- Loneliness evolved as a biological warning system that alerts us to the dangers of being alone and motivates us to reconnect with others.
- This alarm system helped ensure the survival of our species but, paradoxically, it can make social connection difficult for modern humans.
- The first step to overcoming loneliness is not reaching out to others; it is disabling the alarm system in our own minds.
Even before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, many people felt isolated and alone. In 2018, 22 percent of U.S. adults reported they often or always felt lonely. In late 2020, after social distancing became a way of life, 36 percent of U.S. adults reported experiencing “serious loneliness.” That’s more than 93 million people.
Loneliness is a normal, and often fleeting, human experience. When loneliness persists over time, however, it can wreak havoc on the brain and body. Prolonged loneliness is a major risk factor for anxiety, depression, fragmented sleep, increased blood pressure, increased inflammation, and impaired immune functioning. It also increases the risk of early mortality by 26 percent, which is equivalent to the risks associated with smoking.
Also, once loneliness sets in, it can be difficult to overcome. This happens because loneliness can distort our thinking about other people in ways that make social interaction more difficult, and social connection more elusive.
The Evolution of Loneliness
To understand how loneliness distorts our thinking, we need to consider the evolution of loneliness.
Early humans depended on other people for their survival. When they wandered too far from their village, they were in danger of being killed by a predator or member of a rival tribe. Feelings of loneliness developed as a biological warning system to alert them to the potential dangers of remaining isolated and motivate them to reconnect with others.
Loneliness also increased our ancestors’ motivation for self-preservation. Their sympathetic nervous system prepared them to fight or flee the situation, and their brain went on high alert, engaging in unconscious surveillance of social threats.
This alarm system helped safeguard the survival of our species, but it creates problems for humans living in contemporary society. When we get lonely, our brain snaps into a self-preservation mode. Without realizing it, we become hypervigilant for social threats (in the form of rejection and ostracism). This leads to cognitive biases toward perceiving threats, even when they don’t exist. We begin to mistrust others and become anxious in social situations.
When we see the social world as a threatening place, we tend to elicit behavior from others that confirms our negative expectations. For example, when we walk into a meeting or party feeling lonely, we might expect that others won’t be interested in talking to us. We keep our distance, and our cold behavior leads other people to keep their distance from us, which creates a self-fulfilling prophecy and fuels a relentless cycle of loneliness.
The antidote to loneliness, then, is not as simple as finding people to connect with. We need to “disarm the alarm system” and change our social outlook before we’re ready for true connection.
How Do You Disarm the Alarm System?
Here are a few research-based strategies for disarming the alarm system:
1. Correct your cognitive distortions.
One of the most effective strategies to reduce loneliness is to recognize and correct the maladaptive cognitions associated with the condition, including thoughts such as “They’re not interested in getting to know me” and “I don’t belong here.”
Remember that your brain has been shaped by evolution to become fearful in perceived social isolation. Use your rational mind to convince your primitive brain that you’re not in danger. If you perceive something as a social threat (a friend doesn’t respond to a text or the boss doesn’t acknowledge your latest accomplishment), consider that your brain may be making too much of it.
2. Practice mindfulness.
Research shows that mindfulness training can also reduce loneliness. Mindfulness involves paying attention to our present-moment experiences (thoughts, feelings, observations of the outside world) without judging them. Mindfulness can be cultivated with a variety of practices, including mindfulness meditation.
How does mindfulness reduce loneliness? One possibility is that mindfulness decreases people’s perception of social threat. Training our brain to accept things as they are, without judging them, may help correct some of the cognitive distortions associated with loneliness. As renowned meditation teacher Sharon Salzberg says: “Mindfulness helps us get better at seeing the difference between what’s happening and the stories we tell ourselves about what’s happening.”
Caveat: While meditation has many positive benefits, it may produce negative side effects for some people, including those who are prone to repetitive negative thinking.
3. Practice breathwork.
Breathwork is a general term used to describe any practice in which you consciously manipulate the breath to achieve some desired state. There are hundreds of different types of breathwork, many developed from yoga in ancient India.
There is little research on the connection between breathwork and loneliness, but a few recent studies suggest that a breathing-based program called Sudarshan Kriya Yoga decreases anxiety and increases feelings of social connection.
Though additional research is needed to understand how conscious breathing can increase feelings of connection (and perhaps, in turn, reduce loneliness), it seems plausible that breathwork helps quiet the mind—including all of our fears and doubts about the social world.
If you want to try breathwork, check out these exercises taught by Dr. Andrew Weil.
If you’re feeling lonely, don’t rush into social interaction. Take time to quiet your mind, change your outlook, and open yourself to the possibilities of connection.
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