We’ve all felt lonely before, but for some people, the feeling doesn’t go away.

In fact, more than 40 million Americans experience significant loneliness, prompting the Surgeon General to declare it the next public health crisis.

But why is loneliness to detrimental to our health? And what can we do about it?

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Loneliness affects your mental health.

Loneliness can cause or heighten mental health issues such as:

  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Stress

> Related: After COVID Caused Many to Lose Touch, How Many Friends Do We Need to Be Healthy?

But the health risks can be physical too.

The effects of loneliness can be severe that the risk of premature death is similar to those who smoke daily, according to the Surgeon General.

But why is that?

“When we are alone in our own heads, we have plenty of time to think about all the things that can go wrong. People can hyper focus on their physical and somatic systems, and sometimes even worry themselves sick,” says Carla Schnitzlein, DO, medical director for Natchaug Hospital, part of the Hartford HealthCare Behavioral Health Network.

Loneliness has been shown to cause:

  • Added inflammation
  • Higher blood pressure
  • Weakened immune system

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4 ways to ease your loneliness

There are a variety of things we can to do ease your loneliness. Dr. Schnitzlein suggests:

  1. Leaning on interests. There are groups in many communities centered on hobbies like gardening, working out, photography. Look for one or more you can join. “It is easier to get back out there when people have something in common with you. There is not so much pressure to talk about yourself or immediately make a social connection, these things bridge the gap between you and other people,” she says.
  2. Taking it slow. You don’t have to go out every night, but find something to do once a week and slowly build up to more. Remember there is also healthy alone time, so try not to overcommit yourself.
  3. Opening up. When isolation causes depression, she might recommend different support groups. If grief is a common theme, Dr. Schnitzlein suggests joining a grief support group, saying, “Yes, it can feel uncomfortable getting in there, but that group can help build connections with people who know what you are going though. Don’t shy away from that, even if it feels a little different.”
  4. Being kind to yourself. Patience is key, she says. It may not feel great the first time push out of your comfort zone but, the more you practice the more natural it will feel. Remember, others are struggling with isolation, too.