We often listen to great thinkers like ‘be alone, that is where great ideas take birth’ and at the same time we listen to data showing being alone is as harmful as smoking 15 cigarettes.
It’s definitely confusing whether ‘being alone’ is good or bad. The answer is that both are right; it depends on the situation.
Solitude is a positive term for being alone, while loneliness is negative. And recently, scientists and psychologists have started to take a huge interest in it as well.
Solitude: the art of doing nothing
Solitude can be defined as being by yourself. Since, in a busy world, we are constantly coming into contact with other people and sometimes we lose ourselves between them. Because of that, we are not able to get time to regulate our emotions, which constantly get suppressed and eventually cause anxiety or other issues.
But to prove that solitude is good for our mental health, we have to detach the term ‘solitude’ from other activities. We are alone during many activities like cooking, working, surfing social media or reading books. Those are alone-time activities connected with solitude.
So for the experiment, scientists created ‘controlled solitude’ to get the right result. And the result was interesting. To better understand that, check out this table:
Regulate or drop down
Regulate or drop down
Low arousal (enjoy solitude)
Low arousal(not enjoying solitude)
Results show that solitude helps volunteers with ‘arousal regulation’. Positive emotions with high arousal like excitement, and energizing and negative emotions with high arousal like anger, and anxiety drop down, which is called the ‘deactivation effect’.
And emotions with low arousal depended on how motivated a person was to be alone. If you enjoy being alone, then positive emotions with low arousal like calmness and relaxation increase. If you feel stuck or like a waste of time, then negative emotions with low arousal like loneliness and sadness increase.
Now, being alone and doing other activities do not steal those benefits, but you can miss one major benefit: self-reflection.
Self-reflection is the act of attending to our own thoughts and emotions. A study shows that people who practice complete solitude without another activity can have better self-reflection about their emotions than people who don’t. Also, mindful practices are always recommended to calm repetitive negative thoughts.
Let’s explore the dark side after learning about the benefits of being alone.
Loneliness could be defined as unwanted social isolation when you get socially neglected. But it could be equally harmful as any physical injury.
In 2003, scientists did one experiment where participants had to play VR ball games. So each of the three participants has to wear a headset and VR glasses while tossing the ball to their colleagues, but eventually, two of them stop tossing it to the third one and start playing by themselves. In reality, it was just a programme made to ignore participants, and during that time, scientists measured their brain activities.
Shockingly, getting neglected lights up the same part of the brain that is responsible for processing pain during physical harm. Physical pain involves certain parts of the mind, like the anterior insula (AI) and dorsal anterior cingulate complex (dACC), which give the experience or feeling of the unpleasantness of pain. Also, people who feel more emotional distress show more pain-related activity in their minds.
A summary of the experiment social rejection triggers the same region in the mind that is responsible for physical pain. The brain does not understand the difference between the pain of a broken bone and a broken heart. Even watching a video of a disapproving face or picture of your ex-partner could create the same effect.
It sparked an intriguing discussion about whether the connection between emotional and physical pain is strong enough for painkillers to be used to treat emotional pain.
To solve that question, scientists did one experiment on two groups, where the first group got painkillers two times a day for three days, and the second group got a placebo. As a result, they discovered that the group who were taking painkillers had a higher tolerance for emotional pain than the group that had a placebo. But emotional pain is not just about brain activities; so many other factors are also at work, so painkillers are not a solution.
One reason could be that, since the beginning of our species, we depended on each other for survival; we helped each other to gather food, share shelter, and protect each other from predators. So, with evolution, our minds may have taken social rejection or isolation as a threat to life and borrowed an inbuilt mechanism for physical pain to signal this.
We are living in the golden era of social media. It is not just a tool for posting pictures; it could be a way to connect people around the world. It takes nothing to ask friends, parents, or relatives about how they are doing.
Mehul Gadhiya completed a mechanical engineering degree in 2019. He has written articles about mental health and wellness for several outlets.
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