Not Just a Feeling of Loneliness

Meghan Joost


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Feeling blue? Changing family dynamics, increased social isolation and an aging population are all factors that contribute to loneliness. According to Dr. Christopher Merchant, Assistant professor of psychology at Northeastern Illinois University (NEIU) “Loneliness can be seen throughout the lifespan, and in fact is likely experienced by everyone at least some time in life. Since humans are largely social animals, being deprived of social interaction and engagement (either actual social engagement or engagement that is meaningful to the individual) can be problematic no matter how old they are…”

Loneliness can strike any age group, but there are some age groups that are the most vulnerable. Young adults and elderly people are at the greatest risk of loneliness.  Loneliness, depression and shyness are distinct but related to one another.

Dr. Merchant stated, “Loneliness and depression are different, but can be very related. Loneliness is a subjective, cognitive appraisal that an individual is disconnected from those around him or her; that they either do not have enough people in their social network, or that they cannot rely on these people for support. Depression is a collection of various mental, physical, behavioral and emotional disruptions that result in an overall lowering of mood and functioning. Feeling lonely can lead to depression, and being depressed can also increase the likelihood that one feels lonely.”

A senior Biology student at NEIU admitted to periods of loneliness but would not classify herself as antisocial.

Several collaborated studies linked loneliness to greater sympathetic nervous system reactivity, higher blood pressure, or greater perceived stress.

A study published in the Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery and Psychiatry, found that elderly people who were classified as lonely were 2.5 times more likely to develop dementia.  The research study concluded that it was not a cause and effect relationship, but loneliness was associated with increased risk of dementia in elderly people.

According to Dr. Merchant, “In addition to the mental and social problems related to it, loneliness has been linked to problems with sleep, decreased immune function, high blood pressure and other cardio-vascular problems.”

In a study published in Psychoneuroendocrinology, a positive correlation exists between loneliness and significantly greater fibrinogen, which is a protein that helps the blood clot and natural killer cell responses to stress.

Studies on lab rats showed that the rats kept in groups lived 40 percent longer than those rats that were kept in isolation. Treatments for loneliness ranged from mediation and brainpower to socialization programs.

The senior Biology NEIU student said when she becomes lonely, hanging out with friends helps.

According to Dr. Merchant, “A good way to fend off feelings of loneliness is to engage in activities that allow and/or force you to engage with and find common ground with people. Activities that require in-person interactions and shared goals and values may be particularly helpful. If the feelings of loneliness become very severe, cognitive-behavioral therapy has been shown to be effective in dealing with some of the problematic and troubling thoughts that lead to feelings of loneliness”.

This could have huge implications on those individuals who are isolated in jails, mental institutions and those individuals who are isolated due to social dynamics and the ever-changing world.

If seeking counseling for loneliness or depression, feel free to visit the counseling services on campus at D 024.