Warm baths counter the negative feelings of loneliness

Dominika Osmolska Psy.D.'s picture
Loneliness and Depression
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If you are feeling lonely and don’t have a friend to turn to, a hot bath might just substitute for missing companionship. A study out of Yale, to be published in the journal Emotion, suggests that a long soak in a warm bath effectively counters negative feelings of loneliness.

Feelings of social warmth and coldness can be induced by experiences of physical warmth or coldness, and vice versa, according to the latest research in the area of embodied cognition. Embodied cognition refers to cognitive processes, such as judgment and evaluation, which are influenced or even determined by physical experience. In other words, our rational, thinking process is not completely independent of our physical sensations. Instead, they are admixed.

What this means is that we are psychophysical beings – beings who live on a continuum of mind and body, and the two systems are interdependent. What this also means is that we have the ability to self-regulate and soothe those feelings which might be unpleasant.

In the current study, researchers demonstrated that people can influence their feelings of social warmth by applying physical warmth to their bodies, in the form of a bath.

The study comprised four separate components. In the first, subjects who scored higher on measures of loneliness (social coldness) reported a higher frequency of hot bath-taking. In the second, physical coldness was demonstrated to induce feelings of social loneliness. In the third, feelings of social alienation, triggered by a memory of rejection, were eliminated by the application of physical warmth. And finally, the fourth provided evidence that we are not explicitly aware of the relation between physical and social warmth.

Researchers also found that the more lonely people feel, the longer it takes to shake the feeling.

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The findings support other research out of Canada which shows that people who are physically cold tend to report more loneliness.

Researchers say the findings could have broad implications for treating depression and other emotional disorders. It has long been known that vigorous exercise, which raises body temperature and increases circulation, has been a potent anti-depressive agent, and many therapists recommend physical activity as an adjunct to talk therapy and /or medications. Now we may be able to add warm baths as another pleasant component of anti-depressive therapy. That would surely be welcome advice to all the unhappy souls who may be otherwise unavailable for vigorous exercise.

The findings also have interesting implications for the reported incidence of depression in higher latitude countries. Those countries tend to have higher rates of depression and suicide, and for many years it was assumed that they were due to diminished light. While light certainly plays a role during the long weeks when the sun hardly rises over the horizon in the Arctic and sub-Arctic regions, perhaps cold has as much to do with these disorders as light.

I wonder if there are any reports of depression and suicide rate among the early native Inuit communities living in these regions. Did they suffer rates of depression, despair and suicidality that occur with Westerners living in those areas? If not, how did they help themselves?

Besides being useful in dispelling loneliness, warm baths also have many benefits, such as:

1. Relieving stress
2. Warm water is more powerful in lifting excess oil and dirt from the surface of the skin
3. Aiding circulation
4. Opening the pores of the skin
5. Overcoming insomnia

This page is updated on April 21, 2013.

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The study that was conducted by John A. Bargh and Idit Shalev at Yale University is available on the web at http://www.yale.edu/acmelab/articles/Bargh_Shalev_Emotion.pdf