Greensboro's African American Community Newspaper since 1967

Loneliness can make you sick


Studies show that children without strong early support  can feel isolated and alone and lack the ability to effectively reach out to others. Studies show that children without strong early support can feel isolated and alone and lack the ability to effectively reach out to others.

Have we got it all wrong? We all know that relationships are important. Some recent studies have shown that those who are lonely have more viruses and thus have more illness and in the long run are less healthy. Is there evidence that we can see in our brains that helps us know this?

Dr. Amy Banks, director of the Jean Miller Training Institute at the Wellesley Center for Women has spent her career understanding how our brain connections affect our relationships. According to Banks, our Western society has looked at human development and has focused on the belief that we are born dependent and the task of being socialized is to raise increasingly independent, individualized people. Western society prizes individualism and the so called ability to “stand on one’s own two feet.” Dr. Banks and her colleagues believe that this way of thinking has weakened the position of relationships in our culture.

The researchers looked at other cultures, primarily Eastern cultures that focus of the centrality of relationships and how those relationships affect the health and well-being of a person. Here the family unit is most important. Studies have shown that people who participate in these relationships have the ability to decrease stress, build the immune system and promote a sense of belonging.

Dr. Barns says that when we are born we have an undeveloped nervous system that can be trained. She points out that these systems orient the infant to the mother or caregiver. Here the first task of the infant is to develop trust. If this is done successfully, it is kind of “hard wired” into the brain. This trust is important because when there is contact with safe people who provide that trust it helps the infant to decrease their response to stress. That infant and then child, as more and more safe people are involved in their lives, develops the ability to deal with stress, and develops concepts of give and take and conflict resolution. This is particularly important during the first three years of life.

Likewise, if an infant is born into a family where there are few safe relationships or there are poor communication skills, these stress easing skills - give and take and conflict resolution skills - may not fully develop.

Some of these individuals may never develop the ability to feel safe in a relationship, and are thus alone. People are interdependent and we function best when we are part of a group. When trauma and abuse are part of one’s relationship experience then fear, distrust, and isolation get “hard wired” into the nervous system. People who experience such fear and uncertainty do not feel safe in social situations or close relationships.

These people can feel isolated and alone and lack the ability to effectively reach out to others. They have more stress, anxiety and depression. This makes physical illness more likely and worse.

However, not all alone people are unhappy. There are those who are introverted or alone who do just fine. They have healthy, safe relationships in their early years that would allow them to connect to others if they need them.

This is such a complex subject but one that may help us to understand others, protect our young and navigate this world a little bit better.

Dr. Veita Bland is a board certified Greensboro physician and hypertension specialist. Dr. Bland’s radio show, “It’s a Matter of Your Health,” can be heard live on Wednesdays, 5:30 p.m. on North Carolina A&T State University’s WNAA, 90.1 FM. Listeners may call in and ask questions. The show is replayed on Sirius 142 at 5 p.m. on Wednesdays. Email Dr. Bland at