the risks, and concrete steps you can take to feel more connected.
Health Risks of Feeling Lonely
1. Elevated cortisol levels
Intense loneliness can cause a physical stress response. “Research indicates that individuals experiencing intense loneliness often exhibit elevated levels of stress hormones such as cortisol — hormones which can then ravage various bodily systems,” says Dr. Kevin Huffman, medical director of Florida Injury Centers. Elevated levels of cortisol have been linked to anxiety and depression, as well as increased blood pressure, diabetes, blunted immunity, and more.
2. Higher risk of heart disease
“One of the less discussed yet significant consequences of loneliness is its impact on cardiovascular health,” warns licensed social worker Elvis Rosales, clinical director at Align Sonoma. “[This includes] an increased likelihood of developing coronary artery disease.”
Plus, “Chronic feelings of isolation frequently culminate in heightened blood pressure — a major risk factor for heart disease,” Dr. Huffman says, noting that a 2018 meta-analysis, covering multiple studies, found that weak social ties are associated with a 29% heightened risk for coronary heart disease and higher stroke risk of 32%.
3. Weakened immune system
Feeling lonely chronically can also have a significant effect on the body’s immune system.
“Poor interpersonal connections deteriorate the body’s immune defenses — rendering it more vulnerable to infections — and amplify inflammatory reactions,” Dr. Huffman explains. This can cause chronic inflammation, which is associated with a long list of health issues, such as arthritis, type 2 diabetes, and Alzheimer’s disease.
4. Sleep disruption
Another unpleasant and dangerous effect of the stress of loneliness: disrupted sleep cycles. “Disrupted slumber is linked to obesity, hormone imbalances, and cognitive decline,” Dr. Huffman says. “A constellation of health issues signaling the profound consequences of social isolation.”
What you can do to feel less lonely
Thankfully, there are many things you can do to help combat loneliness and social isolation. Here’s what the experts suggest:
1. Community involvement
“Participating in community events or joining local clubs can provide a sense of belonging,” Rosales says. It can also present more opportunities for consistent social interaction. If you’re a parent, you can join your child’s school PTA, or contact your town’s mayor’s office to find out about opportunities to help with community events.
Another easy way to do this is by volunteering. “Engaging in volunteer work can connect you with others, provide a sense of purpose, and enhance your social network,” he adds. Use a site like VolunteerMatch to find opportunities in your area.
2. Pursue hobbies and interests
Additionally, you can pursue your hobbies and interests as a way to stay busy and connected. “Joining groups or classes related to personal interests can connect you with like-minded individuals and foster new friendships,” Rosales says. Take a cooking class, seek out a hiking group, or join your local library’s book club, for example.
3. Digital communication and phone calls
You can also take things slow and use digital communication and phone calls as an easy, accessible way to foster relationships.
“Utilizing technology to stay in touch with friends and family, especially when physical distance is a barrier, can help maintain and strengthen relationships,” Rosales says. Regularly checking in with family and friends — ”even if it’s just a brief conversation,” he notes — can help build and maintain relationships.
Clinical psychologist Lauren Napolitano, PsyD recommends texting three people to check in to see how they’re doing when you’re feeling lonely. If you’re feeling up to it, you can also make plans to meet with friends in person for a chat over coffee or a walk.
4. Physical activity
Rosales points out that physical activity is also vital; research links it to lower rates of loneliness and social isolation. “Group exercise classes or sports teams not only improve physical health but also offer social interaction,” he notes.
Plus, signing up for a scheduled event like a yoga class can also help when you’re feeling lonely. “Social accountability can be very helpful when digging out of social isolation and loneliness,” Napolitano adds.
5. Mindfulness and Therapy
You know already that mindfulness and therapy can work wonders for your mental health; the same is true when it comes to feeling lonely.
“Practices like mindfulness can help in coping with feelings of loneliness,” Rosales says. “In some cases, therapy can be beneficial in addressing underlying issues related to isolation.” You can take a big step, like finding a therapist and going to weekly sessions, or a smaller one, like downloading a meditation app on your phone and trying it for 5 minutes.
6. Go outside
This suggestion is so simple, yet so important. “Leave your house every single day without exception,” Napolitano advises. Research shows that going outside can boost feelings of well-being. So even if you just take a quick walk around the block, you may find that with consistency, you start to feel better.
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