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The Neuroscience of Loneliness

BLOG TAGS:
Loneliness and Social Isolation

Evidence from scientific and psychological based experiments are now showing that loneliness is linked to a host of effects on the mind and body - such as psychological and physical illnesses such as depression, cognitive decline, heart problems and stroke.

Have you met anyone that is surrounded by family but still feels lonely?

Maybe you know someone that isolates themselves?

Do you force yourself to attend networking or training meetings but fear approaching anyone incase they don’t want to speak to you? Do you constantly question and judge yourself?

Research has shown that loneliness, social isolation and living alone - even more so than obesity - are associated with a higher incidence of premature death.

The question is, what is the difference between Loneliness and Social Isolation?

Social Isolation - physical separation from contact.

Loneliness - emotional feeling of lack of contact.

Insufficient social connection, which could be due to social isolation or lack of good quality relationships causes loneliness and lack of well-being. These are generally caused by the fact that more people now live alone, increase in failing marriages, fewer children, decline in volunteering and fewer religious affiliations. Loneliness is an emotional state we have when we feel disconnected because our need for connection is engrained in our DNA.

We need to develop the habit, (not just at Christmas), of being aware and mindful of people around us and visiting our aged neighbours and granny, because this will help to keep them out of hospital.

WHAT IS LONELINESS?

Most of us have at some point in our lives, have felt “LONELY”. The feeling of loneliness depends on your situation at the time but most importantly on how you viewed the situation. Loneliness is perceived social isolation and the experience of being cut off from others.

I remember as a young nine year old girl that has just arrived in Africa from the the U.K. and started a new school in a different country and culture. I spoke differently, dressed differently - I wore white socks that went up to my knees, while most of the children wore plain sandals with no socks. I struggled to “fit in” and I felt that the children did not like me because I ”appeared” to be different. It was a very lonely time as that was my first experience of feeling disconnected form others.

The feeling of loneliness changes as your situation and status changes, such as in my case when my perceived status changed, as one the girls decided to be my friend, or it could be the beginning a new friendship, or maybe a new romantic relationship. On the other hand, the “Chronically Lonely” experience profound loneliness over long periods of time despite changing circumstances.

Chronically lonely people are more likely to to be hyper-vigilant for social threats, suffer depression and suffer social withdrawal. People with social isolation from living alone, having very few poor quality friends or neighbours may feel content within themselves, but the health risk could be, forgetting to take their medicine or in extreme circumstances could even lead to a situation where for example, no one is available to call the emergency services when needed. Whilst others that are not isolated, such as married people with many friends may still feel profoundly lonely. Both loneliness and social isolation have been correlated with increased health risks.

When loneliness persists for a long period, it can also affect mental health as well as your emotional well being. John Cacioppo’s (2015) theory explains that the pain of loneliness triggers a motivation to connect to others, but when this effort repeatedly fails, people may stay in a hyper alert mode that causes the body and brain increased levels of stress. This causes the person’s mind to always be on alert to threats even before they face any threat. This response turns out to be counterproductive because of the difficulty of differentiating a real threat from a perceived one.

Research has shown that the highest levels of loneliness occurs before the age of 25 and after 65years. These feelings of loneliness are influenced by peoples perception of “normal’, that is why being married or people cohabiting seem to be protected from this lonely feeling. It also has less impact on young people who do not yet expect to be married. Being employed can make a crucial difference for adults in midlife but less so for older people who have chosen to retire.

LONELINESS IN CHILDREN

Lonely children are at an increased risk of becoming lonely and depressed in adolescent and adult life. This feeling of loneliness can be caused by lack of connection with parents, peers or inadequate social skills which can be due to their negative interpretations of social situations.

LONELINESS IN ADULTS

As we get older, our feeling of loneliness can increase due to loss of loved ones, poor physical or mental health, loss of mobility, lack of confidence and environmental situations such as lack of transport. Some study found that the loneliest time for older people was indeed Summer and not Christmas which is a popular belief, that is why it is so important to keep in touch at least weekly with your elderly family and neighbours.

SUMMARY

The brain is the key organ for forming, evaluating, monitoring, repairing and maintaining connections with others as well as regulating physiological processes relevant to wellbeing.  So its the brains interpretations of your relationships that creates the emotional feeling. A social relationship can be perceived as caring and protective or as threatening based on many factors, such as your beliefs, experiences, perceptions and mindset.

The genes of inflammation in elderly people who identified themselves as socially isolated, were discovered to be more active, while the genes that help defend against viral infections were depressed. This shows the heightened risk to health of feeling lonely or socially isolated.

Let each of us do our bit to have empathy for others but also to ensure that you do all it takes to guard your brain (thoughts, beliefs, perceptions and mindset), so that you do not end up in a prolonged state of feeling lonely or socially isolated.

If you want to develop your skills to be able to form more effective connections - with your team, clients (learn to attract and retain the right clients), family  and friends - click here to book a 20 minute (free- no obligations) chat with me and let’s get you on your way to “Become Limitless” effortlessly!

 

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