Lack of confidence exacerbates loneliness spiral – sciencedaily
Loneliness is a painful feeling. If it persists, it can lead to mental illnesses such as depression or anxiety disorders. Researchers at the universities of Bonn, Haifa (Israel) and Oldenburg have now discovered how loneliness is associated with reduced confidence. This results in changes in the activity and interaction of various brain structures, especially the insular cortex. The results therefore provide clues for therapeutic options. They are now published in the journal Advanced sciences.
Everyone knows what loneliness looks like. Behind this feeling is the perceived gap that the need for social relationships is not being met to the desired degree. As with the hunger that wants to be satisfied, feelings of loneliness can also provide motivation to connect with other people. However, some people are affected by persistent loneliness. Such cases can increase the risk of developing a mental illness, such as depression or anxiety disorders. “One of the reasons for this deeply felt loneliness may be a lack of confidence in human beings,” says Dr Dirk Scheele of the medical psychology research section of the University Hospital Bonn, referring to data from the initial study.
Together with Prof. Dr. Simone G. Shamay-Tsoory from the University of Haifa (Israel) and Prof. Dr. Dr. RenÃ© Hurlemann from the University of Oldenburg, Dr. Scheele’s team therefore studied in more detail the relationship between trust and loneliness. . Using an online questionnaire, the researchers selected 42 people from among 3,678 adults who suffered from severe loneliness but did not suffer from a mental illness or were undergoing psychotherapy. The control group consisted of 40 people who did not suffer from persistent loneliness. âIt was important to us that our results could be attributed to the loneliness experienced and that any influence of mental illness could be dismissed as much as possible,â says lead author Jana Lieberz of the Scheele team.
In the brain scanner: what is the will to share?
The participants first performed tasks in the brain scanner. Among other things, they played a game of trust. Here, they received ten euros of starting capital. Based on portrait photos displayed on a screen, they were asked to decide how much money they were willing to share with each of the people featured. They knew that making a profit beyond their starting capital was only possible if they shared their starting capital with others. At the same time, however, they had to be confident that their gambling partners would not keep the money they had wagered for themselves. âParticipants with strong feelings of loneliness shared less with others than the control group,â says Scheele. “We interpret this as a lower level of trust.”
The researchers also found treatment gaps in areas of the brain involved in building trust compared to the control group. This was especially evident in the anterior insular cortex, which was less active in solitary individuals and did not connect as well with other areas of the brain. “An important function of the island cortex is to perceive and interpret signals from its own body, such as the heartbeat,” says Lieberz. “It also helps to correctly interpret the reactions of others, such as facial expressions or mood – or reliability.”
After the trust game, the experimenters also simulated a standardized conversation situation with the respective participant, which dealt with emotionally positive content: what would you do with winning the lottery? What are your hobbies? Next, the team asked participants about their mood. The researchers also collected blood and saliva samples to examine, among other things, an increase in the binding hormone oxytocin in response to conversation, and measured the distance in centimeters that the subjects maintained from the experimenter.
Those affected by severe loneliness were found to have less positive moods after small discussions than the control group. Levels of oxytocin, a binding hormone, also changed less. In addition, single people maintained a spatial distance from the experimenter about ten centimeters greater than that of people little affected by loneliness. âOverall, the results show across tasks that chronic loneliness is associated with reduced trust in other human beings,â says Scheele, summing up the most important finding. “It can mean that interactions with others are experienced as less positive, which makes it more difficult to connect with others and exacerbates the spiral of loneliness.”
Starting points for therapy
The research team also considers these results as starting points for interventions. âThe reduced confidence of single people could be more therapy-oriented by making it a topic of discussion and thereby raising awareness among those affected,â Lieberz adds. It would then also be possible to examine strategies on how affected people can build their trust in other people. In a study currently underway at Bonn University Hospital, researchers, together with colleagues in Haifa and Oldenburg, are investigating whether group psychotherapeutic interventions can reduce these negative mental biases.
The study was funded by the German-Israeli Foundation for Scientific Research and Development (GIF).
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