This was the headline of a recent NYT Opinion piece. More than one fifth of Americans over the age of 18 say they feel lonely often or always. The adverse effects of loneliness aren’t crystal clear, but have been linked to dementia and heart disease. I suspect that the rise of online activity, whilst convenient, contributes to feelings of social isolation. Within the medical system we look for signs of depression, perhaps we should also screen for loneliness in annual checkups. When we are lonely, our brains are distressed by our perceived lack or inadequacy of social connections. People feel lonely for many reasons, and the impact on the brain is nontrivial.
Research shows that when we’re lonely, neurotransmitters important for bonding go haywire. The hypothalamic pituitary axis, responsible for regulating our stress response, goes into overdrive. The problem is that medicine doesn't have treatments that rewire the HPA. Luckily some parts of our brain are able to be rewired, this is the concept of neuroplasticity. Activities such as yoga and meditation are some of the best remedies for loneliness. They modulate stress and calm the amygdala, while allowing connections to others.
Repeating practices such as yoga or meditation calms the mind, and over time rewire the lonely brain to feel supported and resilient. Even if you aren’t lonely, you can more to help others by checking in with our friends and neighbors. Ask your classmates how they are doing. With the right support and clarity of vision, we can all step out of loneliness.