The lonely brain
Updated: Mar 25
If we’ve learned nothing else this past year, with the forced social distancing, the isolation, the near constant digital interactions, we’ve learned that humans are social creatures. We thrive most when we are amongst our preferred people. In fact, turns out, we actually don’t stay as well as we can when we don’t get our social fix.
Now, I know that some of you don’t feel as though you need to have 374 friends with you at most hours of the day; some of you are happiest with your one or two besties. And I know you are not all itching to go out every weekend evening, buzzing about in your social circle. Each person has their own degree of need of socialness, for interaction with others, for connections, as well as for their preferred mode of communications. We’ve talked about this: it is very important to know what your personal needs are for social connections and do your best to meet those needs, work- and partner- commitments notwithstanding.
Loneliness, turns out, is a feeling that is akin to a perceived threat to our system. Our brains are evolved to the point that they expect social interactions and connections with others. In short, our brains are most functional when we are around other people. This is not so much about introversion or extroversion (which are more of a social preference and a source of mental energy); but rather, focusing on the abilities and functions of your brain: it likes people, and it likes regular interactions with people. Throughout our history as a species, those who are close to others, those who rely on others for survival ultimately enjoy the most successes. When one is alone, they have to do all of the work – both mental and physical – and that can be very taxing. Socialness is therefore equated with greater success and less stress.
The lonely brain spends increased energy dealing with perceived threats and vigilantly guarding against danger. The lonely brain amplifies demands and potential triggers to be even more dangerous than they might actually be, and significantly more dangerous than if we were with others. Even the very sense of feeling lonely is perceived as a stressor, and triggers the release of stress hormones. So the lack of social connections makes us feel exaggerated feelings of stress.
Social connections provide us with support. Our people, our communities provide us with emotional support and peer influence. Even the most competitive of people rely on the presence of others; in fact, maybe even more so because if you are alone, against whom would you compete, right? Recently studies have shown that when the lonely brain is blasted with stressors, the response is significantly greater than if the stressors are pushed at a brain with a buddy nearby. In fact, the brain with a buddy experienced not just a reduced stress response, but also had a much greater flow of blood to the entire brain, indicating a relaxed and cognitive response. Take away: when you are within your normal and preferred social circle, you do not get as activated by stress as you would when you are alone.
Another study showed that being alone for 10 hours can result in reduced brain activity and a stress response that is the same as not eating for 10 hours. Socially ‘starving’ hits your brain just as much as actual hunger.
Your social circle doesn’t necessarily need to consist of other humans; pets have been shown to benefit our emotional and physical wellness, as well. Whether you are a cat person or a dog person, or prefer your pets to be with scales or feathers, regular interactions with a loved and loving pet offer great benefits. Pet owners are generally more calm and happier, with reduced stress hormone levels, and are often more physically fit, too, as many pets entail regular exercises. Pet owners, especially children, tend to have higher levels of empathy and self-esteem, as well as fewer behavioral problems. Pets offer a benefit for your social circle, too, by serving as an invitation for others to interact; pet owners often interact with other pet owners, by either meeting while out on a walk, or through conversation and finding similarities. You can bond over your pet’s antics while chatting at work, opening doors to greater social connections.
Pet ownership also comes with more responsibilities which can offer opportunities for chores for kids, sure, but also the responsibilities of pet ownership are often reflected in increased success with preventative self-care tasks as well, like checking blood sugar for diabetics or taking medication that is required.
So. Social connections offer far more than just friends on our social media accounts and a source of ‘likes’. As I say, one cannot have too many friends. Spend some time with your BFF, your furry family members, or your favorite groups. You will literally be better off wellness-wise for it.