Why is Loneliness Bad For Your Mental Health?Brain Yapping by Dr Dean Burnett
From May 9th to May 15th, 2022, it’s Mental Health Awareness week in the UK. And this year’s theme is ‘Loneliness’.
This makes sense; even before the pandemic, there was much talk about the epidemic of loneliness afflicting many countries. Predictably, and inevitably, the pandemic and lockdown made the problem worse.
How could it not? Introducing laws preventing everyone from meeting others, there’s logically no way that wouldn’t lead to increased isolation and loneliness. While it’s undoubtedly one of many factors, this inevitable spike in the experience of loneliness was a likely a serious contributor to the reported increase in mental health issues throughout the population during the pandemic. In short, the harm prolonged loneliness poses to mental health is well established, and widely accepted.
Here’s the question though; why? Why does loneliness have such a tangible, detrimental impact on mental health? Because you get the sense that many people don’t take the idea especially seriously.
Because loneliness is easily fixed, isn’t it? After all, everyone gets lonely sometimes. It’s part of life. Just make some friends, stop being so awkward. Go out more. Join some clubs or a sports team or something. It’s simple, right?
It’s not, though. Thanks to how our brains have evolved loneliness is a serious mental health issue for us humans.
It can’t be stressed enough that human interaction is important
One thing that diminishes overall mental health, significantly and reliably, is stress. I’ve covered it many times before, but the human brain isn’t very good at dealing with prolonged, chronic stress. It compromises its ability to function normally, causing mental health and wellbeing to decline, often to the point where we develop a full-blown clinical disorder.
That’s a big part of how and why unpleasant, or traumatic, life events lead to mental disorders, with genuine physical symptoms (stress causes tangible chemical outcomes in the body, after all). It’s also why a prolonged lockdown, i.e. putting everyone in a more stressful situation, was inevitably going to harm the populations mental health. And that last part, prolonged exposure to a stressful situation, is why loneliness can be so bad for our mental wellbeing.
We humans are an incredibly social species. Indeed, scientists have assigned us the unique label of ‘ultrasocial’. In practice, this means we humans need to communicate, connect, and interact with our fellows. It’s literally in our DNA. And, accordingly, much of our cognitive functioning, the makeup of our very minds, is dependent on, interacting and forming relationships with other people.
The things we think and feel are heavily influenced by, if not entirely derived from, those around us. Those we observe and engage with are a considerable factor in the development of our identity, hence peer approval and ‘fitting in’ are such a big deal during adolescence, i.e., when our adult ‘selves’ are being formed and refined.
Indeed, a positive social interaction, of even the mildest sort, reliably triggers activity in the reward pathways of our brain. In plain English, positive social reactions cause us to experience pleasure.
Ultimately, for all that we in the developed world may crow about individuality and self-reliance, social interactions, relationships, and interdependence aren’t just ‘optional extras’ (or ‘necessary evils’, if you’re the misanthropic sort), of modern human existence. Rather, they’re essential. They make us what we are, and our brains have evolved to facilitate them, in multiple ways.
The lonely brain
We have a highly complex neurological network dedicated to social interaction and relationships. The nature and amount of social connections we can form and maintain has been studied extensively. Our brains have processes dedicated to making us seem likeable to others, so as to avoid rejection. And so much more.
The result of all this is that, in numerous ways, our brains literally need other people around, especially ones we can interact with in a positive way. And when we’re denied these connections with others, our brains react badly.
Being cut off from those you care about often leads to the mental discomfort and anguish we’ve labelled homesickness. Being at the bottom of a recognised social hierarchy (i.e. not being respected or appreciated by those you identify with) is a very stressful existence. And solitary confinement, being deprived of human contact altogether, is literally a form of torture. Any way you slice it, no meaningful contact with others reliably induces stress in the human brain, and therefore impacts negatively on mental health.
And it’s all well and good to say ‘just meet some people/make friends, then you won’t be lonely’, but it’s not that easy. Because our brains so crave social interactions and connections, we’re instinctively very averse to even the possibility of social rejection.
Ostracization, of any sort, causes psychological pain and distress, even if it’s from people you logically wouldn’t want to be accepted by. And social phobias (e.g. stage fright, public speaking), the irrational fear of being rejected by others, are the most common type of phobia in the world.
This means that combatting or overcoming loneliness is no mean feat. It involves a high degree of potential risk and stress. And this is even harder to deal with if you’re already mentally compromised by, say, an extended experience of loneliness. In many ways, the harm loneliness wreaks on your mental health can soon become self-sustaining.
A complex, populated, interconnected world can ironically be a lonely one
And that’s not even considering exactly how someone ended up lonely in the first place. In our high-tech but ever-more-economically-precarious world, it’s increasingly common to move away from established family and friends in pursuit of work, particularly in fields like academia. And integrating into an entirely new home and community is always a challenge.
Or you may have to work multiple jobs to make ends meet, leaving no time, energy, or money for relationships outside of work.
Or maybe you’re too old and infirm to actively socialise? Longer lifespans are all well and good, but, in combination with the increasing dispersal of communities and families due to enhanced travel options and the demands of modern jobs, it does mean many long-retired elderly people are left alone to fend for themselves, in a world they increasingly don’t understand. It would explain why the loneliness epidemic seems particularly prominent among the older generations.
All in all, loneliness is so detrimental to our mental health and wellbeing because, like it or not, we humans are innately very social creatures, and interactions with others are not a luxury, so much as they are an essential aspect of what our brains require to function normally.
Being denied human contact means that many important parts of your brain don’t get to do what they need to do. It’s like extracting vitamins from your diet, or trying to get everywhere by only ever hopping on one leg. It may not be noticeable at first, but the harm being done is building up, and will make itself known eventually.
For more insights into the fundamental science of mental health, check out Dean Burnett’s latest book, Psycho-Logical. For Mental Health Awareness Week, you can pick up a copy of any of Dean’s books, signed by Dean, for 15% off at the Shambles Bookshop here.
Dr Dean Burnett is a neuroscientist and best selling author of such books as The Idiot Brain and The Happy Brain. His former column Brain Flapping for The Guardian (now Brain Yapping here on the CSN) was the most popular blog on their platform with millions of readers worldwide. He is a former tutor and lecturer for the Cardiff University Centre for Medical Education and is currently an honorary research associate at Cardiff Psychology School and Visiting Industry Fellow at Birmingham City University. He is @garwboy on Twitter.