Loneliness as a social animal

The image shows a young man sitting alone, looking at his cell phone.

At the beginning of January, a face-to-face meeting of the UMSS group was held with the aim of reviewing the achievements of the past year, commenting on the projects that are currently underway and planning the activity for the year 2024. In addition to allowing us to do the aforementioned, the meeting reminded us of the importance of feeling accompanied, that you are part of a team, family or group, and that you are surrounded by people who share beliefs, objectives or purposes similar to those you have.

The human being is a social animal, which, like other animals that live in groups (to a greater or lesser extent), has been evolutionarily favorable for survival to be surrounded by individuals of the same species and to function well as a group; either for the sharing of tasks, exchange of knowledge and goods, to defend themselves from a threat, or to provide help in times of need.

This characteristic of human beings has been with us long enough that, despite the fact that being part of a group is no longer essential for the survival of the individual, the mere feeling of loneliness correlates with profound effects (direct or indirect) on our physiology (Freilich CD, 2023). With a significant influence on cardiovascular, inflammatory, metabolic and cognitive aspects, loneliness is established as one of the new epidemics of the 21st century, affecting one in three individuals in industrialized countries, and severely one in twelve, with the numbers increasing (Cacioppo JT & Cacioppo S, 2018). The correlation with increased irritability, depression, poor lifestyle habits, and being associated with a 26% increased risk of premature mortality, indicates that the impact of loneliness is comparable in magnitude to other well-established mortality risk factors; such as harmful substance use, obesity and low levels of physical activity, and makes loneliness one of the major public health problems in industrialized countries (Freilich CD, 2023, World Health Organisation).

Loneliness is a psychological state, which, although it has been associated with some objective social isolation, depression, introversion or poor social skills, is subjective. Loneliness is defined as a unique condition in which an individual perceives him/herself as socially isolated even when among other people, so it is not necessarily that a person will suffer less from loneliness by having a more intense social life, but rather that self-perception within his/her environment and other personal reality factors are what will ultimately determine whether the person suffers from loneliness (Pop LM et al. 2022).

The populations most vulnerable to suffering from loneliness are adolescents and the elderly (albeit for different reasons), having experienced a major spike in incidence during the COVID-19 pandemic (Hoang P, 2022; Pop LM et al. 2022). In the case of adolescents, they go through a stage of detachment from family and search for a new identity. With the considerable increase in the use of social networks, especially among the younger population (spending between 1 and 5 hours a day online), it not only takes time away from the possibility of socializing with other people in the same life context, but also increases the tendency to compare themselves with unrealistic life models and standards of beauty that feel unattainable, leading to a worsening of self-confidence, self-perception and an increase in the feeling of loneliness (Pop LM et al. 2022). In the case of the elderly, it is often the physical and mental limitations associated with aging that prevent them from continuing to participate in many of the social activities they used to do, and which ultimately reduce the social contacts the person has to the views they receive at home, which on top of that, during the pandemic were also drastically reduced (Hoang P, 2022).

There are different mechanisms through which the feeling of loneliness can have such a powerful impact on our health (Freilich CD, 2023; Morr M, 2022):

One possible mechanism is that an emotional experience such as loneliness triggers physiological signals that result in subsequent health effects. Those effects could be transient or chronic, and in the case of sustained change, could result in epigenetic modification. Thus, it is possible that prolonged loneliness may lead to a change in the regulation of DNA transcription and, consequently, the expression of genes and all the processes they regulate.

Another possibility is that loneliness has an influence on the person’s behaviors. By causing changes in mental state and processing, moodiness, even depression, loneliness can lead to substance abuse, poor diet, little physical exercise and, in general, less concern for one’s own health. It is also possible that the reverse relationship may occur, i.e., that it is bad habits that lead to social isolation and eventually to loneliness.

Some of the recommendations given by scientific evidence to avoid loneliness are (Morr M, 2022; Hoang P, 2022): Social interventions in a non-clinical setting, such as group physical activities; programs and activities offered in your neighborhood, town or community; online forums and connections with people with whom you truly share interests; cognitive-behavioral therapies targeting cognition and intrusive and maladaptive thoughts can reduce levels of loneliness; as well as practicing mindfulness and formal meditation, which have also been shown to be effective in combating loneliness. Research is even being done on the use of robotic agents to provide companionship for older people who cannot easily access other possibilities.

Finally, from UMSS we encourage everyone to try to surround yourself with people with whom you share things, take advantage of those physical or mental activities that you like to do regularly to get together with other people who also enjoy doing it, spend only the necessary time connected to social networks, and learn how your mind works. These are things that will make you feel better and feel that you are part of something bigger than yourself.

Hermann Fricke Comellas 

Predoctoral contract Physiotherapy Dept.

University of Seville