Issue 98 / March - April 2014
Are You Alone?
Loneliness is a serious public health concern, akin to both obesity and smoking. Why is it not treated as such? Through faith, we can combat this growing crisis.
Loneliness is a state when people are unable to share their inner world with anyone around them. It is very natural that a person desires to be alone from time to time. When this is a short term desire, it can be a means of acquiring harmony with life; however when it becomes chronic, it is harmful for human health. Therefore, solitude is like a sword which has two sharp sides. Solitude in itself is not good or bad; rather the period and severity of it defines if it is good or bad. The severity of loneliness is not measured by how many people that individual has in their social environment; it is measured by how the individual feels in his inner world. In modern societies, loneliness is an important topic of multidisciplinary research, especially in our times due to overuse of social media, as "loneliness" is quickly becoming endemic, threatening our public and individual health.
One of the leading factors behind the increase of loneliness is the spread of immigration, which suddenly tears people from their original cultures and from their families. With the social bonds weakened or broken, loneliness is more severely and increasingly felt. For example according to the 2006 records, 29 million people in the US, a predominantly immigrant nation, were living alone. When compared to the records from 1980, this means a 30% increase in the number of people living alone. Another shocking number is that while 10% of people said they wouldn't share their personal matters or trust with another person in 1985, this number increased to 25% in 2004.
In our times, loneliness and isolation have become as risky as smoking and obesity. The latest research in neurobiology and clinical research has shown that chronic loneliness has negative effects on the heart, and the immune and nervous systems. Contraction and resistance are much higher in the veins of people experiencing chronic loneliness. Blood pressure rises with the arteries narrowed and shrunk. This makes the heart beat abnormally faster, and this results in the corrosion and laceration of the capillaries. According to epidemiological studies, people who feel alone tend to have shorter life spans and illnesses such as heart disease and depression are at higher risk. They've also proven that people socially isolated or feeling lonely are more likely to catch a viral infection.
Studies have shown that, an individual can still feel lonely even though the number of people around them is high. Their social environment, statue, reputation, and property are only of formal assistance and they do not directly prevent an individual from feeling alone. Spiritual loneliness can exacerbate this feeling. Without a deep spiritual life to seek comfort in, they can fall further into depression when faced with problems.
Genetic thermostat and activation of loneliness
There are parts of the human brain which almost work as a thermostat and activate loneliness. Since the information for these parts of the brain are encoded in our genes they are called the genetic thermostat. This genetic thermostat, which we have inherited from our parents, has the duty to adjust the time of response we give to a trigger. Socio-cultural factors and genetic inheritance are assigned to determine the thermostat's intensity and period of operation. These principles are mostly shaped in childhood and determine the threshold and intensity of the loneliness that is felt later on. In other words, the pain and suffering caused by loneliness depends on the genetic thermostat of the individual. In some genetic structures, the activation settings of the thermostat are low; and in some they are high. Therefore, the feeling of loneliness resulting from social isolation triggers a different response in every person. Even though clinical loneliness does depend on genetics to some extent, it is a curable. Around half of the factors that are behind feeling lonely depend on genes. A study about loneliness conducted on 8,683 twins showed that genetic treatments are 37% effective in treating this feeling. In summary, a departure from our social environment makes us go through different levels of pain depending on our genetic thermostat. Therefore, loneliness is felt in different forms in different natures.
The biological consequences of loneliness
Our body gives out different messages through pain and suffering. In the same way pain and suffering gives us messages of something going wrong in our body, extreme loneliness also has effects on the body, alerting us of something going wrong. Anxiety and physiological changes in our body give out alarming signals when our relationships weaken. These signals warn us that we have to change our attitude and actions in a way that will strengthen our relationships.
It has been observed that stress molecules (cortisol in saliva, adrenalin in urine) increase significantly in people who go through deep phases of loneliness. It was also observed that the body's sympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for a "fight and escape" response, increased these activities, too. In people who are lonelier, the amygdala is triggered; this further heightens a person feeling of risk. These people are constantly on edge, their "flight" response activated. Therefore, people going through chronic loneliness have very low sleep quality. They wake up tired or even exhausted. They take less pleasure from activities that give rest and bring joy to other people. The degree of their satisfaction and happiness is low. They start losing the joy of living.
Another area of the body affected is the ventral striatum area, which is the award mechanism activated by factors such as food or money, as well as social feelings like sympathy. In a study conducted at the University of Chicago, the activity of the ventral striatum in 23 female university students feeling deep loneliness was measured with magnetic resonance scanning. The study showed that when these females were shown pictures of laughing and happy people, there was a significant decrease in their award mechanism compared to a normal person. So the deep feeling of loneliness locks the award mechanism of the brain, preventing the person from taking pleasure from life, thus leading the person to anxiety and sorrow.
Deep loneliness also affects the activity of the prefrontal cortex of the brain. This is the area of willpower; it brings a limit to activities triggered by instincts, such as eating or drinking. Field studies and surveys have shown that people feeling deep loneliness are more likely to have an unhealthy diet, increase their consumption of alcohol, and live a passive life style without exercising. Moreover, in the management control conducted in labs and that require prefrontal cortex activation, lonely people show little success. The prefrontal areas of these people do not respond fast enough, leading them to little success in these experiments.
Lonely people are more emotionally unbalanced when faced with stress. They find it very hard to control their emotions. They are more sensitive to negative hints when they are among people. They tend to interpret social interactions negatively rather than positively. In one study, the words that address the emotional state of a person were flashed on a computer screen with different colors. Later on, the colors of these words were asked to people feeling deep loneliness and to people who did not feel lonely. People feeling deep loneliness gave delayed answers about the colors of words such as "isolation, rejection, exclusion." The people who did not feel lonely showed no such delay. This experiment shows that the human brain was created to give alarm signals in case of deep loneliness.
Social bonds and interactions enable a person to be open and accessible to other people. To make this openness and accessibility beneficial is both easy and difficult, simple and complex. People go through periods of wanting to be alone - with themselves or with God - just as they go through periods of desiring more social contact. A healthy person moves freely from state to state. To discover and control this oscillation between the two needs is to learn the best way to manage our lives.
How can deep loneliness be cured?
Since social isolation and loneliness affect people differently, a person should know the nature of his genetic thermostat and should make an effort to stay at his individual comfort zone. Every person has zones or intervals where they feel comfortable expressing their emotions, ideas and attitudes. Similarly, every person has different zones and thresholds for loneliness. Every person needs to understand their limits. Just as our fingerprints are unique, so, too, is the amount of solitude we need.
For those already suffering from loneliness, one of the best cures is a change in point of view. In other words, loneliness is cured by changing the person's focus from the negative to the positive. People lead better lives when they adhere to the maxim, "Those who attend to the good side of everything contemplate the good. Those who contemplate the good enjoy life" (Nursi, The Letters, Epigrams - Seeds of Truth). People who understand and practice this in their lives have obtained the key to happiness.
A deep, personal relationship with faith is also a major cure for loneliness. Friends and earthly occupations only give comfort to a person until the grave. If the person who is isolated has very solid spirituality, and has acknowledged God as his real friend, he never undergoes a feeling of loneliness that would otherwise destroy his health. With faith and hope, the dungeon of loneliness becomes a school of imprisoned Prophet Joseph. Faith reminds him: "If you want a friend, God is sufficient. Indeed, if He is a friend to you, so is everything. If He is pleased with you, even if the whole world is displeased, it is of no consequence" (Nursi 23rd Letter, 21st Gleam). Sorrow, grief, sadness will not stop by you. Even if they do stop by you, they are bearable since they come from Him. They turn into worship by activated patience. Through faith, a person can achieve fulfillment in both this world and the next.
Miller, G. 2011. "Why Loneliness Is Hazardous to Your Health." Science. Vol. 331. 14 January, pp. 18-140. www.sciencemag.org
Cacioppo, J. T. and Patrick W. 2008. Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection. W.W Norton Company. New York.