It’s natural for human beings to seek connection with other human beings. This tendency is hardwired into our nature, so we crave companionship.
According to the American Psychological Association (APA), loneliness is cognitive discomfort or uneasiness from being or perceiving oneself to be alone. So, loneliness is that feeling we get when our innate need for social interaction isn’t met.
But loneliness isn’t the same as being alone. Many people are quite content with their own company. It only becomes a problem when your need for companionship isn’t being met.
Even if you have lots of social connections and a strong support system, you can still be lonely. This is particularly true if you feel unheard or uncared for by those in your circle.
Long-term social isolation and loneliness can also reduce cognitive abilities such as decision-making making, problem-solving, and eventually result in depression. Additionally, a lonely person may feel ill or under the weather most of the time.
Let’s take a look at five signs that could mean someone is feeling lonely and isolated.
1) Physical symptoms
Some physical signs of loneliness mimic lingering cold or flu symptoms, head and body aches, and sleep disturbances.
These problems are compounded when someone is dealing with loneliness and isolation. Your attention is inwardly focused and self-centered, making you more attuned to any perceived negative feedback from your body that you would’ve blown off otherwise.
Conversely, some people may experience chronic loneliness as a side effect of a primary medical or mental health problem. Some of these conditions include the following:
- Mental health conditions, including depression and bipolar disorder
- Serious illness
- Mild types of autism (Asperger’s Syndrome)
Loneliness and mild-to-severe depression are a tag team that can amplify the awareness and experience of physical symptoms. The physical manifestations of isolation can be daunting, and the longer they last, the harder they are to shake.
These symptoms of chronic loneliness can put you at high risk for more serious medical and psychological problems, including:
- Heart disease
If you experience symptoms for a few weeks or more, check in with your primary care provider and share your concerns.
2) Sleep disturbances
This physical symptom of loneliness gets its own special section as its effects are so profound. An erratic sleep schedule puts anyone at a disadvantage.
The longer you stare at the ceiling repeating this like a mantra, the longer you will remain wide awake. It’s the very definition of a vicious circle.
Loneliness and poor sleep quality can result in symptoms of daytime dysfunction like fatigue and trouble focusing. On the other hand, loneliness and sleep duration have no direct correlation.
So it’s not the quantity, it’s the quality.
Numerous studies suggest that loneliness and higher daytime dysfunction are accompanied by increased micro-awakenings during the night.
When you’re lonely, you’ll tend to experience more of these micro-awakenings. This means you wake up a little bit at night even though you aren’t aware of it.
Sleep-restriction studies indicate that people who are sleep-deprived are more likely to contract type 2 diabetes and have high stress hormone levels. The 2002 NIH study report states:
“If individuals are lonely chronically, it is conceivable that the effects of impaired sleep diminish nightly restorative processes and the overall resilience of lonely individuals.”
These findings also suggest that poor sleep can exacerbate those effects as we grow older. Senior citizen early bird specials are not enough to compensate for this, if you ask me.
3) Retail therapy
Are you super-attached to your new desktop or designer handbag? There’s a name for that. Researchers call this “material possession love.”
Doesn’t sound very romantic, but odds are you’ve seen this theory in action when your neighbor calls his sports car “baby.” These folks lack real social connections, so they obsess over material objects instead.
If the highlight of your day is your package from Amazon being delivered (been there, done that) perhaps you should ask yourself if your extravagant shopping sprees are an attempt to fill an emotional void.
Forming strong attachments to material objects only makes you lonelier, because, at the end of the day, that cool car or expensive purse can’t love you in return. You’re in an unrequited love affair with your… stuff.
However, materialism doesn’t cause loneliness, but loneliness definitely causes excess materialism.
Feeling isolated can most definitely precipitate an endless retail-therapy loop that causes you to want more junk even though the dopamine rush from shopping is only fleeting and minimally satisfying.
And all the while, you’re piling up debt and exacerbating the stress you’re already under.
Not surprisingly, most mental health experts warn that possessions are no substitute for healthy relationships. Some studies reveal that having a bunch of stuff doesn’t make you happier.
Your money would be better spent on a memory-making experience, like a vacation. So if money is burning a hole in your pocket, book that trip you’ve always been meaning to take. Odds are you’ll get a much better return on your investment.
4) Endless scrolling on social media
Social media definitely has its perks, like keeping in touch with far-flung friends and family and cat memes.
However according to this study, seriously curtailing your scrolling time on social media will decrease feelings of loneliness and depression.
Limiting social media to 30 minutes a day is considered the goal, which is a lot harder for some than others. After all, social networks have been designed to keep our brains engaged and parked in neutral.
Well, mission accomplished, because most adults spend, on average, two hours a day on social media sites.
5) Misery loves company
When I first moved to the country from the city, I was thrilled to discover another single woman living alone right down the road.
Talk about a stroke of luck, right? Nope.
Putting two lonely people together doesn’t solve either of their problems, unfortunately. You’ll probably feel even lonelier hanging out with someone who’s also lonely.
So misery may love company, but it isn’t eradicated by it. In fact, your misery feeds off your companion’s misery.
We are still good friends, but I had to limit contact for a time until we both were in better places mentally.
You’re more inclined to act hostile and awkward when you’re chronically lonely. Because your perspective is skewed, you might miss important social cues or overreact by blowing things out of proportion.
Although this is due to a lack of self-awareness and not malice, it still pushes other people to return that energy by acting hostile in return. This only perpetuates the cycle of isolation for the lonely person.
So, strangely enough, loneliness is contagious. Loneliness is the cause and the consequence of lacking a deep connection with other humans.
The only cure is cultivating and nurturing our interpersonal relationships.