“This is Your Brain. This is Your Brain on Loneliness.”

Maybe you’ve been there too. It’s Friday night, and you’re done with work. Your brain can’t handle anything more in a foreign language. You’re sick of watching movies, and you’re thinking, “It would be so nice to just hang out with someone who understands me, who’s easy to be with.”

You can handle a few evenings, or even a short season of this. However, when this becomes a mantra, season after season of feeling lonely, it can actually affect your health.   

What we don’t realize is that these prolonged feelings of loneliness can actually cause our bodies to react and our brain activity to change.  

Morocco, Photo by  Fabio Santaniello Bruun  on  Unsplash

Morocco, Photo by Fabio Santaniello Bruun on Unsplash

Loneliness is a hidden and silent threat to our health.  

“It hides . . . and . . . isn’t typically seen as a threat, even though it takes a greater toll on our well-being,” said Jeremy Nobel, Harvard physician and public-health researcher. Loneliness is hidden, silent, and potentially deadly, as it significantly shortens our life span.  

Vivek Murthy, a U.S. Surgeon General, says that loneliness shortens life-span to the same degree that smoking 15 cigarettes a day does. It's also more likely to reduce our life span than being obese!

Researchers, like Jennifer Latson, describe the current reality of the loneliness epidemic . . . calling loneliness a “disease” . . . a silent disease.

Brain study

A human being’s drive for social connectedness is deeply wired, and there is a clear overlap between emotional and physical pain. A study by UCLA psychologist, Naomi Eisenberger, showed that being socially excluded or rejected actually hurts a person like an actual wound.  

Loneliness causes real pain, working on the same parts of the brain as physical pain. As a result, the same analgesics work for both. It’s hard to believe that you can take Ibuprofen to relieve the aches and pains of loneliness, but it is scientifically proven.

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Made for Connection

It is not good for us to be alone, yet today, more than half of the American population feels the deep heartache of loneliness. We were not created for this.

Neuro-scientific research shows that our brains were designed for connection.

When this connection doesn’t happen, our health is affected. “There’s a blurred line between mental and physical health,” says David Cordani, CEO and President of Cigna Health Insurance. Physical symptoms can and do arise from emotional pain like deep and prolonged loneliness.

Physical Effects of Loneliness

  • Body’s stress response is triggered. The stress hormones, cortisol and epinephrine, are released, causing inflammation and weakened immunity.

  • High blood pressure

  • Less restful sleep

  • Increased anxiety, anger, and depressive symptoms

  • More severe symptoms, when sick with viruses, than those who aren’t lonely

  • Increased cognitive decline and dementia, twice as likely to develop Alzheimer’s Disease

  • “Fight or Flight” system is activated, feel personal threat, tend to lash out at people we feel alienated from (aggression)

  • Increased risk of death of cardiovascular disease, stroke, cancer, respiratory illness, and gastrointestinal causes

  • Increased risk of premature death (more than smoking 15 cigarettes a day or obesity)

Photo by  Julian Howard  on  Unsplash

Should we be alarmed?

There is growing evidence that loneliness is shortening our lives. Although loneliness causes emotional feelings of sadness, the sense of personal threat is what makes it “physically toxic,” says John Cacioppo, author of Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection.

Research shows that loneliness is a predictor of premature death, not just for the elderly, but even more so for the younger generation.

As mentioned in 10 Interesting Things about Loneliness , the tight-knit community in the remote, mountainous village of Sardinia, Villagrande Strisaili in Italy has more people living past the age of 100 than any other place in the world. The physical lay-out of the village enables its residents to regularly cross paths with each other at the town square. They have a warm and caring community that is conducive to deep connections and relationships.

So, for those of us who don’t have the option of moving to the remote mountains of Italy, where do we go for help?  Where and how do we find these deep soul connections that we were designed and created to have?

Check out these See Beyond resources to give you some ideas on how to connect:

8 Ways to Connect Bookmark

Loneliness Facts and Stats Info-graphic

Finding Friends in the Desert of Life

Lonely? What to do to Combat the Emptiness?

If you are feeling isolated, would it help to have someone walk alongside you in debriefing—someone who can listen to your story? What about a coach to help you navigate your next steps?

If you know someone who is feeling lonely, try other-centered listening and invite them to tell their story.

Works Cited:

Chatterjee, Rhitu, “Americans Are A Lonely Lot, And Young People Bear The Heaviest Burden”, National Public Radio, Inc., 01 May 2018, https://www.npr.org/sections/health- shots/2018/05/01/606588504/americans-are-a-lonely-lot-and-young-people-bear-the-heaviest-burden

Latson, Jennifer, “A Cure For Disconnection”, Psychology Today, 7 March 2018, https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/articles/201803/cure-disconnection

Libermen, Matthew A, Social: Why Our Brains Are Wired To Connect, 7 October 2014.