The Brain of the Lonely Person
How do our life experiences and environment feed into our feelings of loneliness? By affecting the chemistry of the brain, which in turn affects what happens in our genes. One of the hormones released under the stress of loneliness is epinephrine, which tends to arouse us. But it also increases our experience of frustration and emotional pain. Cortisol is also available in abundance in our system, and both negatively affect the genetic expression in our body.
What we lack when we continually experience loneliness is oxytocin, the comfort and connecting hormone. Without connection with another person, our output of oxytocin is limited. A little gets released into our system when we are eating, but its primary release mechanism comes when we connect in a deeper way with another person.
Studies have shown that when a mother breast-feeds her baby, oxytocin is released in both the baby and the mother. The mother-baby bond is built around the mutual release of oxytocin into their systems. Oxytocin is also a calming hormone which allows us to better regulate our emotional reaction to our experiences, especially the experience of feeling isolated.
Serotonin is another brain substance that is related to comfort and to the elevation of our mood. It’s interesting, though, that too much serotonin works the opposite way and sends us into a state of despair. The balance of all of these brain substances causes certain genes to activate and others to shut down. And they can provide either higher anxiety or calm and comfort.
All these chemicals especially affect the amygdala–our brain’s warning system. They also affect the hippocampus and other regions in the brain that help us connect with other people. There is also a region in the brain called the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex. When we experience physical pain, that part of the brain registers the pain and allows us to experience it. What researchers have found is that the pain of loneliness is registered in that same part of the brain. This means that we experience the emotional pain of loneliness in the same way we would experience physical pain. That is why it is so difficult to escape from the reality and pain of loneliness. It is similar to the same deeply disruptive hurt as breaking a bone in our body.
Next, we will look at the difference between loneliness and depression.
Question: What do you think are some other things that might make us vulnerable to loneliness?