- Feeling lonely is a normal part of being human, but it could have serious health consequences.
- Loneliness could make people more attentive to threat and may even induce a physical pain response in the brain.
- Social support is an important aspect of fighting loneliness.
We’ve all experienced loneliness from time to time. Indeed, even the most popular, social butterflies among us have likely felt the yearning for social connection, or the pang of sadness from being unable to talk to a close friend now and again. This is a completely natural feeling to have, as humans are an incredibly social species. In fact, it’s arguable that we survive best by being part of a large group (Rokach, 2018). As a result, being alone or left out of a group causes the inevitable feeling that we experience as loneliness.
But although feeling lonely is a normal part of being human, it doesn’t mean that loneliness—especially prolonged loneliness—is healthy. In fact, while we think of loneliness as a sad condition, it is also a potentially threatening one. Several studies have even shown that social isolation can literally kill you. In an analysis of 70 studies on over 3 million participants, researchers found that increased risk of premature death was between 26 and 32 percent higher in individuals who were lonely or socially isolated (Holt-Lunstad, et al., 2015). The authors of this study point out that obesity and smoking, which get constant media attention, lead to the same risk for premature death as loneliness.
You might be asking, how on earth is that possible? Scientists believe that since humans evolved to live in groups, being alone would make you more vulnerable to threats. And indeed, research suggests that being lonely is associated with paying more attention to threatening social information. For example, when presented with photos of threatening and non-threatening faces, the brains of lonely adults process threatening information more quickly than do adults who aren’t lonely (Cacioppo et al., 2015). This suggests that feeling lonely puts our bodies on high alert, responding more quickly to threat than we typically would. While this hypervigilance can be adaptive when there really is imminent threat to worry about, it also takes a toll on the body: Making us more attentive to threat increases our stress hormones, which thereby increases our blood pressure and impacts the functioning of our immune systems (Cacioppo & Cacioppo, 2014).
There is also direct evidence that loneliness has an immediate impact on your brain. For example, one group of researchers showed that after periods of being socially isolated, adults show activation in similar brain regions that are active when we’re hungry (Tomova et al., 2020). Another study looked at adults’ brains during an activity after researchers convinced them that they were being excluded from a game with their peers. The parts of the brain that were most active when the adults thought they were being excluded are the same parts of the brain that are active when you feel physical pain (Eisenberger, Lieberman, & Williams, 2003). On top of that, when given acetaminophen, a common painkiller that’s in over-the-counter drugs like Tylenol, the brain’s response to being excluded is diminished (DeWall et al., 2010).
This all suggests that loneliness literally hurts. So, it’s time to start taking loneliness seriously, especially in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic where people are being forced into social isolation.
What do we do exactly? The obvious solution is to look for social support wherever you can find it. In a large study of children who mostly grew up among a number of risk factors including poverty, perinatal stress, and family problems, the children who had the best outcomes on a number of measures had support from different people in their lives, including grandparents, youth leaders, and even members of church groups (Werner, 1993). So having people in your life that support you can obviously help fight feelings of loneliness.
But what if you don’t have enough social support? Research suggests that giving social support might be just as important for relieving stress as taking it. In one study, researchers looked at the brains of individuals while they were undergoing a stressful event. Before the stressful event (which in this case was doing difficult math problems while being judged, yikes!), people either received support from another person, or they gave it, by being asked if they were willing to donate winning raffle tickets to someone who they knew could use the money. The researchers found that while both giving and receiving social support were related to better psychological outcomes, giving support was related to lower threat activity in the brain during the stressful task (Inagaki et al., 2017). So, helping others may do just as much—or more—to cope with the stress of loneliness than getting support from others.
Finally, talking about your feelings, especially when you’re lonely can also help, particularly if you’re male. Women are likely willing to talk about feeling lonely more freely than men are, and as a result, some studies suggest that loneliness is more common in women than in men. However, other studies have shown that loneliness is actually higher in men, particularly older men, and women are just more likely to admit feeling it (Rokach, 2018). This tendency starts in childhood; from a young age, girls are encouraged to talk more about their negative emotions than boys. So reaching out to someone and telling them how you feel is important, and you just might find that you aren’t as alone as you might have thought.
Cacioppo, S., Bangee, M., Balogh, S., Cardenas-Iniguez, C., Qualter, P., & Cacioppo, J. T. (2016). Loneliness and implicit attention to social threat: A high-performance electrical neuroimaging study. Cognitive neuroscience, 7(1-4), 138-159.
Cacioppo, J. T., & Cacioppo, S. (2014). Social relationships and health: The toxic effects of perceived social isolation. Social and personality psychology compass, 8(2), 58-72.
DeWall, C. N., MacDonald, G., Webster, G. D., Masten, C. L., Baumeister, R. F., Powell, C., ... & Eisenberger, N. I. (2010). Acetaminophen reduces social pain: Behavioral and neural evidence. Psychological science, 21(7), 931-937.
Eisenberger, N. I., Lieberman, M. D., & Williams, K. D. (2003). Does rejection hurt? An fMRI study of social exclusion. Science, 302(5643), 290-292.
Holt-Lunstad, J., Smith, T. B., Baker, M., Harris, T., & Stephenson, D. (2015). Loneliness and social isolation as risk factors for mortality: a meta-analytic review. Perspectives on psychological science, 10(2), 227-237.
Inagaki, T. K., Haltom, K. E. B., Suzuki, S., Jevtic, I., Hornstein, E., Bower, J. E., & Eisenberger, N. I. (2016). The neurobiology of giving versus receiving support: the role of stress-related and social reward-related neural activity. Psychosomatic medicine, 78(4), 443.
Rokach, A. (2018). The effect of gender and culture on loneliness: A mini review. Emerging Science Journal, 2(2), 59-64.
Tomova, L., Wang, K. L., Thompson, T., Matthews, G. A., Takahashi, A., Tye, K. M., & Saxe, R. (2020). Acute social isolation evokes midbrain craving responses similar to hunger. Nature Neuroscience, 23(12), 1597-1605.
Werner, E. E. (1993). Risk, resilience, and recovery: Perspectives from the Kauai Longitudinal Study. Development and psychopathology, 5(4), 503-515.