07.12.2023 change 07.12.2023

Loneliness affects human physiology, says expert

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Loneliness can be a source of suffering, leading to the development of specific diseases including cardiovascular diseases. Physicians should ask about the patient's mental well-being, says Dr. Łukasz Okruszek from the Institute of Psychology of the Polish Academy of Sciences, who has investigated the impact of loneliness on human physiology.

The definition of loneliness is simple: if you feel lonely, you are lonely, says Dr. Okruszek who got the idea for the study from social psychology. In laboratory conditions, he 'induced artificial loneliness' in 129 people and checked how human physiological parameters changed (social psychology does not study this aspect). For this work, among other things, he received the Scientific Award of Tygodnik Polityka.

'After the respondents completed questionnaires measuring, among other things, personality traits, we provided a randomly selected group of participants with information that, based on the obtained results, we could conclude that they would be lonely in the future. We then checked how this information affected the indicators measured in the ECG and brain activity,’ says Okruszek.

Loneliness is a specific type of stressor that increases the activity of systems in the body that are supposed to defend it against the negative effects of this state.

'In response to the stimulus - the thought of loneliness awaiting in the future, the activity of the immune and sympathetic systems increases - so you could say that your body is in a state of increased activation and +defence+ readiness. However, the reaction decreases of the parasympathetic system balancing their work, which in a healthy functioning body allows you to rest after a period of mobilization.

'In lonely people, the body is constantly mobilised, and the parasympathetic system does not compensate for this reaction. Reduced heart rate variability can be observed, associated with a lower response of the parasympathetic system. We observed this in people in whom we induced the feeling of loneliness only for a short time,’ Okruszek says. 

The scientist emphasises the importance of subjective assessment of mental well-being. Previous research shows that lack of attention to this aspect may translate into physical health problems.

'Chronic loneliness and long-term lack of contact with other people are serious risk factors for cardiovascular diseases, among other things. This knowledge should also be promoted at the level of primary medical care. A physician should ask about the patient's mental well-being. Is it not strange that many people know their blood pressure and cholesterol level - and do not know the impact of loneliness or social isolation on their health? This can be a source of suffering that may lead to specific diseases,’ says Okruszek.

The psychologist points out that although in Poland there is no shortage of campaigns devoted to health prevention, relatively few of them emphasise the importance of taking care of mental health.

'At the end of the pandemic, the government decided to launch the 40+ programme to encourage people to undergo basic health tests, but no variables related to mental health were checked under this programme - although from the beginning of the pandemic there was talk about colossal negative effects in this area. A few simple questions to check whether someone needs help may be helpful, Okruszek continues. 

When asked how people experience loneliness, he replies that there is no universal pattern. In his opinion, external factors (e.g. lockdown) can push people into loneliness, but they are never the only culprits. The way we experience loneliness also changes with age. Teenagers, young parents and retirees experience loneliness differently.

'It may not seem obvious but young parents often feel lonely because - overwhelmed by the responsibilities related to caring for their offspring - they have no space for previous relationships, e.g. with friends. In this situation, questions about mental state could be standard during midwives' visits to women after childbirth,’ says Okruszek.

All this does not mean, however, that loneliness is always a pathological condition that should be avoided at all costs. It is natural for every person to feel lonely from time to time, but what is crucial is how they deal with this condition. More and more scientific studies appear proving that a prolonged sense of loneliness may lead to a distorted and negative perception of reality. People who are lonely for a long time find it difficult to establish relationships because they often perceive the signals sent by others as hostile.

'Did someone pass me by without a word in the street because they simply did not notice me, or maybe they hold a grudge against me and deliberately ignored me? Unfortunately, this type of distortion can translate into behaviour that pushes people into deeper isolation,’ Okruszek says.

His team is in the early stages of implementing a project in which they will examine the extent to which loneliness translates into prosocial behaviour. The results of this study will provide information to those involved in public health policymaking.

'For example, we want to check whether in lonely people the perceived hostility of the environment causes excessive focus on their own interests and, consequently, a lower tendency to cooperate with a group. This may be important from the point of view of wide-scale health programmes, such as vaccination campaigns, where one of the main motivation is to act +for the common good+. This is important information for decision-makers.’ the psychologist says.

Okruszek hopes that the results of the projects conducted by his team will contribute to the development of more effective intervention methods to support people suffering from loneliness.

'There is no pill to cure loneliness. If someone subjectively feels that part of their bad well-being is the lack of good social bonds, one of the best and most intuitive methods is to seek psychological help',

'For many decades, loneliness was believed to be one of the components of depressive disorders. It did not attract attention outside this context. Only in the 21st century, research appeared showing that loneliness could lead to an increased risk of depression, but not necessarily the other way around. 

‘The fact that a person is lonely does not necessarily mean they have to suffer from depression. Loneliness concerns relationships, and depression is related to a number of threads related to how a person thinks about themselves, about others, about the world. But loneliness does not function in a vacuum. 

‘It is related to other variables, including those related to mental health. There are no simple trajectories that will connect various processes,’ Okruszek says. (PAP)

PAP - Science in Poland, Urszula Kaczorowska

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