How Loneliness Affects the Brain

08.05.2019 |

Episode #3 of the course Coping with loneliness in the modern world by Sonia Chauhan


Today, I’ll explain how the non-conscious part of your brain reacts to loneliness.


What Goes on Inside a Lonely Brain

The first humans evolved 200,000 years ago. Back then, we lived in herds, foraging and hunting for survival. Now, our lifestyles have drastically changed. But the catch is that our bodies and minds continue to be hard-wired exactly the same way they were centuries ago.

In the old days, people never strayed from their settlements, because that meant exposure to unknown and possibly deadly consequences. Alone, you were way more likely to be tackled by a tiger, poisoned by berries, or kidnapped by the enemy tribe. Therefore, our brains have always perceived loneliness as a dangerous predicament.

To stop us from venturing alone, our subconscious mind makes us mope. But before that, our non-conscious mind sets off a unique alarm system. It goes into a hyper-vigilance mode and does random things inside our body. For example, it produces stress hormones because it’s expecting and gearing up for “imminent peril.” Then, it cranks up our inflammatory response because it’s expecting injuries from that peril.

In the bargain, it lowers down your general immunity against virus and bacteria, because it’s directing all your energy into fighting the peril. Remember, all of this is happening because your non-conscious brain perceives loneliness as a dangerous situation.

But the big side effect is on your body because all the above reactions are making you prone to mental and physical illnesses. In fact, research reveals that chronic loneliness increases your chance of early death by 45%, more than obesity, chain-smoking, or alcoholism [1].


Why Does a Lonely Person Avoid Company? It’s Complicated

Ever wondered why hunger is an unpleasant feeling? That’s because food is a basic need for survival. A sharp pang in the tummy pushes you to grab a sandwich. Loneliness operates much the same way, only the pursuit is for safety and solidarity. But is it as simple to find friendship when there is no such thing as a pantry full of friends?

Olivia Liang writes in her superb book on solitude, The Lonely City: “The lonelier a person gets; the less adept they become at navigating social currents” [2]. To me, nothing rings truer.

It’s ironic that lonely people usually tend to withdraw from society. They don’t reach out even when they are aching inside. While they don’t enjoy being isolated, they also tend to turn down invitations and instead indulge in solo activities.


Not only do our brains crave social connection, but they also perceive other people as potential threats. After all, people hurt, reject, and destroy us all the time. And a lonely person is far more likely to believe that negative self-talk and lay low.

Psychologist John Cacioppo’s [3] life work was researching loneliness. He found that a lonely person perceives and experiences stressful events in a more acute way [4]. They get much more hassled by a negative event than a less lonely person and are more likely to believe things like, “All men are jerks!” or, “Oh, nobody’s interested in silly old me!”

Cardiac episodes also affect lonely older adults more. Lonely people tend to drink heavily and commit more suicides. It also drastically disrupts your sleep and brings down your overall efficiency.

Therefore, the connection between morbidity and mortality is pretty real and happens inside all of us.


Your Challenge

Destigmatize loneliness. People think of loners as “losers,” and that mentality feeds more damaging negativity into society. Social connection is a human need, and admitting loneliness is nothing more than admitting hunger or thirst.

Recognize YOUR loneliness. If you often feel lonely, don’t deny it. In fact, identify what kind of lonely you are. If you don’t identify the problem, how will you find the right solution?

Understand the effects of loneliness on your brain. You won’t feel it every waking second, but it’s dangerous to continue living a life deprived of emotional connect. Not just because it makes you sad, but because it’s breaking down your immunity and exposing you to illnesses.

Align your thoughts and actions. When you feel low because there is no one to talk to, coach yourself and consciously break out of your shell. You’re doing it for yourself.

Tomorrow, you’ll learn yet another source of modern loneliness: being busy.


Recommended reading

Can Loneliness Kill You?


Recommended video

“The Lethality of Loneliness” by John Cacioppo at TEDx Des Moines



[1] Five Ways to Fight Loneliness and Isolation

[2] The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone by Olivia Laing

[3] Wikipedia: John T. Cacioppo

[4] “The Anatomy of Loneliness” by John T. Cacioppo, Louise C. Hawkley, and Gary G. Berntson


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