How does social isolation and loneliness affect our brain?

How does social isolation and loneliness affect our brain?

In March 2020, almost the whole world went into quarantine due to the COVID-19 pandemic. We are also dealing with the epidemic of silence that has entered our lives due to social isolation just a year before the end of a pandemic. While quarantine and social isolation are necessary to prevent the spread of the virus, it also brings a feeling of loneliness, which has major side effects on our mental health and happiness.

According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, social isolation not only increases the risk of mental illness, but also increases the likelihood of dementia by up to 50 percent. What’s more, loneliness due to social isolation also affects our physical health. It reduces the functionality of our immune system; It causes sleep disorders, cardiovascular diseases, high blood pressure, stroke, metabolic diseases and becomes a risk factor that increases mortality in older populations. Let’s try to understand better how being in constant social isolation and loneliness affect our psychosocial and neurological health.

How does forced social isolation affect brain activity?

This question was raised before the pandemic, Dr. It was directed by Livia Tomova and her colleagues who worked with 40 people between the ages of 18-40 on the effects of social isolation on the human brain. Their goal was to see if they could create an experimentally stimulated experience of social isolation to determine which brain regions govern the need for social interaction.

Participants were asked to stay isolated in a room for 10 hours, without media or a person to interact with. The same participants also stood without food for 10 hours. Each participant received functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) at baseline, after the task (10 hours of social isolation or 10 hours of fasting), and after a sign (social cue, meal sign, neutral sign).

After a severe social isolation process, giving participants a cue that triggers social connectedness (like a photo of some people doing their favorite social activity) resulted in an increased activity of dopamine-activated midbrain neurons related to desires and rewarding. This area was the same as the one that mobilized for food cravings. However, this zone did not act when a neutral sign was involved.

An interesting finding from this study is that the neural cues given by the human body to food when hungry, and its response to social hunger, occur in a similar region of the brain. For this reason, people who are forced into social isolation want to socially interact, just like a hungry person wants to eat.

Dr. In another study conducted by Nathan Spreng and his colleagues, they studied perceived social isolation and loneliness. In the study, which included 40,000 participants, they investigated changes in brain volume and internal functional connections using MRI. As a result of the study, it was seen that individuals who felt lonely started to think more about themselves and became more introverted and mentalized to fill this social gap and try to overcome the feeling of social isolation.

When these two studies were evaluated together, it was revealed that a severe social isolation process evoked a desire to respond to social cues and that loneliness was a specific neural sign.

8 strategies for dealing with loneliness

Social ties are psychological needs that are essential for our health and happiness. The forced social distance we experienced due to the pandemic made most of us feel lonely and isolated. We sought ways to adapt to this process and stay more resilient. With 8 ways we’ll talk about, you can reduce the feeling of loneliness and improve your social bonds with the people you love.

Practice being thankful for five minutes every day: Make an effort to practice gratitude, to appreciate something that is meaningful to you. Doing so will not only improve your emotional health, but also improve your coping skills by encouraging you to think positively by making you more resilient. Research shows that doing this is effective in reducing anxiety, depression and stress. It also helps strengthen social ties.

2- Participate in online sports lessons: Exercise has incredible benefits on your physical and psychological health, reducing stress and increasing your mood. Participating in online sports classes and interacting with other people on platforms such as Zoom can also help relieve symptoms associated with depression. Regardless of whether it’s cardio, pilates, yoga, boxing, dance or weightlifting exercises, give online fitness classes a try. It is a proven fact that physical activities affect social health and reduce the feeling of loneliness.

3- Practice mindfulness meditation practices: It has been observed that such smartphone applications reduce loneliness and improve social ties. You can also work with online meditation instructors and feel less lonely by participating in guided meditation programs.

4- As an alternative to reading books, listen to audiobooks: Books improve our worldview, ignite our imagination, generate new ideas, and contribute to our creativity. Reading books helps you develop empathy and understand other people. Joining online book clubs helps you connect with other people with the same interests by being in a community.

5- Spend time in nature or green indoor areas: Cognitive neuroscience research shows that the environments in which we spend time have a significant impact on our stress levels and our health in general. Spending time in nature also minimizes the effects of not being able to socialize. At the same time, placing a small plant in the room you are in allows you to stay away from stress.

6- Organize online meetings: You can arrange online conversations with your friends, family or lover. You can also attend online cooking, art or music classes with these people and meet new people.

7- Learn a new language on the computer: Learning a new language can help you connect with different cultures as well. Learning languages ​​improves your thinking ability and allows you to have a more agile intelligence. It also improves your social behavior by increasing your self-confidence.

8- Get online therapy: Don’t be alone with your thoughts. Start therapy with a therapist to get through these difficult times. In this way, it will be easier for you to cope with problems such as anxiety.

Translated from the original English: Dilara Preserve

Referans: Psychology Today. How Social Isolation and Loneliness Impact Brain Function. Şuradan alınmıştır:

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