I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the phenomenon of loneliness these days. This issue has surfaced as I research other topics, such as pain and the opioid epidemic. Loneliness is also at epidemic levels; multiple studies suggest that around 60% of the American population feels lonely. This has only increased since the global pandemic began. In a world supposedly hyperconnected, the data shows a different picture. In fact, higher levels of social media usage are often connected to greater, not lesser feelings of loneliness.
This topic is deep and a rich subject to explore on many levels, but I want to focus on just one aspect for now, the connection between stress, pain, and loneliness.
It is said that the brain senses three things- 1) What is out there? 2) What does it mean 3) What should I do? This is especially true with the detection of threats. As an example, like many who travel, I never sleep as well the first night in a hotel as I do the second. Why is that? In a new situation, part of the brain is awake and aware of new sounds, scanning for potential threats. By the second night, the sounds are no longer novel, and sleep is deeper.
Interestingly, a sense of loneliness can play into this as well. When people who are lonely have their brains scanned, they react to potential threats within 150 milliseconds. It took socially connected people twice as long, 300 milliseconds, to notice the same potential threat. Why would that be?
One possible explanation is found in the understanding of other social animals and how they take comfort in the sense of shared protection. A social animal away from the herd must keep its "threat detectors" on high alert constantly. If you are a gazelle and you are grazing alone, you are incredibly vulnerable. You better keep your brain on high alert, or you will become someone else’s lunch. In the herd, multiple animals are watching for danger; there is safely in numbers. In the same way, perhaps people who feel lonely are scanning for threats because they unconsciously know that nobody is looking out for them, and consequently, no one will help them if they are hurt or in need.
Here is the connection to stress- if your nervous system is always on high alert, it has serious physical and emotional consequences. Immune function decreases, heart disease increases, and a host of other maladies. Prosocial behavior turns out to be a really important factor in health and well-being. As proof of this idea, you might assume that people with lower socioeconomic status have much lower life expectancy. Recently, several studies have suggested that perhaps more important than socioeconomic status is the depth of the social web and connectedness. There are several very poor areas of the country that have impressive life spans and high quality of life ratings. It is food for thought.
I can’t resist taking this back to my profession as connectedness is at the heart of excellence in massage therapy. The benefits of the power of human touch cannot be overestimated. In addition, the recipient has the opportunity to be connected to their inner world as well, through the hands of another. In relationship with another human, one also learns about oneself. I am forever in awe of the process and feel so lucky to do something so meaningful.