young man feeling loneliness looking out window
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It’s no secret that mental illness can lead to loneliness.

In some cases, people who develop certain mental health concerns begin to withdraw from those who care about them. In other cases, people who struggle with their mental health find themselves ignored, shunned, or outright ostracized by their peers.

Compounding the problem is that the symptoms of many mental health disorders can make it extremely difficult for a person to maintain existing relationships or form new ones.

When we look at the connection between mental illness and isolation from this perspective, it’s not difficult to see the connection.

But what happens if we reverse our view of the cause-effect relationship between mental health and loneliness?

Can an absence of healthy interpersonal interactions have a detrimental impact on a person’s psychological well-being? How does loneliness impact the brain?

A Hunger for Connection

Human beings are social creatures. For millennia, people have organized themselves into clans, communities, and other groupings. Today, this phenomenon continues to manifest in myriad ways. We define ourselves at least partially by where we live, who we associate with, and which groups we belong to.

Even when we move from the so-called “real world” into the online realm, this seemingly instinctual desire to interact with others continues unabated.

From the earliest days of The World Wide Web to today’s hyperconnected network of smart devices, one virtual constant has been the presence of programs that were designed to bring people together. We’re talking about virtual spaces like The Well and ICQ; Friendster and MySpace; Tumblr, Twitter, and TikTok; and, of course, Facebook.

For all the problems that social media has been associated with, it’s not hard to see why these services have established such a dominant presence. Humans, to borrow a technological term, appear to be hard-wired for kinship.

But what happens when our ability to connect with others is taken away? One relatively recent report compared enforced isolation with starvation.

In a Nov. 23, 2020, study in the journal Nature Neuroscience, a team led by Livia Tomova, PhD, of MIT’s Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences reported that isolation causes the brain to yearn for social interactions the same way that fasting causes it to desire food.

The study that Dr. Tomova’s team conducted included the following elements:

  • The subjects were 40 healthy, socially connected adults (27 women and 13 men) ages 18-40.
  • All subjects underwent 10 hours of enforced social isolation, followed by functional magnetic imaging (fMRI) with a cue induced craving (CIC) paradigm.
  • All subjects also underwent 10 hours of fasting, followed by a similar fMRI with a CIC paradigm.

The CIC paradigm consisted of showing images of food, people in social situations, or flowers. The flower images were the control cues.

The study’s results included the following:

  • After the social isolation period, subjects demonstrated “substantially increased” social craving, loneliness, and discomfort on self-report questionnaires. They also showed a greater dislike of isolation and decreased levels of happiness than they did at the outset of the study.
  • fMRI images of two midbrain areas showed higher responses to social cues after the isolation period than after the fasting period. After people had fasted, their fMRI images showed higher responses to food cues than they did after the isolation period.

“People who are forced to be isolated crave social interactions similarly to the way in which a hungry person craves food,” the team reported. “Although when chosen intentionally, solitude can be restful and rejuvenating, the externally mandated isolation was subjectively aversive.”

The team also noted that the effects of social isolation were evident even though the subjects were alone for a relatively brief period of time (10 hours) and they were aware of exactly when their isolation would be over.

The Impact of Loneliness on the Brain and Body

The month after the publication of Dr. Tomova’s study, a research team led by Nathan Sprang, PhD, of Magill University in Montreal, published a study in the journal Nature Communications that focused on the effects of loneliness on the brain.

Dr. Sprang’s team analyzed information from the UK Biobank. This massive database contains behavioral, genetic, and cognitive information, plus biological samples, from more than 500,000 people throughout the United Kingdom.

Dr. Sprang and his team reviewed data from 38,701 individuals ages 40-69. Their findings included the following:

  • MRIs revealed “distinctive features” in grey matter volume, white matter tract integrity, and functional connectivity in the brains of people who self-reported that they often felt lonely.
  • Among those who self-reported frequent loneliness, scans showed alterations in areas of the brain that are involved with “perceptual, attentional, and affective processing of social information.”

“Chronic loneliness may … signal a maladaptive shift in the network architecture of the lonely aging brain,” the team reported.

Dr. Temova’s and Dr. Sprang’s studies are not the only sources of data about the impact of loneliness.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) provided the following information about the effects of loneliness on the brain and body among adults ages 50 and above:

  • Social isolation may increase a person’s risk of dementia by as much as 50%.
  • Loneliness has been associated with an increased prevalence of anxiety disorders, depressive disorders, and suicide.
  • Among patients who were treated for heart failure, loneliness was linked to a 400% increased risk of death, a 68% increased risk of hospitalization, and a 57% increased risk of needing to visit an emergency room.

In terms of a person’s likelihood for premature death, the CDC reported, the negative effects of isolation may be as harmful as smoking, obesity, and lack of physical activity.

Overcoming the Negative Effects of Loneliness

To overcome the effects of loneliness on the brain and body, we first need to understand what loneliness is – and what it is not. We’ll start with the latter:

  • Loneliness is not a synonym for isolation. As Dr. Temova’s team noted in their study, some people who choose solitude can find the experience to be both relaxing and rejuvenating.
  • Conversely, being surrounded by other people is not necessarily an antidote for loneliness. As the saying goes, it is, indeed, possible to be lonely in a crowded room.

Now that we know what loneliness isn’t, how can we identify what it is?

According to a December 2013 article by Louise C. Hawkley, PhD, and John T. Cacioppio, PhD, loneliness is “ a distressing feeling that accompanies the perception that one’s social needs are not being met by the quantity or especially the quality of one’s social relationships.”

The two key words in that definition are “feeling” and “perception.”

Loneliness is a state of mind. One person may talk to dozens of people every day, yet still feel lonely. Another person may have only a few interactions each week, yet feel connected and supported. The optimal number of relationships that someone needs to avoid loneliness can vary considerably from one person to the next. The necessary quality and substance of these relationships can vary as well.

As we mentioned in the introduction to this post, mental illnesses can undermine a person’s ability to form and maintain healthy relationships. Given what we now know about the potentially harmful effects of loneliness, helping people make meaningful connections can be an essential part of the effort to improve their mental health.

If someone that you care about is struggling with both a mental illness and the detrimental impact of loneliness, here are a few ways you can help:

  • Model appropriate behaviors. Some mental health disorders make it difficult for people to interpret social cues or adhere to established norms. Providing someone you care about with tangible examples of how to interact with others can make a significant difference.
  • Include them in events, activities, and social gatherings. Don’t force the matter, but encourage them to accompany you when possible. With your guidance and support, experiences like these can help your loved one develop a greater capacity for healthy socialization.
  • Help them find a support group. Spending time with other people who have been experiencing similar challenges can be extremely beneficial. If geographical concerns make it difficult for your loved one to connect with others, online groups can be an ideal solution.
  • Promote awareness and understanding within your community. Educating other people about mental illness can reduce stigma, eliminate negative stereotypes, and make our world a more accepting place for people who have mental health concerns.
  • Get help. If a person has become isolated due to acute symptoms of a complex mental health disorder, they need professional treatment. When your loved one gets the right type and level of care, they can overcome their loneliness and experience true healing.

Learn More Today

Crownview Psychiatric Institute specializes in treating adults who have complex mental health needs. Our services include helping our clients overcome the pervasive sense of isolation that often accompanies mental illness. Our team works diligently to ensure that our center is a safe and welcoming community where every client can finally feel like they truly belong. Contact us today to learn more about how we can help.