Harvard doctor explains what loneliness does to the brain and hormonal system and why people need to spend time together.
Following recent studies, even doctors are now calling loneliness an epidemic of the modern age.
According to a story published in mail Online, a lot of studies have found strong links between loneliness and risks for a number of diseases, from cardiovascular disease to stroke and even death on the whole.
However, it is only recently that scientists been able to identify what is actually happening in the body as a direct result of loneliness.
Harvard University psychiatrist Dr Charles Bullock explained in a blog post for the university the biology of loneliness - and why it's so crucial that we treat our symptoms with the best medicine: people.
Notably. a review of studies conducted back in 1988 identified higher rates of mortality, illness, injury, smoking, obesity and high blood pressure in lonely people, marking social isolation a risk factor for all of the above.
It turns out that despite all our online connections and friends – the average person has 338 Facebook ‘friends’ – people are only getting lonelier.
Former surgeon general Dr Vivek Murthy wrote in the Harvard Business Review that people live in the most technologically connected age in the history of civilization, yet rates of loneliness have doubled since the 1980s.
Speaking to the Washington Post, he went on to add, “It’s far more widespread than people believe, and like many illnesses that are related to our mental and psychological state, it gets swept under the rug and exists in the shadows.”
It turns out that loneliness actually has detrimental effects on the body.
Social activity stimulates a variety of parts of the brain. Like our muscles, the regions of our brains need to be active in order to stay fit.
Several key areas 'atrophy,' so to speak, when we are lonely and isolated, according to Dr Bullock's blog post, i.e, we start to lose gray brain matter in the regions that allow us to read the facial expressions, tones and movements of other people and that allow us to imagine what's happening in another person's mind.
Dr Bullock adds that even if a person spends some time alone, picking up on social cues like these isn't just important to making friends, it's a survival mechanism.
On the other hand, regions of the pain that tell us something is painful thrive on our loneliness.
There is an increase in activity in the amygdala, which regulates emotions and emotional responses, when a person is lonely.
Similarly, the dorsal posterior insula, which regulates how painful something feels actually becomes more active when we are lonely, so injuries - which, incidentally, happen more often to people who are socially isolated - actually hurt more.
Cortisol, the stress hormone tells us when to fight or flee and is key to many biological processes.
However, the body is not designed to be under constant stress, and cortisol is known to disrupt nearly every biological process when levels of it are too high.
The antidote to high cortisol quotients is another hormone called oxytocin and is responsible for the pleasant 'warm' feelings we get from spending time around friends and loved ones.
Maintaining a balance between the stress and social hormones is key to feeling balanced and level.
Dr Bullock says that these effects can be reduced if not reversed even just by being in the presence of other people.
'People are anxiety relievers. And people are antidepressants, as well as blood pressure reducers (mostly). People, in general, are good for you,' Dr Bullock adds.