In one of his most famous songs, the pop artist Lauv sings:

“Modern loneliness, we’re never alone

But always depressed, yeah

Love my friends to death

But I never call and I never text.”

Loneliness has never been more relevant than during the COVID-19 era of shelter-in-place orders and quarantine mandates, yet these surprisingly relatable lyrics seem to contradict themselves. How is it possible to be both lonely and not alone? And if you are truly lonely, why wouldn’t you reach out to your friends? A deeper look into human psychology, and biology, can help us uncover the answers to these questions.

It is not always necessary to be alone to feel lonely. Photo by Justice Amoh on Unsplash

Humans, like all social animals, are powerfully motivated by social interactions. In fact, we find it uncomfortable and stressful to be lonely, so stressful that we will often go to great lengths to relieve that stress: Think about all the potentially awkward social situations we risk putting ourselves into just to make friends, like sitting at a new lunch table on the first day of school or going to that party where you only know one person. To understand loneliness, we need to first talk about stress, stressors, and stress responses.

What it Means to be Stressed

Most of the time when we talk about being “stressed out,” we are referring to emotions associated with stress. But the way stress researchers see it, stress itself is not solely an emotion. Rather, stress is the response of a body to an imbalance – whether its emotional, chemical, or physical. The thing responsible for the imbalance is called a “stressor,” and the body’s response to restore balance is called the “stress response.” 

If, for example, you were to come face-to-face with a bear (an acute stressor) your body would rapidly initiate several changes to prepare you for action. Within seconds, your body would quickly release adrenaline, signaling your heart to send more blood flow to your muscles and halting all non-urgent processes such as digestion. Over the course of the next several minutes to hours, your brain would tell your body to  release cortisol, which a) tells your cells to release energy in the form of glucose, b) prepares your tissues for any potential damage, and c) helps to shut down non-essential functions. 

In addition to these physiological changes, you will also likely experience changes in emotion (most likely fear) and behavior (you might freeze or run away if you can). This type of response is sometimes called flight-fright-freeze, but how you respond depends on the stressor.

Humans are uniquely able to generate full-blown stress responses to stressors, even when there is no physical threat nearby. One striking example can be seen in competitive chess players. In high-stress matches, players show significant changes in heart rate variability (how fast your heart rate fluctuates) – and metabolism. These changes are like what someone experiences when they’re exercising, even though during a chess match, the players are not physically moving very much. Here, the players are perceiving the chess match as a stressor. We do this all the time in different situations, from worrying about a first date to imagining the worst possible outcome for an upcoming exam.

 For many of us, not often are we are in immediate physical danger, but the brain is designed to perceive and categorize threats in the world around us, so that we are generally prepared to handle whatever comes our way. Because social interactions are so important to us as social creatures, the brain is also constantly scanning for social cues and signs of rejection.

Cyberball: what a participant would see while participating in a social exclusion lab experiment.

One common way we observe social rejection in the lab is to use a virtual ball-tossing game to model social exclusion. When we intentionally exclude participants from a game with other virtual players, their cortisol rises and their mood dims. At the heart of this situation is the perception of social exclusion, which is a stressor.

The key to this, however, is that we don’t feel stressed by social isolation unless we perceive that we’re being excluded. If we don’t notice we’re being excluded, we don’t feel stressed.

Fortunately, if we can control our perception, we can reduce the impact stressors have on us. For instance, if we feel like we’re in control of a situation and can predict how it will turn out, we’ll be less stressed.

Imagine two mice in separate cages, both receiving minor electric shocks. Now imagine that both mice are getting the same shocks at the same time, but one mouse can press a button and turn the shock off for both mice. They are receiving the same amount of shocks, but the mouse that has control over the situation will show a much lower stress response to the shocks. The same is true if one mouse is given a warning before each shock; the ability to predict the shocks also reduces the stress response. This is exactly what some of the first studies in psychological stress in people found. Environmental stressors didn’t matter as much as how the mice presumably perceived them: the only difference was likely the sense of control or predictability. 

This helps make sense of Lauv’s lyrics; it explains why you can be lonely in a crowded room. A person feels lonely when they perceive themselves to be socially isolated, even when they are not physically alone. On the flip side, being alone or having fewer friends does not necessarily make someone lonely.

Humans Need to Feel Supported

As social creatures, we need others. But the perception of social support, or lack thereof, can greatly change how we feel and act.

Reaching out to friends when you are lonely can help you perceive more social support, even when you are physically alone. Photo by Chris Montgomery on Unsplash

In the short-term, feeling lonely might motivate you to reach out to a friend, join that Zoom meeting, or try out a new activity. But long-term loneliness, over the course of years, can start to impact your physical and mental health, affecting things like sleep, emotional well-being, and even immune function.  

Feeling lonely can even cause you to be hypersensitive to social threats, making you more likely to see signs of rejection in your interactions with others. If you are made to feel lonely, in a lab setting, you are more likely to feel anxious, fear being judged negatively, and act more coldly towards others. People who are chronically lonely show shifts in social cognition, such as a tendency to form more negative social impressions of others. This might help explain why Lauv sings that despite his love for his friends, he never calls or texts.

Everyone feels lonely from time to time, and it is helpful to acknowledge the power of perception to shape your experience. Armed with the knowledge that control, predictability, and the perception of social support can make a difference, you can prepare yourself for any lonely days that may come along. We are in a unique time of Lauv’s “Modern Loneliness,” so the next time you are feeling lonely, fight the urge to withdraw and see if a phone call or reminder of your social support – such as recent texts, emails etc. – helps you feel better. 


  • Emily Silver

    Emily is a PhD student at the University of Chicago in the Psychology Department where she studies psychophysiology and the ways perception modulates stress responses. Find Emily on Twitter @emilymsilver

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