Work from home, don’t meet in person – or if you must get together, keep your social distance! As we increase our efforts to fend off the spread of the COVID-19, we need to watch that we aren’t worsening another threat to public health: loneliness.
The “loneliness epidemic” has seen rates double in the United States over the last 50 years. Cigna’s recent survey of over 20,000 American adults, found that almost half of respondents reported feeling alone, left out, and isolated. Further, one in four Americans shared that they rarely feel understood, and one in five people believe they rarely or never feel close to people.
Loneliness can also make you sick — more prone to catching cold, developing heart disease and experiencing depression. A recent report from the Health Resources & Services Administration stated that social isolation can be as damaging as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.
And contrary to what you might think, it is not only the elderly who feel isolated. Younger, more technologically connected generations also suffer. Cigna’s survey found that 79 percent of Gen Zers, 71 percent of millennials and 50 percent of baby boomers are lonely.
Because of that primal need for connection, our brains react negatively when we feel isolated or excluded. Neuroscientists at UCLA found that when people feel excluded there is corresponding activity in the dorsal portion of the anterior cingulate cortex — the neural region involved in the “suffering” component of pain. In other words, the feeling of being excluded – left out, overlooked, ignored – provokes the same sort of reaction in the brain that physical pain might cause.