Being alone can make you as tired as food deprivation

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Social isolation can make people as tired as food deprivation. That’s according to a study by Viennese psychologists who also considered data from the first CoV lockdown in Austria and Italy.

The scientific journal “Psychological Science” interprets the observation as a consequence of a basic need that has gone out of joint, from which some people suffer greatly.

Less energy, more fatigue
On the one hand, the team led by Giorgia Silani of the Department of Psychology at the University of Vienna studied the reactions and perceptions of 30 female participants in a laboratory experiment under various isolation conditions. They spent eight hours in the lab on each of the three days. The period they were passed either with social contact and food, or with conversation and no food intake, or, in the third condition, without social contact but with food. During the day, participants provided information several times about their feelings of stress, as well as their mood and perceived fatigue. Also logged were levels of the stress hormone cortisol and heart rate, among other things.

“In the laboratory study, we found striking similarities between social isolation and food deprivation. Both conditions led to decreased energy and increased fatigue, which is surprising considering that we literally lose energy through food deprivation, whereas this is not the case with social isolation,” said the study’s lead author Ana Stijovic.

People are social beings.
To assess whether evidence of similar processes can also be found in more or less everyday situations, the experts drew on data from a larger field study from the time of the first lockdown. Participants in that study repeatedly provided information about their behaviour, experience, and perceived stress levels over several days. The field study found data from 87 people who reported spending at least eight hours at a time alone during this period.

“The decrease in energy levels observed in the laboratory after social isolation was also evident in those field study participants who lived alone or described themselves as highly sociable,” the paper states. The experts interpret this as a result of a basic psychological need for contact with other people being out of balance. As a species that needs interaction with conspecifics, there are parallels between this reaction and food deprivation, according to a statement from the University of Vienna.

Psychological structure out of joint
The human psyche more or less automatically seeks to re-establish contact with other people after phases of isolation. If this is not possible, the psychological structure gets out of joint. However, this reaction also strongly depends on the personality structure, as the study shows.

While it is known that prolonged loneliness and increased fatigue are linked, relatively little is known overall about the psychological patterns that take place during social isolation; the researchers say: “The fact that we observe this effect even after a short period of social isolation” indicates that this psychological imbalance leads to adjustment problems in the longer term.

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