Can Loneliness Actually Kill You? (A Nuanced Look at the Science)
I stared at the screen. Flabbergasted, I scrolled through the search results.
“Loneliness: the Silent Killer.”
“The Detrimental Effects of Loneliness on Your Health.”
“Loneliness as Dangerous as Smoking 15 Cigarettes a Day.”
These weren’t the headlines I’d hoped to find amidst a period of grave loneliness. I actually looked for ways out of my loneliness maze and wanted to unveil what was happening to me. But instead, I got confronted with the fact that I was slowly… dying?
From then on, every moment of my loneliness felt twice as painful. On the one hand, there was the actual distress of feeling lonely; on the other, there was the corrosive guilt that isolation might harm my health. I shouldn’t feel this way, I kept thinking. Loneliness isn’t good for me.
As I devoured the headlines like a greasy bag of chips, I noticed subtle differences. Some of the less sensationalist articles mentioned words like “transient” or “chronic.” They also talked about the intrinsic benefits of loneliness. And most importantly, they didn’t treat loneliness as an incurable disease but as part of the human condition.
This restored my hope to find a way out of my loneliness maze — if only ever so slightly. I zipped through all the research I could find to get a more nuanced and fruitful view of the “loneliness kills” conundrum. I wanted to see the big picture.
Today, I’m far from having all the answers. But at the very least, I stopped seeing loneliness as a silent killer. I stopped panicking about it.
How Loneliness Kills (and why it’s like hunger)
If you only take one thing away from this, let it be this: Yes, loneliness can kill, but only when it reaches a chronic state — and even then, it’s not always a wrecking ball that causes irreversible damage. Quite the opposite: loneliness can also be an incentive for building deeper connections that are, in turn, like a soothing balm for our health.