Befriending your brain to combat loneliness

Loneliness can sometimes feel or look like this

I think it’s safe to say that we have all had bouts with loneliness. Whether it was your first day at a school where you didn’t know someone, your first sleepaway camp, moving to a different city, starting a new job, you know what it feels like to feel out of place and a bit adrift. These are usually temporary, though, as we meet people and form new connections. Usually, but definitely not always.

Incidence of loneliness is rising rapidly, as Dr. Vivek Murthy, former United States Surgeon General, chronicles in his recent book, Together: The Healing Power of Human Connection in a Sometimes Lonely World. Loneliness is no respecter of wealth, social status, race, education, level of extroversion or any other demographic; it can happen to any of us if we lose our sense of connection, even as we may be physically surrounded by many people.

At its heart, loneliness is feeling like we don’t belong or don’t matter. It’s not surprising that many who experience loneliness also experience depression and suicidal thoughts. The antidote, if you will, to loneliness is having connections with others, so it has no doubt intensified during these COVID days when many are alone or prevented from normal physical connections.

So it’s easy, right – all we have to do is make new connections? Turns out it is not so easy and much of that has to do with our brain. Drs. David and Austin Perlmutter (a father/son team) explore what they call disconnection syndrome in their book, Brainwash: Detox Your Mind for Clearer Thinking, Deeper Relationships and Lasting Happiness.

What we tend to think about most with our brains is the prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for executive function, planning, language and much more. It’s what makes humans unique. So if we were approaching loneliness from a rational perspective, it would make sense to put the prefrontal cortex on the case to figure things out. But it rarely gets the chance to do so because it is often undermined by the quick and reflexive action of the amygdala in the so-called lizard brain that deals with primitive survival and instincts. In his book, Emotional Intelligence, Daniel Goleman introduced the term “amygdala hijack” to refer to an emotional response that is out of proportion to an actual stimulus and it nicely summarizes what happens with loneliness.

This hijack channels back to ancient days when we had to stick together as a tribe in order to not become dinner for saber toothed tigers and the like. We had connections to members of our tribe as well and viewed outsiders with suspicion. If we were literally alone, it was an existential risk and our body would respond accordingly with hyper vigilance. Our amygdala is stuck in the past and when it senses loneliness, it responds the same way it always has to stress. Your senses are put on high alert. Your body increases heart rate and blood to muscles so you are primed for a flight or fight response. You are laser focused only on dealing with being alone. All non-essential tasks are suspended. And you basically hunker down at high alert, totally stressed out, unable to rest and just, well, surviving. This might be fine if you only occasionally experienced it when you wandered away from the tribe, but it is not a sustainable state.

It would be bad enough if this were “just” a periodic stress and health issue. But the amygdala won’t leave it there. No, it actually causes us to do things to continue to “protect” ourselves with actions that perpetuate loneliness. We push people away. We withdraw. We make ourselves and our interactions smaller. And by doing so, we create even fewer opportunities to make or strengthen connections, thus perpetuating the state of loneliness, no matter who we are.

There isn’t really a difference between men and women in terms of incidence of loneliness, but there is a difference how they express or experience it. Men, for example, are often brought up to not reflect their emotions, so it may be difficult for them to admit to others what’s going on and they may express their loneliness through more “acceptable” expressions like verbal abuse, impatience and irritability. Women, on the other hand, often blame themselves or feel shame for feeling lonely. Either way, they’re disinclined to reach out for help and connection exactly when they need it most.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention technology in relation to loneliness. Technology provides more ways than ever to connect with people throughout the world. But how we leverage the technology is incredibly important. We have seen with COVID how it allows people to have virtual events and celebrations and collaborate together. Awesome. But it also provides non-stop information (often either negative or staged) that can reinforce that we don’t belong. When we compare ourselves against the airbrushed selfies showing only the good parts of peoples lives, it is easy to think that we are falling behind or don’t have our act together, which creates more despair and more barriers to reaching out to others if we’re not “perfect.” We know, of course (cerebral cortex, anyone?) that no one’s perfect, but that doesn’t stop your amygdala from freaking out again and blaring that you’re alone in your sorry state. Not helpful.

So what should we do?If you’re struggling with loneliness, here are a few tips cobbled from Drs. Murthy, Perlmutter and Perlmutter (I highly recommend both books for more information on the topic):

  • Befriend yourself first including compassion and lack of criticism. The more you criticize yourself, the less worthy you may think you are of connection. If you’re okay with yourself, there’s a good chance others will be, too.
  • Meditate. The myriad mental and physical benefits of meditation include helping quiet your mind and focus it, making it less susceptible to hijacking. It can also provide a space for you to explore why you may not be connecting with others.
  • Get good quality and quantity of sleep. A good night’s sleep makes everything feel better. Consistent sleep can allow your brain and body to recharge and be more resilient.
  • Avoid foods that cause inflammation. Inflammation reduces the performance of the brain. Processed foods are the primary culprits but there are others as well.
  • Be intentional about social media. Set time limits, have an intention for why you are accessing social media, and if it makes you feel worse rather than better, that’s a cue to close it. There’s generally little to be gained by passively scrolling through social media.
  • Make a point of reaching out to others, even if it’s just a smile at a stranger. Acknowledging others and being acknowledge by even minimal interactions helps us feel like we belong and reduces the feeling of loneliness.
  • Join a group. Even if it’s an online discussion, if you are actively interacting with others over a shared interest or topic, it can foster a sense of belonging.
  • Maximize relational energy. This is the emotional energy generated or depleted in every social interaction. Like social media, if a relationship drains your energy, that’s not a relationship that is helping you feel a sense of belonging. Minimize or eliminate those relationships and focus on those that generate positive relational energy.

Understanding more about loneliness and how it is experienced may help you identify family members, friends or colleagues who may be struggling with loneliness. Reaching out to them, showing vulnerability on your own part with whatever you might be wrestling with and simply asking how they truly are, can go a long way to fostering greater connection and helping those you care about fight loneliness.

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Jan Gividen

I’m so proud of you