Even in our post-pandemic world, many people may still feel lingering effects of the loneliness and social isolation that accompanied that time period. Since that period of time, people have had less of a reason to leave the house with remote work and online communication becoming so widespread. The few years that we spent apart from one another sure has its impacts; however, studies1 have shown that rates of loneliness have been increasing in the United States ever since the 1970s. Data from the U.S. Census Bureau shows that Americans have been spending more time by themselves and less time with their family and friends for many decades at this point. We live in a society where the ‘hustle’, dedication to work is so underscored, and many adults spend the majority of their lives working endless hours. This can be somewhat ironic considering the fact that we are connected online more now than we have been in previous decades. Even though we are the most socially connected that society has ever been, people are experiencing loneliness to a degree that has never been seen before. The pandemic has served as another intensifier of this escalating issue of loneliness, but Americans have been feeling this way for quite some time now. With more than 60% of people in America feeling lonely on a daily basis, many individuals are subject to the mental toll that being chronically lonely can impart. In this blog, we will discuss the psychological impacts that loneliness can take on individuals, and what we can do to combat loneliness for ourselves and those around us.
Why is loneliness a bad thing?
By our nature, humans need social connection. We are a social species, and our comfort comes from secure and reliable social relationships and surroundings. Our very physical and mental well-being rely on the formation of these connections. Therefore, when a person experiences prolonged loneliness or social isolation, problems arise.
Loneliness2 is defined by the APA as a type of cognitive discomfort that arises when one perceives themselves as being alone or solitary. It is a painful feeling that everyone experiences at some point in their lives. From an evolutionary perspective, loneliness tells a person that they are in a threatened position to become isolated. When a person experiences loneliness or social isolation, they typically feel a lack of affection from the people in their lives and feel as though they do not have social connections. Being alone at any given time does not mean a person is lonely, but when being alone or isolated for a long period of time leads to emotional distress and needs for companionship are not fulfilled, then a person experiences loneliness. A 2020 study3 from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine showed that loneliness increases the risk for many medical issues, and can even increase the risk for things like cardiovascular disease, coronary heart disease, anxiety, depression, dementia, and stroke mortality. Research4 shows that 80% of individuals 18 years old or younger and 40% of individuals over 65 years of age report experiencing loneliness at some point in their life. Contrary to some assumptions, loneliness is especially prevalent in young people, and this may be a shock since most people typically assume that people get lonelier as they get older. It is true that loneliness is prevalent in older populations, but in reality elderly people have the life experience and subsequent coping mechanisms that allow them to make social connections in ways that young people are unable to. Children who experience loneliness during such formative years of their life struggle with forming their identity and social connections in a healthy way.
Who is at risk for loneliness?
We can all agree that experiencing loneliness is a negative experience. Of course, defining loneliness can sometimes be a bit tricky, but loneliness describes the feeling that is associated with feeling unfulfilled from a lack of social stimulation or connection. For example, if a person requires some alone time each week to get their energy back from social interaction, it does not mean that a person is lonely. It is healthy to take time for oneself to recharge and learn to become a more independent person, but when a few hours of alone time becomes weeks or months of social isolation, there is a more serious problem there. When our needs for social connection goes unmet, we may feel really negative feelings of sadness and disconnection.
A study done in the UK showed that there are certain risk factors associated with loneliness. Some of these risk factors include:
- Being 16 – 24 years old
- Being female
- Having a limiting mental health illness/impairment
- Being single or widowed
- Being a renter
- Being aged
- Having limited social connections
Experiencing loneliness can vary in intensity and duration, but if feelings of loneliness are particularly intense or prolonged, there might be significant negative impacts. Research 5 shows that loneliness can increase the risk of early mortality in elderly adults by 26%. From a mental health perspective, research5 shows that 60% of individuals who experience chronic loneliness experience some kind of mental distress. On the other hand, only 15% of individuals who are not chronically lonely experience mental distress. Loneliness can also be associated with
- a lowered sense of self-confidence
- elevated blood pressure
- Increase in inflammatory disease
- poorer sleep quality
- poorer work performance
- Acute stress responses
- Low energy and fatigue
- Lower educational success
- Increases risk for poor mental health
Loneliness and Mental Illness
On its own, loneliness is not a mental health diagnosis. Having poor mental health can be linked with an increase of loneliness, and the two can affect one another. Just as having better mental health is associated with lower levels of loneliness. In this section, we will briefly go over the ways in which loneliness is related to several mental disorders.
- Loneliness and Depression – As you may already assume, those who experience depressive symptoms are more likely to experience loneliness. Those who are depressed and lonely typically feel less satisfied with their life than others. They are also more likely to feel higher levels of pessimism, helplessness, pain and less happiness. The interconnectedness of both conditions is prevalent, but there is a difference between a lonely person and a depressed person. Though both individuals may feel alone, a person who is lonely and not depressed has hope that a persistent, genuine social connection will help them out of their condition and make everything okay. However, a depressed person may have a more difficult time forming connections due to low self-esteem or from a difficulty in maintaining social relationships.
- Loneliness and Alzheimer’s Disease – There is 2x risk of developing dementia when a person experiences loneliness. Some research6 shows that loneliness is actually one of the earliest and prominent signs that a person is developing dementia. On one hand, loneliness can be a consequence of loneliness because the sick individual may no longer have the cognitive function to interact with those around them in the way they did before. Something about the pathology of Alzheimer’s disease may cause individuals to retreat from social interaction and loneliness is therefore a symptom of dementia. On the other hand, research7 also suggests that lonely individuals have compromised neural systems for memory and cognition, which makes them more vulnerable to developing Alzheimer’s disease. This can occur through the degradation of neural reserves and neuropathy that accompanies the aging process.
How to treat loneliness
As we mentioned above, experiencing loneliness is not a mental health diagnosis but it can be associated with mental illnesses nonetheless. It is a negative emotion that can be fleeting, persistent, intense, mild, and everything in between. With such variety in the ways that we experience loneliness, treating its symptoms can sometimes be tricky. A couple ideas to combat loneliness include:
- Opening up to a small group of people. – It can be easy to underestimate the power of simply reaching out. When a person becomes lonely over a long period of time, they might feel like they are the only ones who are feeling what they are feeling. However, everyone knows what it feels like to be lonely sometimes. Reaching out to a family member or sending a text to a friend that you haven’t talked to in a while may open up room for conversation or your next social plan.
- Talking to someone that you encounter in daily life. – With the rise of online ordering, curbside pick-up, and apps, you can essentially go through each day without having to talk to anyone. In order to combat loneliness, a good exercise could include making your next food order in person with the person behind the counter as opposed to ordering ahead on your phone. Maybe go to the same coffee shop each week and build a connection with the barista behind the counter. Maybe you start taking a spin class and ride in the front of the room so the instructor can see you and chat after class. Small, repetitive acts can make the biggest difference!
“Why Americans Are Lonelier and Its Effects on Our Health.” PBS, Public Broadcasting Service, 8 Jan. 2023, www.pbs.org/newshour/show/why-americans-are-lonelier-and-its-effects-on-our-health#:~:text=You%20know%2C%20some%20surveys%20reveal,worse%20than%20rates%20of%20obesity.
“Apa Dictionary of Psychology.” American Psychological Association, American Psychological Association, dictionary.apa.org/loneliness?s2=P1382021636_1683417608206677824.
Social Isolation and Loneliness as Medical Issues | Nejm, www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJMp2208029.
Mushtaq, Raheel, et al. “Relationship between Loneliness, Psychiatric Disorders and Physical Health ? A Review on the Psychological Aspects of Loneliness.” Journal of Clinical and Diagnostic Research : JCDR, U.S. National Library of Medicine, Sept. 2014, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4225959/.
“Facts and Statistics about Loneliness.” Campaign to End Loneliness, 16 Oct. 2023, www.campaigntoendloneliness.org/facts-and-statistics/.
Holwerda, Tjalling Jan, et al. “Feelings of Loneliness, but Not Social Isolation, Predict Dementia Onset: Results from the Amsterdam Study of the Elderly (Amstel).” Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery & Psychiatry, BMJ Publishing Group Ltd, 1 Feb. 2014, jnnp.bmj.com/content/85/2/135?version=meter+at+null&module=meter-Links&pgtype=Blogs&contentId=&mediaId=%25%25ADID%25%25&referrer=&priority=true&action=click&contentCollection=meter-links-click.
Robert S. Wilson, PhD. “Loneliness and Risk of Alzheimer Disease.” Archives of General Psychiatry, JAMA Network, 1 Feb. 2007, jamanetwork.com/journals/jamapsychiatry/article-abstract/482179.