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Delaware researcher: Loneliness could weaken immune system

(Mariia Boiko/BigStock)

(Mariia Boiko/BigStock)

Roy Orbison sang, “Only the lonely know this feeling ain’t right.”

Thanks to the coronavirus restrictions forcing so many of us to isolate, more and more people know that lonely feeling.

And if you’re stuck at home in isolation and feeling lonely, it’s more than heartache you need to be concerned about. Loneliness can contribute to a poor immune system response. That means your ability to fight off coronavirus could be compromised by your emotional state.

University of Delaware Assistant Professor Lisa Jaremka has spent the last decade researching the connection between loneliness and poorer health outcomes. That work is especially applicable as millions stuck at home and away from loved ones may be experiencing loneliness.

“Among people who contract this coronavirus, if they are lonely, at least from the logic of the prior work, we would expect them to experience more symptoms and perhaps kind of fare worse with that virus compared to the non-lonely people,” she said.

In a hospital study published in Health Psychology in 2017, researchers exposed test subjects to the common cold and then monitored outcomes. The patients who reported being more lonely were almost 40% more likely to report more severe symptoms than those who were less lonely.

Jaremka pointed out that just being isolated at home alone does not equal loneliness. Similarly, just because you have friends or family nearby doesn’t mean you can’t still be lonely.

“It’s how people feel about their relationships. It’s how do we feel about our interactions, do we feel like we’re cared for and close to other people,” she said.

That means even if you’re completely isolated, connecting with friends and family via technology and social media can help mitigate feelings of loneliness and the weakened immune response that comes with it.

“We can easily start to feel lonely without being proactive,” she said. “There’s a huge number of ways to connect with people virtually.”

Virtual connections like wine nights via Zoom video conferencing may be much easier for younger generations to pull off, but there are other options for older folks who are already at a higher risk for more severe symptoms from coronavirus.

“There’s lots of research to suggest we can rely on what we call ‘social surrogates’ to fulfill this need to feel close to other people and feel cared for,” she said. Social surrogates could include a favorite novel or even a familiar TV show.

“Let’s say you’ve been watching `Seinfeld’ for years and years and years. You start to get to know those characters, you identify with them, you kind of feel like they’re your ‘friends.’” Jaremka said a psychological relationship with familiar characters like Jerry, George, Kramer and Elaine can make you feel less lonely and more connected.

Though real life, virtual and even surrogate connections can help reverse the negative health effects associated with loneliness, she said it is better to be proactive about making those connections.

“It’s harder to get out of that funk than it is to prevent getting into it in first place,” Jaremka said.

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