Can feelings of loneliness put you at risk for cancer? Do they increase your chances of illness, overall?

“Isolationism” is at the crux of more health problems than we might imagine, say researchers.

But they are quick to point out that if you live alone you need not be lonely. And vice versa – you can be lonely in a crowd!

Can you slay the beast? Only if you ‘care’ enough to try...

Loneliness appears to impede immune function.

Loneliness may be hazardous to your health in a very concrete way. Blood samples collected from a group of medical students at the Ohio State University College of Medicine revealed important differences between those who scored high on a loneliness assessment test and those who did not. Lonely students were more likely to have reduced levels of natural killer (NK) cell activity, an indicator of immune response. “These cells have been shown to be of vital importance in preventing tumour development and spread,” the Ohio researchers point out (Psychosomatic Medicine).

Being alone is not synonymous with loneliness.

But if living alone doesn’t depress you, there’s no reason this news should, either. As social psychology researchers Carin Rubenstein, Ph.D., a former associate editor of Psychology Today, and Phillip Shaver, Ph.D., of the University of Denver, have observed: Being alone is not synonymous with loneliness. If people feel lonely, it has nothing to do with the number of people around them, but rather with their expectations of life and reactions to their environment. And those are risk factors you can do something about.

Drs. Rubenstein and Shaver conducted their research b placing a questionnaire about loneliness in five U.S. newspapers, ranging from the New York Daily News to the Montana Gazette. Twenty-two thousand people over the age of 18 responded.


While the survey did confirm that feeling lonely – regardless of living arrangements – is associated with greater health risks (people who said they were lonely were more likely to suffer from some 19 health problems listed, including such psychological symptoms as anxiety, depression, crying spells, and feeling worthless), results do not support the view that loneliness is a consequence of living alone.

Nearly one-quarter of the people who lived alone fell into Drs. Rubenstein and Shaver’s “least lonely” category. Single people had more friends on the average than people who lived with other people and they were less frequently troubled by headaches, anger, and irritability.


Two common responses to loneliness. Through their research, Drs. Rubenstein and Shaver also discovered that when people feel lonely, they generally react in one of two ways. In a “sad passivity” reaction, the person spends much of the time sleeping, eating, and crying. In a “creative solitude” reaction, the person overcomes loneliness through reading, listening to music, working on a hobby, studying, writing, or playing a musical instrument.

Loneliness is often a synonym for boredom,” Dr. Rubenstein says. “People who spend their time creatively when alone are learning to deal with solitude. In the process, they begin to feel more calm, creative, and happy.”

Maturity, too, brings new perspective on solitude. Older people in their 60s and 70s adjust much better to being alone then younger people, says Dr. Rubenstein. One reason may be that they’ve grown more secure in knowing who they are.

Finding contentment in solitude requires self-confidence. You must be secure with yourself before you can find contentment in solitude. The trouble is, we often grow up in the constant company of others and come to depend on them for our happiness. It isn’t until we’re forced into “solitary confinement,” often under grievous circumstances such as death or divorce, that our self-confidence comes to test.

“My own experience was typical,” says David A. Chiriboga, Ph.D., associate professor of psychology and the director of a study on mental health and divorce at the University of California at San Francisco. “I grew up in a large family, always had room-mates at school, and got married as soon as I graduated. After my divorce, I found I wasn’t used to being alone. It was devastating, frightening. For a long time, I would play the radio all day just so the house wouldn’t feel so empty.”

“Time passed and I started getting more comfortable with my life. Realizing that I could enjoy being alone was a major discovery for me.”

When you find yourself alone, see it as an opportunity to discover yourself. Now Dr. Chiriboga helps ease through the transition to singleness. His advice: “When you find yourself alone, see it as an opportunity to discover yourself. Take it as a challenge. Find out what you want to do, and what gives you pleasure,” he says. “Anyone can be an interesting person. All you have to do is look inside yourself.”

Of course, when we look inward, the opportunity is there not only to understand ourselves better but to better understand those around us.

People in touch with their inner selves have a true sense of identity. “Everyone has an inner and outer self,” explains psychiatrist and psychoanalyst Peter Martin, M.D. of Michigan. “The outer self deals with family, friends, culture, and all the other aspects of civilization. We modify and compromise the outer self to deal with the people around us. But the inner self is the true self. People in touch with their inner selves have a true sense of identity. They have a feeling of security in knowing who they really are. And by knowing their true selves, they can teach their outer selves how to better interact with others.”

After all, mastering the art of being alone does not mean turning into a misanthropic recluse. People who are loving – who completely accept themselves and others – can be happy and content whether in a crowd of people or quietly at home by themselves. Trouble is, too many people who are suddenly faced with the prospect of being alone turn within at the expense of those outside. As a result, they may be depriving themselves of the love and affection they need to grow.

Depression, loneliness and boredom are symptoms of affection deprivation. “Depression, loneliness, and boredom are all symptoms of affection deprivation,” says Allan Dye, Ph.D., associate professor of mental counselling and personnel services and director of the counselling and guidance centre at Purdue University. “And the first sign that someone’s heading in the wrong direction is self-preoccupation. People who dwell too much on themselves, even if they don’t think of themselves as lonely or bored, are probably not having enough goo contact with others.”

“Healthful, enriching, mutual experience with others is the best counterweight to self-preoccupation,” Dr. Dye continues. “You’ve got to get that focus off yourself. If you’re feeling deprived of affection, turn your attention to other people. Get in contact, pay attention, listen and be aware. You become more attractive to others when you pay attention to them, and that leads to more affection directed at you.”

Psychiatrist J. Ingram Walker, M.D. author of Everybody’s Guide to Emotional Well-being, agrees.

“Altruistic people lose themselves in others,” Dr. Walker says. “The process can block out depression, make us less aware of our own inadequacies, and help us surmount our personal problems.”

When you focus on others, you feel better about yourself. “When you focus attention on someone else, you feel better about yourself,” Dr. Buffington adds. “So when I get patients who have no caring relationships, I usually recommended they get involved in some small group that has a definite purpose. Probably no more than four people.”

There’s growing evidence that pets can also help satisfy our need to give and receive affection. Not that pets should be considered a substitute for people, but according to Aaron Katcher, M.D., co-author of Between Pets and People, for those who really enjoy the company of pets, they can provide a strong supplement to human relationships and in fact help to improve one’s rapport with people. In this way they are a significant aid to loneliness.

Caring: antidote to loneliness. An important key, then, to warding off loneliness is care. Caring for yourself and what you really feel. Caring for others. Caring for life and everything around you.

“When you maintain a pattern of caring, whether for a house, a garden, pets, or other people, you are protecting yourself against despair,” says Dr. Katcher. And in the process, you’ll live a more happy and healthy existence – whether alone or in the company of others.

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