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  • Steven Robinson
    Steven Robinson

    The Emotional Isolation of Loneliness: How It Makes People's Brains React Differently and What We Can Do About It

    Finally alone, the solitude almost felt like a moment of sweet release as the tension of being surrounded by people who presumably want something from you drains away. You take off your mask, and for a moment, all the noise around you fades into nothingness. But then, it returns, this time from within – the morose, dispiriting ennui of feeling isolated, even when surrounded by a crowd. Loneliness is corrosive like that; its mercilessness renders a deep-seated alienation even in bustling places that are full to the brim with human activity. Now neuroscience has lent credence to our understanding of isolation, giving us an insight into the real psychology behind loneliness.

    It has been acknowledged that loneliness can be destructive – not only knocking self-confidence but also heightening anxiety and depression levels. When we experience loneliness, our body reacts beyond emotional distress and moves into more physiological territory by triggering a fight-or-flight response like surges in cortisol levels and heart rate. While these reactions play their part in enforcing excessive social vigilance among lonely individuals, scientists have discovered that isolated demographics are harboured for long-term effects, too. Those who feel isolated seem to not only register social cues differently – but think about the world from an alternate convention altogether.

    Loneliness has been linked to changes in how our brains perceive social situations –for example, creating feelings of being biased in how we interpret events, generating pejorative judgment or overwhelming self-doubt. Our neural architecture is able to detect small differences in otherwise similar scenarios and this has been theorised as a way for lonely individuals to process more thorough risks-assessment models when interpreting social settings. Cognitive neuroscientist Hugo Critchley explains that this way of thinking can lead lonely people "to attend to the negative signals initially while avoiding any positive interpretations of the situation" — essentially amplifying one's fear even further until they are shrouded in a cloud of apprehension. This deep-set paranoia of potential rejection sets itself up wide simmering as everyday situation become expectedly more intense.

    The cyclic fear that loneliness engenders can have an indelible effect on how we think and act towards others, erecting walls that further distance ourselves from the very connections we crave. A 2018 study from University College London revealed how those labeled as ‘lonely' had altered neural structure causing them to act harshly on critical reflections of themselves rather than having empathy for those around them. This condition was further explored by Dr Isobel Heyman who determined that "people who feel lonely tend to enhance their vigilance for potential threats and overlook potential rewards" — in other words regarding every situation with elevated scepticism and disbelief.

    Essentially, this underlines how habitual self-isolation can be exacerbated into neurological self-sabotage. The larger implications being that neglected fear may cause those affected to feel desperately alone even in the most crowded rooms — where relationships fail to grow because the mind is simply incapable of appreciating the joy therein. To reiterate, this is grounds for us addressing insecurity issues at their core — looking past the surface level effects to uncover more meaningful insights into tackling lifelong fear cycles before they begin.

    More research is needed here, but recognising loneliness as a psychological state— one that alters emotional cognitive processes — is singlehandedly revolutionary as it adds a new layer to what we understand about just how soleful situations evolve over time. The future of loneliness looks more promising with this information in tow, for it gives us strength to fight on against unseen adversity with insight that puts us head and shoulders above before. Ultimately it's vital that we learn to open our arms to ourselves just as widely as we do the world around us — lest we be taken by surprise by sudden eruptions of newfound strength brought forth from within.

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