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This post is by guest bloggers Matthew Savage & Anna Fialkowska

Indisputably, there is a strong association between loneliness and poor mental well-being. However, what do we know about the impact of the current pandemic on the functioning of individuals suffering from mental health problems or exactly how our brains react when experiencing loneliness? One of my clients shared with me an interesting perspective on the current situation. According to a clinically depressed patient, current lockdown brought into her life peace and a greater sense of belonging within society. With enforced isolation becoming the norm, this minimised her perception of being different and reduced perceived pressure to be socially involved. Additionally, the expectations of others had been revised and adjusted to the current government guidelines, leading to decreased pressure being put on the client. She noted; “For the first time I felt normal, the same as everyone else. Nobody was telling me to go out or to participate in any activities or classes. It has been a time of rest and peace for me”. Many with social anxiety may associate with such ideas. On the other hand, those who suffer from other anxiety disorders may find the current situation highly distressing. Evidence suggests that their symptoms are highly likely to become amplified, which may subsequently lead to extreme measures being undertaken to limit social contact as much as possible. This, in turn, can have a highly detrimental effect on their mental health, and, as such, it should be closely monitored by mental health professionals and their families. Examining the way our brains respond to periods of loneliness is vital to understanding how social isolation can affect all types of people and help develop best practices to support them.

 According to some very interesting research findings presented by Rebecca Saxe, Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), social isolation can trigger cravings in the brain akin to hunger. This fascinating, although not yet published study, involved isolating participants for 10 days and preventing any social interactions. Then, participants were shown pictures of social interactions whilst undergoing functional MRI scanning. An increase of dopamine within the area of Substantia nigra was noted in the isolated participants in comparison to participants in the control group who were not isolated. This is significant as dopamine release within this area of the brain has been shown to be the most accurate measure of cravings and the feelings associated with them. As revealed by Saxe’s research, both food cues (when individuals were hungry) and social cues (when participants were isolated) triggered a basic craving response in the brain. The study is particularly pertinent to consider within the current context of lockdown and provides insight into how our brains chemically react to social isolation. The more we can understand the chemical behaviour of our brains, the better that we, as a society, can manage mental health.

With this experiment in mind, it would be prudent to ensure we check in on our loved ones as much as we can, using face-to-face calling as a preference to add another degree of connectedness. The aforementioned research provides us with interesting insight into our ‘hunger for social interaction’ and it opens the door for further exploration into long term isolation. Professor Saxe emphasised the urgency to study the experience of loneliness among vulnerable groups, with adolescents seen as high priority following a wealth of research documenting the rise of mood disorders amongst children and young adults. In addition, we also need to consider those with existing mental health conditions. How will the return to normality affect such populations and how can society ensure these vulnerable groups are supported going forward? With this in mind, it is important for families, friends, companies, sports teams and other organisations to consider how this research can be used to best prevent loneliness in the future and support positive mental wellbeing – for all groups of people.

We would love to hear your thoughts and experiences on the topic of loneliness, either from the perspective of supporting others or from a personal perspective

About Matthew Savage & Anna Fialkowska

Matthew Savage has an MSc in Psychology, is a qualified personal trainer, and has worked within the field of cognitive rehabilitation for 5 years. He is an FA qualified football coach, with a keen interest in moral behaviour and wellbeing within team sports.

Anna Fialkowska is a Trainee Health Psychologist completing her doctoral training at the University of the West of England and currently works as a Heath Improvement Practitioner. She has worked within the field of mental health dysfunctions and cognitive rehabilitation over the last six years. Her main areas of research include the development of behaviour change interventions, impact of stress on individuals’ physical health and the effect of chronic conditions on psychological well-being.

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