Why does loneliness hurt so much

Loneliness hurts - and ends fatally

More and more people are moving to cities and the number of single households is increasing. The result: many feel lonely. The psychiatrist Manfred Spitzer explains why this is dangerous.

Stuttgart - On average, people have around four very good friends - those whom you can still call at three o'clock at night if necessary. There are also around 15 good friends and 150 acquaintances. One could say that humans are gregarious animals. Ideally, he is integrated into a social structure that gives him support and orientation. But the community is crumbling.

Manfred Spitzer, Medical Director of the Clinic for Psychiatry and Psychotherapy in Ulm, gives several reasons for this. His key words are urbanization, singularization and medialization. "Already today, around 50 percent of people live in cities," said Spitzer recently in his lecture at the Stuttgart Psychotherapy Days 2017. "Their number should even rise to 70 percent soon." At the same time, the number of single households in Germany is increasing: with According to the Federal Statistical Office, the number of one-person households is almost 17 million, far greater than that of family households with at least three people. There are fewer than eleven million of them in this country.

Everyone should be familiar with the phenomenon of medialization, the increased use of media such as laptops, tablets or smartphones. It is not without reason that the suitcase word “smombie” - a hybrid of the terms smartphone and zombie - was voted youth word of the year in 2015. What is meant by that? People who stare spellbound at their cell phones and barely notice their surroundings. Studies show that eight to twelve-year-old girls now spend more time in front of the screen than with their peers.

"Loneliness is the number one killer"

In the long run, this is not without risk, says Manfred Spitzer. Because you can feel lonely even if you are not actually isolated from others. A meta-analysis by researchers working with the psychologist Julianne Holt-Lunstad from Brigham Young University in the US state of Utah shows what consequences this can have. The scientists compared 70 studies, including data from more than 3.4 million test subjects. They found out: loneliness kills. If someone feels permanently lonely, their risk of death is increased by 26 percent. If you are actually socially isolated, the risk increases to 29 percent. For people who live alone, it is even 32 percent. "Loneliness is the number one killer," emphasizes Spitzer. "Even before the risk factors of obesity and smoking."

And it's as contagious as the flu. If someone feels lonely, there is a good chance that people close to them - close friends, neighbors, or spouses - will feel the same in the following year. That was the result of a US study led by psychologist John T. Cacioppo from the University of Chicago. According to this, the probability of this is even around 50 percent. The “risk of infection”, writes Cacioppo, still applies even to the friends of the best friend. Women are a little more inclined than men to take on loneliness.

"Loneliness hurts"

Those affected often even suffer from physical pain. The anterior cingulate gyrus is active in them - the brain region that is also responsible for the sensation of pain. "Loneliness hurts," says Spitzer. “This has now been really well researched.” For this reason, every clinician knows lonely people who take pain medication every day - even though they have no physical symptoms at all.

The active ingredient acetaminophen, which is contained in paracetamol, has been shown to reduce the feeling of loneliness because it affects the pain center. However, it is not a permanent solution: Pain tablets can be quickly addictive. In addition, long-term use is harmful to the body. Among other things, it can lead to stomach upset and cardiovascular problems. So you have to take a different approach to pain, says Spitzer. “Ultimately, they signal to us: Your physical integrity is in danger. You should change something in your behavior. ”If you break your leg, the psychiatrist and psychologist explains, you wouldn't put any more strain on the injured leg. "We understand that very spontaneously."

Get active and seek the closeness of others

But what can help against the painful feeling of loneliness and its consequences? The answer may come as little surprise. It reads: get active and seek the closeness of others. Whether you do sports in a club, attend a language course at the adult education center or play with other theaters is of secondary importance. "Those who feel embedded in a social network suffer less from stress," says Spitzer. "And take it as less bad if he actually gets into a difficult situation."

According to him, community activities such as singing in a choir have a particularly positive effect. Activities in which the participants have to coordinate their behavior and get in tune with one another. Other findings suggest that people who volunteer and help others not only feel less lonely, but also live longer. In addition, one can even actively seek out loneliness in order to combat it, adds Spitzer: "Those who go out into nature demonstrably brood less, are more creative and more prosocial." The reason for this? In nature, humans experience themselves as a small, but at the same time an integral part of the world, of the big picture. A calming and at the same time very nice idea.

Physical consequences

Stress: Persistent loneliness can affect the body like stress. "Acute stress is a life-saving process," emphasizes the psychiatrist Manfred Spitzer. “It ensures that we can react at lightning speed.” For example, if someone breaks into a frozen lake in winter, their body immediately provides energy that should enable them to save themselves on their own.

Consequences: However, if a person is under constant stress, this can have negative consequences. In the event of acute stress, the whole body is put on alert: for example, blood sugar levels go up, blood levels are elevated and digestion is inhibited. "It's very exhausting for the body," explains Fred Christmann, psychological psychotherapist from the Psyche Foundation in Stuttgart. If such threat values ​​occur frequently, this can lead to diabetes, cardiovascular diseases and chronic inflammation, among other things.

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