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The cellular level of loneliness

Loneliness is killing us, scientists say. Loneliness is as dangerous as smoking, alcohol consumption or obesity, large epidemiological studies show. What makes a feeling or even objective lack of human relatedness capable of causing biological disease – or even death?

For decades, a discipline called psychoneuroimmunology is gathering knowledge of biological mechanisms binding our psyche and bodily functions together. Whatever we feel, good or bad, is not just in our mind – but also in our bodies. Chemicals binding to receptors in our neurons, subtle electrical currents deep in the brain, hormones in blood, the joy we experience when meeting a loved person – all of these are the same thing observed from different angles.

How does it work with loneliness? Social relationships help us to fight stress – while feeling lonely adds even more of it. And even though some amount of stress is healthy and enjoyable (to prevent getting bored and inflexible) our society generally suffers with stress in high quantities, which causes harm.

First, the biological consequences of stress such as elevated pressure, muscle tension or changes in metabolic activity exhaust the organism, possibly leading to cardiovascular, gastrointestinal and other problems. Especially when we don’t know how to relieve it.

Stress is our defensive reaction to environmental perils such as predators. It is meant to prepare us for physical activity, not for mundane office arguments. And if we need to keep track of the words we say rather than run as fast as possible (to get away from predators and all that ancient stuff), our hormonal levels return to their normal levels slowly, affecting us more than would be desirable. Unless we have another person to calm us down.

Second, our immune system fighting microorganisms in our bodies and stress have both developed from an undivided defensive system of early unicellular organisms. Due to their evolutionary history, stress and immune reactions are interrelated and influence each other – and prolonged stress gradually modifies our immune activity.

Elevated immune response can cause allergies, colds or neurological problems; inappropriate immune reactions reduce our ability to prevent potentially carcinogenic growth. As a result, the lack of hugs that would have calmed us down decades ago may be related to our sickness’ today.

Third, there are plenty of less direct, behavioural mechanisms. Married people “last longer” – not only thanks to the beneficial effects of love on a cellular level, but also thanks to the healthy breakfasts from the spouses, their advices and everyday support. Happily married people tend to drink less, smoke less, sleep better, drive safer...the list goes on.

A satisfying marriage is indeed a significant predictor of physical health, but there are many others. For some aspects of social satisfaction we need real people, other ones are only about our feelings. If you could relate to your teddy, talk with it and feel loved, it is beneficial. Part of the ill effects of loneliness is the fear of who would care for you if something happens: again, if you are convinced the teddy might, good for you.

Nevertheless, the teddy would not cure everything, people are needed, too. You need their advices, their care when it comes to something serious – and their physical presence. People are built to read the facial cues of others, understand their postures, gestures, or mirror microscopical tremors of their fingers. Huge amounts of information are transferred when we communicate face to face. We need those messages to attune to the other people emotionally because it is a necessary part of real human contact.

Meet real people and be part a community!