Tired of being alone: How social isolation affects our energy levels

C: Annie Spratt (Unsplash)
C: Annie Spratt (Unsplash)
Eight hours without socializing can result in a similar drop in energy as eight hours without eating

In a study conducted both in the laboratory and during COVID-19 lockdowns, subjects reported higher levels of fatigue after eight hours of social isolation. The results suggest that low energy may be a basic human response to a lack of social contact. The study, conducted at the University of Vienna and published in Psychological Science, also showed that this response is influenced by the subjects’ social personality traits.

When we don’t eat for an extended period of time, a number of biological processes take place that create a craving that we perceive as hunger. As a social species, however, we also depend on other people for survival. It is well established that a lack of social contact triggers a craving in our brain comparable to hunger, which motivates us to reconnect. The related hypothesis of "social homeostasis" states that there is a special homeostatic system that autonomously (-self-) regulates our need for social contacts. However, little is known about the psychological responses to social isolation. Moreover, it is unclear how these findings translate to the social isolation we experience in our daily lives, including the unique context of COVID-19 lockdowns.

A group of scientists led by Giorgia Silani from the University of Vienna studied the effects of social isolation using comparable methods in two contexts: in the laboratory and at home during the COVID-19 lockdown. For the study, 30 female experimental participants came to the laboratory on three different days and spent eight hours with no social contact or no food, or with social contact and food. Several times throughout the day, they reported their self-perceived stress levels, mood, and fatigue, while physiological stress responses, such as heart rate and cortisol, were recorded by the scientists*. To validate the results of the laboratory study, they were compared with measurements from a study conducted during the lockdown in Austria and Italy in spring 2020. This study used data from 87 participants who had spent at least an eight-hour period in isolation and whose stress and behavioral effects were measured using the same data several times a day for seven days.

"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 first authors Ana Stijovic and Paul Forbes. This finding is also supported by comparison with data from the lockdowns: participants who lived alone during the lockdowns and were generally more social also reported lower energy levels - on days when they were socially isolated compared to days when they were social.

The authors suggest that lower energy may be part of our homeostatic response to lack of social contact and a possible precursor to some of the more deleterious effects of long-term social isolation. "It is well known that long-term loneliness and fatigue are related, but we know little about the immediate mechanisms underlying this relationship. The fact that we observe this effect after only a short period of social isolation suggests that low energy may be a ’social homeostatic’ adaptive response that can become maladaptive in the long term," Silani explains.

The study also found that contextual and personality factors modulate the impact of social isolation on fatigue, so future studies will need to identify individuals most at risk for the effects of social isolation.

Publication in Psychological Science :

Stijovic, A., Forbes, P. A. G., Tomova L., Skoluda, N., Feneberg, A. C., Piperno, G., Pronizius, E., Nater, U. M., Lamm, C., & Silani, G. Homeostatic Regulation of Energetic Arousal During Acute Social Isolation: Evidence From the Lab and the Field. Psychological Science, 2023.

DOI: 10.1177/09567976231156413

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