Recently, I came across a material discussing the latest research on the effects of loneliness on brain structure. Over 50 years ago, the American psychiatrist William Glasser argued that all mental health problems are relationship problems. That is, a person suffers from poor mental health if they find it difficult to establish satisfying relationships with others. Contemporary medical science not only confirms this but takes it a step further – loneliness not only destroys mental health but also physical health. As early as the second half of the previous century, Glasser identified unhappiness as a social problem. Today, scientists warn that loneliness is also becoming another social problem.
Alone or Lonely?
When a person is alone for a prolonged period of time, the lack of social contacts can lead to lower levels of self-esteem and self-confidence, as well as a feeling of insignificance. Other accompanying problems may include a greater tendency towards negative moods, fears, and difficulties in coping with daily challenges. However, being alone and being lonely are different things.
Loneliness can be defined as an unwanted state of isolation in which a person feels disconnected and alienated from other people or society as a whole. The key word here is “unwanted.” It is important to note that loneliness is not the same as avoiding social contact. Many people prefer to be alone and have fewer social interactions without feeling lonely. They simply do not need as much social contact. For them, loneliness can be a source of creative inspiration and an opportunity for personal development.
What does science say about loneliness?
Research on brain activity in relation to loneliness shows that prolonged isolation can lead to changes in various parts of the brain.
One study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences shows that people who are frequently lonely have lower activity in the anterior cingulate cortex, a part of the brain associated with social interaction and problem-solving.
Another study published in the journal Cerebral Cortex found that people who have spent a lot of time in isolation have lower levels of serotonin, a substance that helps regulate mood.
There are also studies that show that prolonged loneliness can lead to changes in the structure of the brain. For example, a study published in JAMA Psychiatry found that people who have been lonely for many years have smaller sizes of gray matter in parts of the brain associated with social interaction.
These studies give us a better understanding of what happens in the brain when we are isolated from other people. They emphasize the importance of social interaction for our mental health and encourage us to seek social support when we feel lonely. It is through these mechanisms that the COVID crisis, which caused social isolation on a global scale, has worsened mental health.
Research in loneliness and social support
There are also many other studies that support the thesis that the lack of social support worsens mental health. Here are some of these studies:
House, Landis, and Uberman (1981) demonstrate that the absence of social support is significantly associated with an increased risk of depression.
Cohen et al. (1997) show that the lack of social support is linked to an increased risk of cardiovascular disease.
Cass (1982) indicates that the absence of social support is associated with an elevated risk of suicide.
Taylor et al. (2007) reveal that the absence of social support is connected to an elevated risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease.
Holmes and Ryan (2003) demonstrate that the lack of social support is linked to lower self-esteem and reduced life satisfaction.
What is the social support we need?
Social support can be defined in numerous ways, but generally refers to the measures that others provide to the individual to help them cope with various problems and stresses. Studies usually utilize several primary components of social support:
Emotional support – this is the support provided by close friends and family when we need emotional support or compassion. This may include expressions of empathy and encouragement.
Informational support – this is the support provided by close friends and family when we need information that can help us cope with a given situation. This may include giving advice, sharing information, and providing resources.
Appraisal support – this is the support provided by close friends and family when we need confirmation that we are doing the right thing. This may include support and recognition for our achievements and qualities.
Instrumental support – this is the support provided by close friends and family when we need assistance in performing tasks or solving problems. This may include providing resources, financial support, and assistance with tasks.
The Effects of Loneliness on Physical Health
Scientific evidence suggests that loneliness can lead to deteriorating physical health. Studies show that people who constantly feel lonely are at a higher risk of developing various health issues, including:
Cardiovascular diseases such as high blood pressure, heart diseases, and stroke.
Weakened immune system, making the body more vulnerable to infections and other diseases.
Accelerated aging of cells and biological aging process.
Increased weight and obesity.
Higher risk of alcohol and drug abuse.
These health issues are associated with the fact that loneliness can lead to stress and damage to health. Furthermore, lonely individuals usually receive less support and assistance from others, which can worsen their health problems. Therefore, it is important to allocate time to maintain healthy social connections and seek support when needed.
If you want to feel good, you need at least one other person
The aforementioned studies and many others like them underline the importance of social relationships and social support for mental and physical health. Finding ways to improve social support can help improve quality of life and reduce the risk of various illnesses and mental health problems.