Detailing the neuroscience behind loneliness, the effects it has on our physical health and four easy steps to help anyone get out of it.
Loneliness can be harsh. Not having people in your life that you can talk to, can make you feel empty and disconnected from the world.
Loneliness can be brought on by big life events or just simply growing up.
The development of modern society and technology isn’t making it any easier either. People are using social media more often, working longer hours, living alone, travel away for jobs and keep pushing each other further and further away.
The feeling that you no longer contribute to anything or don’t belong anywhere can sometimes even lead to serious health problems.
If we look into our nature and observe our behavior, we do actually need each other — a lot.
The Science of Loneliness
Loneliness is the feeling of social isolation. It can be related to being physically isolated but, more often than not, loneliness is associated with the emotional isolation.
One can feel lonely in a crowd full of people, being part of a numerous family, or even married.
Loneliness is not about the frequency and number of interaction with other people, it’s about the quality of those interactions. Being around other people isn’t what makes people less lonely, it’s feeling connected that does.
The neuroscience of social connections is a spectrum. You can have one extreme that is characterized by the lack of connections (feeling of loneliness and rejection) and on the other side you have the presence of the loved ones (feeling loved and appreciated).
Pain is an aversive signal that motivates you to take care of your body when you’re in a current potential tissue damage.
Similarly, loneliness is this aversive state that you don’t want to remain in and motivates you to attend to and care for these social connections that define us as a social species.
As a matter of fact it’s those social connections that helps us survive and prosper as a social species.
The effect of Loneliness on Physical Health
According to the Mental Health Foundation, sixty percent of people age 18 to 34 regularly feel lonely. Consequences?
A new study has found that loneliness may be linked to physical illnesses. Scientists say that feeling lonely may trigger cellular changes that could make us more susceptible to getting sick.
According to one of the study’s authors, feeling lonely means you are in a relatively hostile environment, therefore the genes’ protection against viral infections decreases.
The research looked at a group of 141 older adults over a 5 year period and found that the loneliness they experienced was linked to inflammation and lower immune system.
Another study conducted by the National Academy of Science found that the seniors who live alone have a higher mortality rate if they don’t have enough contact with people.
According to the researchers, the worst outcome of lonely seniors can be the lack of care and missing the early signs of illnesses, which can often end up fatal.
Simple Steps to Get you out of Loneliness
Dr. John Cacioppo, a famous Neuroscientist from the University of Chicago, wrote a very intriguing article for Psychology Today, advising people on how to overcome loneliness.
He explains that practicing the following steps might help anyone in the process of dealing with loneliness:
- Extend yourself. Accept social invitations. Get out of the virtual world and social media, because that’s a place where most people present a different version of themselves. Attend social gatherings, even if you don’t feel like it.
- Take Action. Realizing that we do have control over ourselves can have a surprisingly empowering effect, suggests Dr. Cacippo. Create a social plan that will include others. Changing your world starts with changing your thoughts.
- Selection. The good thing about friendship is that it’s a choice. Pick your connections carefully. Coping with loneliness is not about the quantity of your friendships, but rather the quality.
- Expect the Best. With the power of reciprocity, having a positive attitude will more likely bring out the best in other people.
Loneliness is an important part of what makes us human and devoting time to understand it will help us bind together. It also helps us empathize and go beyond just our own personal interest.