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Being alone zaps energy from humans, scientists say

Conor Dillon | Gabriel Borrud
April 18, 2023

Ever daydream of being totally on your own for a while? It might sound romantic, but researchers from Austria say too much "me time" is not necessarily good for you.

A man walks alone besides Verinag spring inside a Mughal Garden in south of Srinagar, Indian Administered Kashmir
Image: Muzamil Mattoo/NurPhoto/picture alliance

Too much 'me time' can tire you out

When you’re all alone, have you ever felt an inexplicable sense of fatigue? A study conducted by researchers at Vienna University’s psychology department may be able to explain why.

When human beings spent eight hours alone, the psychological stress became very physiological. 

Inside a room, they were asked to spend eight hours on their own. No novels, no pictures of human faces, no technological devices, no human beings. In the end, they were not "recharged," they were depleted. As if they had been starved.

And that has implications for how we think about personal recovery.

How much social contact do we need?

What if, by intentionally socially isolating ourselves for a bit, we end up doing harm instead of good? What if, instead of regaining energy, we actually start to lose it?

"It is a piece of the puzzle to help us understand how we regulate the absence of social contact," said first author and psychology researcher Ana Stijovic. Speaking with DW, she explained that little is known about our short-term physiological reaction to being alone, and that it could ultimately shed light on the obscure concept of loneliness. 

"What is the first response to being separated from people? If we understand these mechanisms, it might be the key to us understanding how the more long-term problems related to social isolation develop."

If you would like to learn more about social isolation and loneliness, we invite you to listen to the interview with Ana Stijovic on the DW podcast Science Unscripted.

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Loneliness - A talk with the expert