Written by Jessica Oshiro
Everyone experiences a rite of passage to adulthood at some point in their lives, which may be through either having a job or attending college. While this time of transition includes times of discovery, it also includes loneliness. Although encountering loneliness is expected when introduced into a new environment, prolonged experiences of “feeling out of place” could have adverse effects on one’s health.
Loneliness may be defined as the emotion expressed due to the gap between a person’s actual and perceived social interactions . When entering college or any new environment, one may have the expectations of forming solid relationships with their colleagues and coworkers. In reality, however, these relationships may not be formed in the manner assumed, thus forming a gap between expectations and reality. The persistent lack of community produced by loneliness causes bodily stress, resulting in degradation of one’s health.
Extended experiences of loneliness could alter brain activity . Loneliness causes increased activation of the hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal (HPA) axis, a complex within the brain that responds to stress and secretes the hormone cortisol (a stress hormone). Increased activity of the HPA axis causes an increase of cortisol secretion, which could lead to hyperglycemia (high blood sugar), a decreased immune response, and various other consequences. Increased cortisol secretion may lead to hyperglycemia because cortisol opposes the work of the hormone insulin. Insulin triggers a decrease of blood sugar levels through various biochemical reactions while cortisol triggers an increase of blood sugar levels. With increased levels of cortisol, the homeostatic balance between cortisol’s increase in blood sugar and insulin’s decrease in blood sugar becomes upset, resulting in a net increase of blood sugar levels..
Weakening of the immune system that results from increased HPA axis activity can lead to an increase of contracting common illnesses, and possibly death if not attended to. Such increased susceptibility to illness is a result of altered gene transcription due to increased HPA axis activity. Long-lasting feelings of loneliness inhibit the expression of antiviral and antibody genes while simultaneously activating the expression of pro-inflammatory genes , in a process known as conserved transcriptional response to adversity (CTRA). While loneliness up-regulates the process of CTRA and thus increases susceptibility to illness, feelings of belonging down-regulate the process of CTRA.
Although the experiences of loneliness and homesickness are emotionally unpleasant, they may also take a toll on one’s health through decreasing the body’s immune response and increasing blood sugar levels. Thus, it is essential to utilize the various methods currently available for combating loneliness. One of these methods involves the internalized idea of loneliness. People may let go of the ideology of expected social interactions that causes loneliness by receiving therapy, with group therapy tending to be more effective than individual sessions. Another method that can be used to lessen the feelings of loneliness also involves therapy, but for the purpose of learning how to act in certain social interactions as a way to encourage a more positive experience. Lastly, medications such as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), neurosteroids, and oxytocin can also be used to lessen the effects of loneliness .
Apart from the previously mentioned methods, taking a step back and appreciating the relationships one has may further help to alleviate the strains that loneliness and homesickness have on health. Stepping out of one’s comfort zone and meeting different types of people may also contribute to the formation of new social relationships, thus alleviating feelings of loneliness. Once the feeling of belonging through such social relationships is experienced, people tend to discover more about themselves, develop self-compassion, and value the support offered in relationships.
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