Only the lonely… Loneliness and how to deal with it

Feeling lonely? It could be you were born that way, but take comfort in the fact that you’re not alone, and there is a way out. 

A AW

Scientists have discovered that the brains of lonely people are wired differently – people who are lonely shun interaction because they are more prone to be vigilant and alert to threats. The researchers found that, when exposed to negative social cues, the electrical activity in the brains of lonely people was faster and more pronounced.

The good news, according to two separate studies at the University of Chicago, is that loneliness can be easily overcome. As with depression, the secret lies in exerting a bit of self-discipline in order to become more social. That means getting out more regularly and meeting people with the same interests.

As with people suffering from depression, people who are lonely become trapped in a negative spiral of behaviour. Despite feeling alone, they shun social interaction because they dread rejection from both friends and strangers. In fact lonely people find themselves constantly on guard against social rejection.

The first study (published in July 2015) in the journal Cortex and later in Psychology Today, involved 38 people who were very lonely and 32 who weren’t. Researchers measured the electrical activity in their brain as the volunteers were shown words written in different colours and then asked to name the colour but not the meaning of the word. The test was designed to find out how participant’s brains worked when it came to automatic unconscious influences.

The words were grouped in the following way:

25% were social and positive, like ‘party’

25% were social and negative, like ‘alone’

25% were emotionally positive but non-social, such as ‘joy’

25% were emotionally negative and non-social, such as ‘sad’.

When the words were shown on a screen, lonely people’s brains went into a series of three different microstates – periods of relative stability when different parts of the brain are active in a consistent pattern. A change of a microstate indicates new pattern of thought.

The researchers found that, when shown negative social cues, the electrical activity in the brains of lonely people was faster and more pronounced. The brains of the lonely entered a microstate that specifically responded to socially negative words, causing them to become extremely alert.

Lonely people were also able to pick up on the differences between socially threatening and negative non-social words. This suggests lonely people were looking out for negativity.

The second study (carried out by the same researchers and published online in August in Cognitive Neuroscience) involved 19 people, 10 of whom were lonely.

They were shown 28 pictures:

7 were social and positive

7 were social and negative

7 were non-social and positive

7 were non-social and negative.

When their brains were scanned for electrical activity the researchers found lonely people respond to social threats more quickly than non-social ones, as in the first study.

The researchers suggest that it’s important for people who feel lonely to be mindful their brains are making them more alert to threats. It is hoped that they will then be able to take control of their behaviour.

One of the most important recommended changes in behaviour is for lonely people to actively seek out more social interaction. This also means that they make friends who have the same or similar interests, whilst at the same time, changing their attitude to expect the best from each interaction. However, this social interaction must take place face to face – social contact that is limited to online chat is false and has no real value because it’s simply not real.

Lonely people, as with those suffering from depression, need a plan of action. Often that will mean making a list of things to do and places to visit. An action plan is a means of empowerment, of retaking control, and assuming ownership of your life. An example of an action plan would include planning social events on a calendar and inviting others to join you.

However, it is also important that lonely individuals should seek out quality relationships over quantity in order to make more meaningful connections. [The same could be said for us all!]

A little optimism will also help. Adopting the mind-set that you are going to get the best out of social experiences can help bring people out of loneliness. I always recommend a visit to the Comedy Club as a first outing – laughter is, after all, usually the best medicine and laughing along with other people is a sure-fire way of breaking the ice and strengthening social bonds.

Human beings are naturally social creatures. The desire to be together has always been, a part of our survival strategy. Humans aren’t very strong, we can’t run that fast, we haven’t got sharp teeth or claws to defend ourselves, and our bodies aren’t covered in fur to keep us warm. More than that, our young are fairly helpless for the first few years of their lives and we’ve had to work very hard to adapt to our environment. We’ve had to learn to build, to delegate tasks and divide labour in order to establish a viable working society. And to make all this come together, we have had to learn that cooperation is the most important part of the strategy. In short, we need each other. Over millennia, this need has become hard-wired into our brains.

With this evolutionary strategy in place, it has become inevitable that humans need regular contact with each other and function best when we have access to each other’s company. Very few of us would be able to survive if we were cut off from all the other members of the tribe. Even in a land of plentiful food and water and beautiful weather, loneliness would soon start to take its toll, leading to depression and feelings of desolation.

I often deal with people who say they are depressed, but I’ve noticed that those with regular contact with friends or family are far less likely to be depressed. It is the opportunity to enjoy frequent contact with other humans that is one of the main reasons you don’t end up sitting on a couch talking to people who are more than happy to charge you £100 an hour for the privilege!

Social intercourse is your natural saviour – unless of course you’re glued to your tablet or mobile phone, because then you’re risking your mental health. [The dangers of doing this are discussed in another article.]

Communicating entirely via email and text message can double the risk of isolation, depression, and mental illness. What you need is plenty of face time with other humans. Words are only half of communication – you need to be able to read the body language, the facial expressions and hear all the nuances of language, the changes in tone of voice and enjoy the sound of real laughter, to truly understand and benefit from conversation.

Dr Alan Teo, lead author of a study carried out at Oregon Health and Science University has proved this to be true. He says that ‘Research has long-supported the idea that strong social bonds strengthen people’s mental health… but this is the first look at the role that the type of communication with loved ones and friends plays in safeguarding people from depression. 

‘Phone calls and digital communication, with friends or family members, do not have the same power as face-to-face social interactions in helping to stave off depression.’

Dr Teo’s team at the University of Michigan assessed more than 11,000 adults aged 50 and older, who participated in the Longitudinal Health and Retirement Study. The researchers examined the frequency of face-to-face, telephone and written social contact, including email and text.

After two years, they looked at the risk of depression symptoms, taking into consideration factors including health status, how close people lived to family, and any pre-existing depression.

Their findings revealed that having little face-to-face social contact nearly doubles a person’s risk of having depression after just two years. The researchers also noted that having more or less telephone conversations, written or email contact, had no effect on levels of depression.

Monitored over a period of two years, study participants who met up with family and friends at least three times a week had the lowest level of depressive symptoms (6.5 percent) compared with those who had had less frequent contact.

Those who met up with their relatives and friends only every few months, or less frequently, had an 11.5 per cent chance of suffering depression.

The researchers also detected significant differences on depression levels when the participants socialized with family and when they socialized with friends. Among adults aged 50 to 69, frequent person-to-person contact with friends dramatically reduced subsequent depression. In contrast, those aged 70 and older benefited more from face-to-face contact with children and other family members.

So… there’s the answer. Pick up the phone and organise a time when you can pop in for a cup of tea, or maybe something stronger. Getting some quality face time really is the best answer!

I commented earlier that a visit to the Comedy Store might be a good place to start, but there are lots of other opportunities for joyful social contact.

Have you ever thought of having a go at singing? OK, I know it may be the last thing you want to do on a works night out, but taking part in a karaoke evening could bring you closer to your friends and colleagues. It doesn’t matter how out of tune everyone is, it’s also a good laugh, especially after a few drinks!

Please bear with me for a few moments while you read the following and give it a chance… there is a real opportunity out there (one of many) to change your life for the better – and it’s available FREE to everyone. It just requires a little effort.

Join a choir or an amateur musical or dramatic society! You will have loads of fun and working with other people toward the goal of live performance is immensely uplifting. There are plenty of opportunities all over the country for you to do this.

Singing breaks the ice, and helps people bond more quickly than a lot of other activities. Men and women who took up singing made friends more quickly than those who signed up for other activities. Oxford University researchers claim that singing may be nature’s way of helping big groups of people bond, and I think they’re right. I can speak from firsthand experience on this subject because in my youth I was a member of several amateur music-making groups, including a massed choir, a youth band, a semi professional orchestra, and took part in the annual school play and concerts. When I was 20, I joined the famous (professional) Max Jaffa Orchestra. I promise you, music brings people together in ways you can’t possibly imagine until you’ve done it.

If you caught any of the BBC2 series The Choir, then you will have seen the way choirmaster Gareth Malone used the power of music making to spark friendships, unite workers and make people generally happier. For our ancestors, it may well have been a part of the survival strategy. Group singing or chanting is often an integral part of religion. Think about how religious ritual developed – singing hymns and repeating familiar prayers and responses and you get the general idea.

The Oxford researchers asked people studying singing, creative writing and crafts at night school how close they felt to their classmates. Although all felt equally friendly by the end of the seven-month courses, those in the singing groups bonded more quickly. Quite possibly this could be because music is often uplifting and has proved to lighten mood. Singing also breaks the ice more quickly than other activities, bringing groups closer and faster.

Singing is a very public activity and many people experience some level of nervousness the first time they have to sing in front of strangers. But, once everyone has had a go and you realise everyone really is literally singing in the same choir, that self-consciousness and nervousness evaporates very quickly -this is something that happens right at the beginning, usually within a few minutes of the first rehearsal.

In the long term, all sorts of group activities bring people closer together, hence the millions spent each year by companies taking their employees on paintball days and Facebook allowing their employees to work while lounging on beanbags and taking breaks to compete on pinball machines.

In other kinds of group activities, bonds became stronger as people talked to each other during breaks or even during lessons. This study however provides the first clear evidence that singing is a powerful means of bonding a whole group together, and simultaneously.

Certainly, previous research has shown choir members are happier than those who simply sing in the shower. Choristers also seem more satisfied with their lives than people who play in sports teams. But it appears that singing in groups is particularly beneficial because moving and breathing in synchronicity with others triggers the release of feel-good brain chemicals. This is regardless of the size of the group.

Other researcher has found that singing with others provides health benefits ranging from strengthening the immune system and reducing stress to holding the symptoms of Alzheimer’s in check.

The main advantage of singing in a choir is that you don’t have to be a great singer to join. Improvements to health come from being part of a team, working in harmony and exercising the lungs, diaphragm and other parts of the body. Unless you’re in the chorus at the Royal Opera House, this is actually more important than the ability to sing perfectly in tune – something that is obviously taken into consideration by the judges on The X Factor. Still, the main benefit is in living a happier and more fulfilled life.

Copyright Andrew Newton 2016. All rights reserved.