How the Pain of Loneliness Hurts Your Brain

Loneliness can adversely impact your health to the degree that high blood pressure, lack of exercise, obesity, or smoking does, according to research.

A meta-analysis found that being lonely is linked to a significantly higher risk of death. Scientists discovered that lonely people had a 50 percent increased risk of early death, compared to those with good social connections. In contrast, obesity raises the chance of dying before the age of 70 by around 30 percent.

Studies have shown that people with stronger social networks enjoy numerous health benefits including:

In the past twenty years, social connectedness has steadily declined.  Evolving technology and housing trends are contributing to people being lonely and isolated. More Americans are living alone than in previous generations. While texting and social media make it easier to connect on a superficial level, they have also made it much easier to avoid forming real relationships and having face-to-face contact.

How Loneliness Hurts Your Brain

Humans are social animals who need contact with one another. Your brain needs it. In fact, the strongest predictor of a species’ brain size is the size of its social group. You have that big brain in your head in order to socialize.

Your brain’s top concern is always your survival. There’s safety in numbers. That’s why your brain likes to be part of a group and experiences stress when it’s not. Whether it’s fish or humans, animals that find themselves on the periphery of their social groups are the ones most at risk from predators. Being in that type of danger causes the brain to stay in self-preservation mode – always on alert.

Your brain interprets social threats just like any other threat. Every unreturned phone call or text that goes unanswered becomes a reason for your brain to sound the alarm. Being lonely can put your brain in a state of low-grade chronic stress with physical and mental consequences.

According to The Dangers of Loneliness, the adverse effects of loneliness are:

  • Living alone increases the risk of suicide for young and old alike.
  • Lonely individuals report higher levels of perceived stress even when exposed to the same stressors as non-lonely people, and even when they are relaxing.
  • The social interaction lonely people do have are not as positive as those of other people, hence the relationships they have do not buffer them from stress as relationships normally do.
  • Loneliness raises levels of circulating stress hormones and levels of blood pressure. It undermines regulation of the circulatory system so that the heart muscle works harder and the blood vessels are subject to damage by blood flow turbulence.
  • Loneliness destroys the quality and efficiency of sleep, so that it is less restorative, both physically and psychologically. They wake up more at night and spend less time in bed actually sleeping than do the nonlonely.

The Purpose of Loneliness

Loneliness is a response of your brain that evolved to protect you and to ensure the survival of our species. To be disconnected from your caregiver as a youth or separated from your group as an adult could prove deadly. The feeling is supposed to prompt you to change your behavior.

In the same way that physical pain tells you to pull your finger back from a burning flame, the emotional pain of isolation causes you to seek out others, form bonds, and become connected. The idea of social pain is more than just a metaphor. Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) studies show that the areas of the brain stimulated when experiencing rejection are the same as physical pain.

So, loneliness serves a useful purpose and is part of the normal human experience. In his book, Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection,  John Cacioppo writes:

Keep in mind, however, that we can all slip in and out of loneliness. Feeling lonely at any particular moment simply means you are human. … the need for meaningful social connection, and the pain we feel without it, are defining characteristics of our species. Loneliness becomes an issue of concern only when it settles in long enough to create a persistent, self-reinforcing loop of negative thoughts, sensations, and behaviors.

The Brain Chemicals Of Connectedness

Human interaction and social exchanges change the neurotransmitters and activity in your brain in beneficial ways.

Oxytocin

Oxytocin is essential for creating and maintaining strong bonds and healthy social interactions. Skin-to-skin contact releases oxytocin. You can get a boost from having sex, giving or getting a hug, cuddling, or just shaking hands. Simple social interaction, such as eye contact or just being around other people, like in a coffee shop or bookstore also triggers oxytocin release.

Serotonin

Serotonin is a neurochemical that plays many different important roles and is boosted by social interaction. Your brain’s prefrontal cortex, which primarily controls your personality and executive functioning, relies heavily on serotonin. This neurochemical greatly influences your overall mood.

Sunlight and exercise can increase serotonin production as do certain antidepressants and supplements. Hanging out with friends, getting a massage, smiling and laughing, and just recalling happy memories can also up serotonin supply.

Endorphins

Having more friends increases endorphins in your brain. Endorphins mask pain or discomfort and are the reason for the energy surge you feel with the fight or flight response. Endorphins give you the oomph you need to help you power through any situation.

Research even found people with more friends had a higher pain tolerance. Social pain is the same as physical pain in your brain, remember?

Strenuous physical exertion, sexual intercourse, and orgasm produce endorphins. Laughing and stretching also cause you to release endorphins as does acupuncture.

Get Connected

In today’s world, with our digital devices providing 24-hour entertainment on-demand at home, it’s more important than ever to get some face-to-face time and connect in-person with your family, friends, and community. Working out at a gym, attending social events, having lunch with a friend, or scheduling a family night are great ways to maintain human bonds and help your brain release healthy neurochemicals.

Your happiness and your life depend on it.

I found this TED Talk on cohousing, one solution to the loneliness epidemic, interesting.

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5 Comments

  1. I think many introverts may interpret this as saying that they have to be social like extroverts in order to stay healthy. Fortunately, introverts can reap as many benefits from having one or two close friends, a partner or other close family member. Quality matters more than quantity, thankfully. If only doctors would prescribe creating connections with others instead of pharmaceuticals…

    • Good points, Page. I don’t automatically associate being an introvert with loneliness, but a lot of the research does deal with having a larger social network and insinuates that. I did not see any research on quality versus quantity. Maybe it just hasn’t been done yet. The negative impact on health comes from whether someone FEELS connected, but I guess science hasn’t differentiated that yet from the number of connections. I am an introvert and am not very social, but I don’t FEEL lonely. Thanks for pointing out the difference.

  2. I had the same question about introverts! I’m very satisfied in my primary relationship. But were it to end, I know I would need to add other social contacts to be happy. It’s so fascinating to hear how this all works in the brain.

  3. You’ve made me think…always a good thing!

    I enjoy being by myself…I like the opportunity to contemplate, meditate or just be, but like all things in life it seems to me balance is needed. If I weren’t fortunate to have a wonderful, loving marriage I would most definitely need more social contact in other forms. Interesting discussion about introverts in the comments. And as always thanks for the thought provoking article Debbie.

  4. I Love you have clearly made a distinction normal levels of loneliness and the Unhealthy levels of loneliness. Such a needed distinction!
    And You are SO right…with all the digital communication, face to face connections are becoming so rare….but still a necessity for our survival.
    The other day a friend was telling me that how such few really close people wished him for his birthday, as everyone else chose whatsapp and facebook instead of even a phone call. Makes you think…that although we crave connectedness, which is the actual basis of all social media…we are more disconnected than ever today.
    xoxo, Z~

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