Apples and Oranges: Distinguishing Loneliness from Social Isolation

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An older woman sits outside while drinking a cup of coffee alone. Loneliness is so prevalent today that it’s easier than ever for it to become muddled with similar experiences such as social isolation. So how do you tell the difference? One is a temporary state of being, whereas the other is a condition that must be addressed through science and health care. Discover how to separate loneliness from social isolation and learn how resources like technology and human connection can help.

Dispelling the myths about loneliness and social isolation

We must understand the differences between loneliness and social isolation so each condition can be solved appropriately and effectively.

Lonely ≄ alone

When we think of loneliness, it’s easy to picture the wallflower at a party or an elderly person in a nursing home. But the common misperception is viewing loneliness as being physically alone. Again, loneliness is subjective — a personal experience of unmet social needs. That’s why you can be physically around others and still experience loneliness. 

Isolated ≄ lonely

Although social isolation may eventually lead to loneliness and vice versa, the two are not synonymous. Social isolation is not the only cause of chronic loneliness, and each can exist independently. Social isolation, instead, is objective. Think about the bookworm in the corner of the library, reading quietly. Their isolation is a fact, but they might not feel lonely at all — kept company by the characters in their story!

Solutions for loneliness ≄ solutions for social isolation

When someone is socially isolated, the solution is clear: Engage with others and take steps to self-manage. That might mean joining a community or interest group, volunteering or even adopting a pet. But loneliness is trickier, so it must be identified and treated with science-backed intervention and support. Consulting with a therapist or connecting with health resources is therefore more effective for dealing with loneliness.

It’s time to debunk the myths around loneliness! Download our infographic to  uncover the truth about loneliness and who it really impacts.

Understanding loneliness and social isolation: Clarifying the differences

Is it loneliness or social isolation? The two are interconnected but distinct. Social isolation is an objective state of limited social interaction, marked by a limited number and low quality of relationships. It can be both a physical and mental barrier to social connection with relatively easy solutions, such as connecting the isolated person with shared housing or encouraging them to join a club. 

But loneliness is a different animal. It’s a subjective experience resulting from a person’s perceptions of their relationships and feelings of being alone or disconnected from others. It’s also not just a feeling and can have dire consequences, so society is gradually regarding it as a health condition in its own right. Chronic loneliness — meaning feeling lonely almost all the time — can give way to serious health conditions.

Physical impacts of loneliness

Loneliness can be so severe and limiting that it can be harmful. According to the U.S. Surgeon General’s advisory on loneliness, individuals struggling with chronic loneliness face measurable health risks, including:

  • 29% increased risk of heart disease
  • 32% increased risk of stroke
  • 26% increased risk of premature death
  • 50% increased risk of developing dementia in older adults

But why does this happen? A few reasons. For one, loneliness elevates cortisol levels to the point that the hormone does more harm than good, impacting both heart and immune health. On top of this, loneliness also overstimulates the inflammatory process, resulting in chronic inflammation that gives way to diseases ranging from diabetes to chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). 

Mental and neurological impacts of loneliness 

Chronic loneliness not only increases the risk of physical problems, but also mental and neurological ones. As Eric Liu, CEO of Citizen University, puts it: "When you are alone and disconnected, there's more stress, there's more inflammation, there's more anxiety. And that has effects not only on the body, but the ways in which we see each other in community and feel connected to one another."

Chronic loneliness is associated with higher rates of clinical depression, anxiety and suicidal ideation. A 2017 study on the effects of loneliness on mental health remains one of the foremost pieces on the topic. In it, the researchers discuss strong associations between loneliness and distress, finding that:

  • Over half of the loneliest participants were depressed.
  • Anxiety and panic attacks were strongly associated with loneliness.
  • Suicidal ideation increased to 42% among lonely people.

But why? Loneliness changes the brain. Lonely individuals gradually feel the effects of dopamine neurons turning off and brain-derived neurotrophic factor decreasing—impacting neuronal health, cognition and memory. And, to make matters worse, lonely people are more likely to withdraw due to hyper vigilance, wherein they perceive interactions negatively and see others as social threats, perpetuating their loneliness. 

Addressing loneliness as a condition

Lonely people use the health care system differently. They’re typically less engaged, failing to receive the right care at the right time and turning to emergency care. This combination of elevated health risks and lack of engagement can cause more long-term health problems, which is why we need to recognize loneliness as a condition. By addressing it as a distinct condition, lonely individuals can get preventive care and improve their adherence to medical guidance before other health concerns worsen and get harder — and more expensive — to treat.

Separate loneliness from social isolation to address it effectively

Loneliness and social isolation might appear to be the same, but it does people a disservice to approach them the same way. That’s because loneliness can lead to physical and mental changes, impacting both aspects of a person’s health. 

Loneliness is a condition, and science-backed intervention can make a difference. Pyx Health brings together human-centered compassion and science-backed technology to help lonely individuals. Between connection with supportive ANDYs and access to helpful resources and engaging activities, our app bridges the gap to quell loneliness. Watch for more helpful content during Loneliness Awareness Week.

The cover of infographic, Loneliness: Debunking the myths