Have you ever thought, “Bears really have the right idea.” They go into their den, slow down their heart rate, and basically chill out for the season. It’s tempting, really tempting. For bears and other animals, survival depends on this slowing down—they don’t even make a conscious choice to do it; it’s predetermined in their biology.

But alas, we humans are more evolved. We have clothes, supermarkets, radiant heating. We don’t need to put our bodies on hiatus. Sure, there are certain benefits to cocooning, catching up on sleep, and staying in bed all day, like getting additional rest and experiencing a drop in your overall stress.  And in small doses, unplugging can be good.

Risks of Loneliness

But long-term “hibernation can facilitate and exacerbate symptoms of depression,” says Stephanie J. Wong, PhD, a licensed clinical psychologist in San Mateo, California. “So, while it may seem comforting to spend time in bed, wrapped up in the covers, doing so for long periods of time can decrease your motivation to engage in other activities.” In other words, it becomes a vicious cycle of inactivity and lack of motivation.

In addition, seasonal affective disorder (SAD) can play a role in keeping you inside and alone. “With SAD, you’ll want to stay home, you’ll tend to eat some sort of sweet carbohydrate, and then you add weight gain to the mix,” says Carol Landau, PhD, a clinical professor of psychiatry and human behavior and medicine at Brown University’s Alpert Medical School in Providence, Rhode Island. “The average woman will gain about five to 10 pounds in the winter and this will only make her mood worse.”

Mood disorders and depression are not the only risk either. According to a meta-analysis co-authored by Julianne Holt-Lunstad, PhD, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Brigham Young University, lack of social connection increases health risks as much as smoking 15 cigarettes a day or having alcohol use disorder.

In another study, researchers found direct links between loneliness and a variety of psychiatric disorders, not just depression. Alcohol abuse, sleep problems, personality disorders and Alzheimer’s disease are all connected to spending too much time by yourself. Isolation is tied to physical problems too. The same study shows loneliness leads to diabetes, autoimmune disorders (rheumatoid arthritis and lupus), and cardiovascular diseases And, the older you are, the more impact it can have.

Reasons Being Lonely Is Harmful

The reason for the broad physical and mental costs of loneliness is in part because of how it impacts the immune response and your inflammation response. There are, of course, intellectual and emotional benefits of being around people too. Human connection and talking reduces stress. And, often times, friends influence health decisions just by offering information and experiences. Maybe you remember to make your mammogram appoint after a friend talks about her recent biopsy.

You might think social media and texting are a fine substitute for in personal interaction, but they’re not. Scrolling Facebook and Instagram won’t help keep you feeling connected. In fact, a recent study found that young adults who reported high social media use felt even more socially isolated than their peers who didn’t use social media as much.

How to Beat Loneliness and Depression

With all this data in mind, experts urge connecting with people. According to Wong, there are three scenarios for staying in  that come up the most often. Here’s what they are and how to reframe them.

Scenario #1: “The minute I get home from work, I just want to put on my PJs and stream my favorite Netflix series.”

What’s happening: While watching movies or Netflix isn’t a negative behavior in and of itself, doing this may reduce your motivation to take part in other activities that might involve friends or family. “By streaming shows, you’re also escaping from reality and disconnecting from others, which can contribute to a depressed mood,” Wong says.

Alternative plan: If movies are a favorite activity, go to the theater with a friend and schedule dinner before or after the movie. “This will keep you out of the house/bed and prompt you to engage in discussion about the movie which will keep your brain engaged, too,” she says. Or binge-watch together.

Scenario #2: “Now that it’s winter, I’m saying no to pretty much every invitation I get—even taking walks with my neighbor. It’s just too cold to rally.”

What’s happening: Due to limited sunlight, you’re already susceptible to sinking into a depressed mood so you don’t want to make things worse by staying inside. “By reducing the time, you spend outdoors when there is sunlight, you may end up exacerbating your down mood,” Wong says.

Alternative plan: Get creative and find activities that can be done where it’s warm. “Engaging in an indoor exercise class where you naturally increase body heat and endorphins can also boost your motivation to connect with others,” she says.

Scenario #3: “My friends are too chatty and I just can’t keep up with them when we go out. I’d prefer to be by myself.”

What’s happening: While being alone can seem appealing if you tend to get overwhelmed in large groups, it can also lead to isolation. “Despite the fact that you may feel like you want to be alone, we all need human connection so it’s important to seek it out,” Wong says.

Alternative plan: Seek out the people in your life who tend to be a little less boisterous. “Choose one to two friends who are more on the quiet side,” she says. “Friends who like to engage in activities versus talking are going to be a better choice, especially when you’re feeling overwhelmed and are tempted to avoid the company of others.”

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Last Updated: Jan 13, 2020