As human beings, we have an inherent need to interact and make connections with other people to survive. However, in the wake of the recent pandemic, this became much more complicated.
With millions of people around the world stuck at home, many have been struggling to cope with the new normal. Even binge-watching Netflix and scrolling through Instagram don’t feel the same anymore.
And even though social distancing keeps us safe from getting infected, it doesn’t fend off other health threats. But why are we having a hard time being alone? And why do researchers warn that loneliness could be at the very heart of mental illnesses?
Loneliness Causes a Rise in Dopamine Levels
Dopamine is a neurotransmitter and a hormone that affects both our brain and body in several ways. It is one of the primary motivators of human behavior and a crucial element of the brain’s reward system.
Our brain releases dopamine when we listen to music, have sex, or eat tasty food – which is why it’s also called the ‘pleasure’ hormone. However, when we cannot get a healthy dose of social interaction, our dopamine levels get disrupted.
And you would probably assume that the level of dopamine – a feel-good brain chemical – goes down in such a situation. But loneliness actually causes it to go up. It’s our brain’s natural reaction to social deprivation.
When we are lonely, our brain switches to survival mode. It releases dopamine to trigger us to find and reconnect with other people for our protection. An even though more dopamine sounds fun, in reality, it can significantly affect our psychological wellbeing and stability.
Increased Risk of Substance Abuse
If you or anyone you know has struggled with substance abuse, you’re probably no stranger to the feeling of loneliness. Numerous addicts claim they’ve felt isolated or different while growing up. Or as grown-ups, they feel lonely even when they’re surrounded by people.
Feelings of isolation create a void that’s rooted in our survival instinct, which is why people often resort to self-medicating. Unfortunately, addiction only increases loneliness and the feeling of isolation. That’s why it’s imperative to seek help if you struggle with substance abuse or addiction.
Reduced Sleep Quality
Loneliness activates a fight-or-flight response, triggering the release of hormones that will prevent you from getting a good night’s sleep. More specifically, your brain releases a neurotransmitter called norepinephrine, and a variety of other, stimulating chemicals.
But norepinephrine is the one mainly responsible for the fight-or-flight response, during which your brain prioritizes survival, rather than getting rest. That’s why this charge of chemicals keeps you awake longer than you’d like.
Increased Risk of Mental and Physical Illness
From a physiological perspective, isolation and loneliness are connected with a significantly higher mortality risk. According to a study conducted by the Associate for Psychological Science, social isolation can increase death rates by up to 32%.
A different study conducted by Harvard University revealed that men are particularly at risk, with those who are socially isolated having an 82% higher chance of dying from heart-related diseases.
All in all, in times when the best thing we can all do is stay at home and reduce social contact to a minimum, it’s essential to pay attention to our health. Loneliness is temporary, and reaching out to loved ones or a teletherapist can significantly relieve the anxiety and stress of being socially isolated.
 “Social Isolation’s Effects On Mental Health.” HotelCalfornia [online] Available at: www.hotelcaliforniabythesea.com/2020/03/26/social-isolations-effects-on-mental-health/ [Accessed on: 30 June 2020]