In a research paper published by the American Health Journal, over 35 million Americans report feelings related to chronic loneliness.
Signs of chronic loneliness can include a lack of meaningful relationships, feelings of isolation, and more. This phenomenon has been growing in recent years due to myriad reasons, such as busier and more chaotic lifestyles and the stronger influence of online social media.
But despite this growing problem, we aren’t completely helpless! In this article, we’ll break down how loneliness affects us on a biological level, and from there, we can learn about steps to fight back against the chronic loneliness epidemic.
How does chronic loneliness affect us?
Chronic loneliness has effects on the brain similar to major depression and post traumatic stress disorder. What all these have in common is they inflict a great deal of mental stress on us – and that causes biological changes over time.
Stress by itself doesn’t have to be problematic, but the issue arises when stress is prolonged over long periods, which is what happens when we experience chronic loneliness.
How loneliness changes our brain
In a study conducted in 2015 at the University of Chicago, researchers examined some of the differences between a healthy brain and the brain of someone experiencing chronic loneliness. Some of the differences include:
- Higher adrenal gland activation
- Higher activation of visual cortex and lower activation of temporo-parietal junction
- Lower activation of dorsomedial frontal cortex
Do you have to know what those all mean? No. Being aware of all these changes can be interesting in its own right. But each of these little changes have a profound effect on our thought processes and behavior. Let’s dig a little deeper to see how these effects of chronic loneliness actually impact us.
Higher adrenal gland activation
Adrenal glands, as the name suggests, are related to adrenaline and the fight or flight response. When our adrenal glands are more active, it tends to manifest in us being hyper-aware or vigilant in most situations. This isn’t a bad thing by itself, but when they’re too active, it causes feelings related to paranoia or excessive thought even in relatively safe situations. When it comes to chronic loneliness, this makes sense because often the fear of making a mistake or the fear of being alone can make us feel afraid or more concerned about our actions.
Higher activation of visual cortex and lower activation of temporo-parietal junction
In our brains, the visual cortex and temporo-parietal junction are regions in charge of processing the things we see and experience.
These changes make an already difficult situation even harder to climb out of.
In the aforementioned research study, participants were shown pictures of non-threatening people and objects. Lonely individuals displayed higher activation of the visual cortex as well as lower activation of the temporo-parietal junction when viewing pleasant people, while non-lonely displayed the opposite.
Basically, lonely individuals generally didn’t have as strong a reaction when seeing even non-threatening people – they didn’t feel much of anything when they saw others.
This could be a reason why it’s hard to climb out of chronic loneliness. If we don’t feel much from people and social situations, it’s much harder to muster the effort to interact with others.
Lower activation of dorsomedial frontal cortex
The dorsomedial frontal cortex plays many roles, such as in decision making, emotional regulation, and emotional responses.
In this study, participants were shown negative social scenes. When compared to non-lonely individuals, lonely individuals had lower activation of the cortex, which means they generally did not have a problem with negative social scenes, whereas non-lonely people did.
When it comes to chronic loneliness, this is another reason why it’s hard to take action against feeling lonely. No matter how badly we feel about being lonely, it’s just “normal”, and we feel less inclined to make a change.
Increased cortisol levels
In a different study conducted at Arizona State University, researchers examined cortisol levels in high school and college students who reported symptoms of chronic loneliness.
What they found was that participants with chronic loneliness also displayed elevated cortisol levels. Cortisol is also known as the stress hormone because it’s released in moments of stress and assists in regulating your mood, energy, and alertness.
But too much of it can be harmful to the brain. Continuous, elevated levels of cortisol can have the following effects on our brains:
- Disrupted synapses, which makes it harder for us to want to socialize and interact
- Shrunken prefrontal cortex, making it harder to learn and adapt
- Harmed brain cells and hampered brain growth
- Increased amygdala size, which makes us more vulnerable and reactive to stress
The brain and neuroplasticity
You can see there are a lot of biological changes caused by loneliness. And all of these affect something called neuroplasticity. In short, neuroplasticity is our brain’s ability to grow.
A healthy brain with positive neuroplasticity has stronger dendrite connections, which helps the brain grow and adapt more quickly. On the reverse side, a brain with negative neuroplasticity can struggle to grow as quickly.
Chronic loneliness and its constant stress change our brains and take a major toll that negatively changes our neuroplasticity. As such, these changes make an already difficult situation even harder to climb out of, both from an emotional perspective as well as a biological one.
How do I fight back?
As you can see, most of the feelings we experience with chronic loneliness have an underlying cause. It’s never your fault!
It can be difficult to manage chronic loneliness because its biological effects set off vicious emotional cycles. Biological changes related to loneliness can cause thoughts, that reinforce behaviors, that in turn reinforce the same thoughts.
However, all is not lost, as there are a few things we can do to deal with chronic loneliness. Some of these tools are simple, but every step helps to work back toward fulfillment and connection!
Get the ball rolling
One of the simplest changes we can make in our daily routines is to include more physical activity. Exercise is a common recommendation for those suffering with depression and anxiety, and it helps even if you only feel those ways because of loneliness.
Exercise helps because it releases hormones like epinephrine and dopamine that elevate our mood and stimulate brain growth. Since chronic loneliness can negatively affect our brain growth over time, getting as little as 20 minutes of exercise is the perfect counter – it rewires our neuroplasticity in a positive way.
There are many ways to get active other than by running. Try weightlifting, hiking, or even competitive sports – look into whatever interests you the most and get moving!
Another method to reverse negative neuroplasticity is to manage what you eat. An unhealthy diet can accelerate brain degradation, but cleaning up our diet goes a long way to improving the longevity of our brains.
In a study conducted in the Netherlands, researchers found that individuals with healthier diets displayed stronger brain growth over time compared to individuals who neglected what they ate.
Changing your diet doesn’t necessarily mean eliminating all tasty foods either. Small changes such as intermittent fasting or just cooking your own favorite foods can help a great deal. Making small changes to what you eat will go a long way to improving neuroplasticity and cognition.
Train your brain
Just like for your body, training your brain will do wonders for its overall health. Take a step back and think about anything you like to do that also gets you thinking.
Have you ever wanted to write a short story, or try your hand at composing music? Do you enjoy puzzles or video games? There are many things you can do that can stimulate your brain, and the more you put it to work, the healthier it will be in the long run.
Find a brain-building hobby you enjoy and keep at it, and you’ll be rewarded with loneliness-fighting neuroplasticity for years to come.
What do you do for fun?
Previously we’ve discussed some of the ways you can help combat chronic loneliness, on your own. Whenever you’re ready, you can take the next, and most difficult step; meeting people.
One of the easiest ways to meet others is to take a look at what you enjoy doing – meeting people while doing it gives you an instant way to bond.
Whether it’s something as simple as going to the gym, or something seemingly complex like competitive gaming, there are always people who also enjoy what you do for fun. Do some research about local groups who have interests that line up with your own.
If that’s too much, or you have more obscure interests, the world wide web is a boundless resource you can use to meet and interact with people like you. Starting with something you have in common gives you a way to strike up conversations more easily and build a fun, healthy rapport.
Your next steps
Just because you’re alone, it doesn’t mean you’re powerless. The journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step, and in time, you’ll be more than capable of fighting back against chronic loneliness.
If the loneliness feels too much to bear, you’re understood. It’s not fair to feel that way, and you don’t have to – you can always chat with good people here at Supportiv.
Even the most stalwart individuals need a helping hand sometimes, and we’re more than happy to help you in this journey.