What does the brain of someone who feels extremely lonely look like?

What does the brain of someone who feels extremely lonely look like?

Nova YorkWe all feel lonely from time to time. For example, children can feel lonely when they move to a new school, and adults and children can feel lonely when we move to a new city, when a child leaves home, or when a partner dies. But some people feel lonely not just temporarily, but chronically. Loneliness then becomes “a personality trait, something that’s hard to shake,” explains Ellen Lee, an assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of California, San Diego. These people seem to have “these feelings constantly, and they shape their behavior.”

More and more research is confirming that this type of ingrained loneliness is not good for your health and can change your brain, increasing your risk of neurodegenerative diseases as a result. Here’s what experts have discovered so far about how chronic loneliness affects your brain and some coping strategies.

How does the brain change?

Humans evolved to be social creatures, perhaps because for our ancestors, being alone could be dangerous and reduce our chances of survival. Some experts believe that loneliness may have emerged as a specific type of stress signal that makes us seek out other people.

With chronic loneliness, this stress response becomes stagnant and harmful, similar to how anxiety can turn a helpful fear response into a maladaptive mental illness.

“Small, temporary bouts of loneliness really motivate people to seek out social connection,” says Anna Finley, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Institute on Aging. But in chronic bouts of loneliness, this seems to backfire, because people become particularly sensitive to social threats or exclusion cues, which can make interacting with others scary or unpleasant.

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Research has shown Lonely people are hypersensitive to negative interaction words, such as “I don’t like” or “rejected,” and to faces expressing negative emotions. In fact, they show a dampened response to images of strangers in pleasant social situations, suggesting that even positive encounters become less rewarding for them. Chronic Loneliness It is associated with changes in important areas of the brain. For social perception, self-awareness and emotional processing.

How can self-esteem have such a profound effect on the structure and function of the brain? Scientists aren’t sure, but they think that when you feel lonely, you Stimulates stress response also Activates the immune systemIncreased levels of certain inflammatory chemicals. When this happens over long periods, stress and inflammation can be harmful to brain health, destroying nerve cells and the connections between them.

How does long-term loneliness affect brain health?

Scientists have known for years that there is a link between loneliness and Alzheimer’s disease I Other types of dementiaA study published last year indicated that loneliness is also linked to an individual’s Parkinson’s disease.

“Even low levels of loneliness increase the risk of loneliness, and higher levels are associated with a higher risk of dementia,” says Nancy Donovan, MD, director of geriatric psychiatry at Brigham and Women’s Hospital. Donovan has shown that people who score higher on a loneliness scale have higher levels of amyloid and tau proteins in their brains, both hallmarks of Alzheimer’s disease, even before they show signs of cognitive decline.

Scientists believe that the stress and inflammation caused by loneliness may contribute to or accelerate the onset of neurodegenerative diseases in older adults. And according to Donovan, the effects of loneliness on the cardiovascular system—increased blood pressure and heart rate—are also harmful to the brain and may contribute to its decline.

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The more general way loneliness affects mental and physical health can also affect cognitive decline. This feeling is closely linked to depression, another condition that increases the risk of dementia. People who feel lonely are also less likely to be physically active and more likely to smoke cigarettes. “All of these things can affect the aging of the brain,” Lee says. “I think there are multiple pathways from loneliness to cognitive decline.”

Most of the research on loneliness and neurodegeneration has been done in older and middle-aged adults, so experts don’t know whether loneliness in childhood or early adulthood carries the same risks. However, Wendy Chiu, professor of psychiatry, psychotherapy, and experimental pharmacology at Boston University School of Medicine, says: Discover If middle-aged people feel lonely transiently rather than chronically, their risk of dementia does not increase.

In temporary isolation, the brain has a “recovery capacity,” Chiu points out. But if people don’t get help to get out of loneliness and loneliness for a long time, it can be toxic to the brain.

How to combat chronic loneliness?

One of the most common recommendations is pretty obvious: try to make new friends. Whether it’s through art classes, sports teams, support groups, or volunteer opportunities, the goal is to go to places where people meet.

These kinds of planned social situations have mixed results. Lee says they tend to work best if there is a “shared identity” among the people involved—such as specific groups for widows or people with diabetes—so they have something to bond over.

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The other part of the equation is addressing a person’s attitudes and thought patterns around social interactions through cognitive behavioral therapy. These approaches tend to be a little more effective, he says, because they “get to the root” of the problem and explore what’s making it difficult for a person to interact with others.

The strategies may seem simple, but that’s easier said than done. “It’s a thorny issue. Otherwise, I don’t think we’ll have a report from the leading health authority in the United States saying we need to address this,” Finley says.

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