Why Loneliness Feels Like Hunger

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With the holidays on the horizon and COVID-19 picking up steam for the winter, millions of Americans are, somewhat miserably, hunkering down and keeping themselves socially distanced. 2020 has been a long year, and the cumulative stresses we've been experiencing might be easier to bear if we could just see our friends and family like we want. Public health experts are pleading with us to stay home, though. It's our best chance of actually beating back the pandemic.


All that isolation may feel familiar by now, and not just because we've been doing a lot of it. Neuroscientists at MIT have just published a study indicating that our social needs aren't that different from our physical needs. "[A]cute loneliness is an aversive state that motivates people to repair what is lacking, similar to hunger," said senior author Rebecca Saxe. More specifically, our brains process loneliness with the same neurotransmitters it uses to process hunger.

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Throughout this year's lockdowns, we've discovered plenty of ways to try and connect with ourselves and with other people — some more successful than others. (Does anyone even like Zoom anymore?) There's some weird science for trying to trick your body into coping better, but overall, one of the best things you can actually do is pick up the phone. Our mental health needs all the help it can get, and finding healthy ways to feed ourselves socially can help us better navigate some of the other nonsense we have to face in the rest of our lives.