Social isolation, loneliness can cause serious physical pain

December 21, 2016
Paula Dutton, a 71-year-old retiree, experienced a panic attack after feeling anxious and depressed about her state of loneliness. “I thought, ‘Is being so lonely making me sick?’ Joining a church and becoming a part of that community brought her relief.
Ann Johansson/UCLA

Can social pain caused by isolation and loneliness ignite similar feelings as physical pain? Research from Steve Cole, UCLA professor of medicine and psychiatry and biobehavioral sciences, as well as Naomi Eisenberger, UCLA associate professor of social psychology, indicates that this is quite possible. By studying gene expression, Dr. Cole found that social isolation sets off antiviral responses in the body linked to survival tactics from thousands of years ago, proving that our bodies perceive loneliness as a life or death situation. However, rather than being a positive, this defensive response drives inflammation in the body that can be toxic. Research returned from Eisenberger’s analysis of social isolation via the study of online gaming uncovers how the brain reacts when people are excluded from a game of catch. The results? Those who reacted negatively to the rejection returned brain scans showing neural activity linked to physical pain. These findings emphasize how emotions are more than just surface reactions and are key to a deeper understanding of the human condition and, thus, should be taken just as seriously as physical pain and sickness.

Source: The pain of chronic loneliness can be detrimental to your health UCLA Newsroom, 21 Dec 2016

Additional information about the health effects of loneliness:

Loneliness actually hurts us on a cellular level Vox, 30 Jan 2017

Lonely Planet U Magazine, Fall 2016 Issue