5 Ways to Keep Loneliness From Turning Into Depression
A new study suggests five ways to keep loneliness in check.
Posted Nov 10, 2018
Are there times that you feel you don’t deserve it when good things happen to you? Do you look at yourself in the mirror and feel not just disappointed, but actually overwhelmed with self-disgust? Do you look at your clothes and hair and feel convinced that you look horrible, and that everyone else thinks so too? Do you wish you had more people to hang out with, but are afraid that they, too, find you disgusting? These are feelings that everyone has from time to time, but when they become a constant feature of one’s inner life, they can turn out to have severe consequences for your mental health.
According to Sheffield Hallam University’s Antonia Ypsilanti and colleagues (2018), people at high risk of depression have a chronic tendency to feel lonely and isolated. These feelings, in turn, can lead people to regard themselves in a particularly harsh and judgmental way. The British authors reason that when you’re feeling lonely, meaning that you’re not interacting with people to the degree that you would prefer, you start to turn your attention inward, believing that your own flaws are what’s causing you to be ignored by everyone else. This negative self-evaluation, according to Ypsilanti et al., can cause you to feel that you lack worth, and that you are the cause of your own loneliness. Taking a cognitive-behavioral approach to depression, Ypsilanti and her fellow researchers note that your own feelings of loneliness trigger a self-perpetuating cycle in which “self-blame, low self-worth, dysphoria, and lower self-esteem . . . then feed into greater loneliness, social isolation, and mental health problems including depression” (p. 109). In other words, the thoughts that you are unworthy become the breeding ground for the negative thoughts that are at the core of depression.
The concept of self-disgust, the British authors maintain, truly captures that internal sense of low self-worth experienced by lonely people who ultimately become depressed. Ypsilanti et al. define self-disgust as “a negative self-conscious emotion schema that reflects disgust directed toward the self.” Self-disgust can take the form of physical self-disgust, as in “I find myself repulsive,” or disgust toward one’s actions, exemplified by the thought “I often do things I find revolting” (p. 109). Previous researchers, they note, have observed a relationship between self-disgust and social anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder, the personality trait of psychoticism, and overall lower feelings of well-being. Compared to shame and guilt, as shown in longitudinal studies, self-disgust plays a more prominent role in the evolution of depressive symptoms. They propose: Could loneliness lead to depression via a pathway involving self-disgust?
There’s another element at work as well, Ypsilanti and her coauthors suggest. It’s one thing to have feelings of self-disgust and quite another to be unable to make those feelings go away. Rumination is known to be a factor in depression, and when you constantly think about how disgusting you are, it’s likely that you’ll become even more depressed. Therefore, the British researchers added emotion regulation to their theoretical model. The two forms of emotion regulation they investigated included suppression and reappraisal. If, instead of thinking about how flawed you are, you either push those thoughts aside (suppression) or reframe them positively (reappraisal), then you’ll be less vulnerable to experiencing the depression that goes along with feelings of self-disgust.
Testing this model on a sample of 317 students ranging in age from 18 to 72 years old (77 percent females), Ypsilanti and her team used questionnaires designed to tap each of the individual components of their model. They used a standard loneliness scale that included self-rated questions, such as “I feel isolated from others,” and “I am unhappy doing so many things alone.” As you can see from these items, loneliness isn’t just a state of being alone, it’s a feeling of being less in touch with people than you'd prefer. The authors measured depression with a standard inventory with items such as “I feel sad,” and “I feel guilty all the time.” An emotion regulation questionnaire asked participants to indicate what they do with their negative feelings, such as “I control my emotions by not expressing them,” and “When I want to feel a positive emotion, I change what I am thinking about.” To assess the main variable of interest, self-disgust, the authors used a previously developed Self-Disgust scale that included items tapping those two components of emotional and behavioral revulsion toward oneself and one’s actions. Unfortunately, as this was a correlational study, it was only statistical modeling that allowed the authors to test the proposed pathway leading from loneliness to self-disgust and depression, with emotion regulation as a potential influence.
In the first test of the proposed links between loneliness, self-disgust, and depression, the authors compared groups that they defined on the basis of high, medium, and low loneliness scores. All three groups differed in the predicted direction, in this analysis, on the two self-disgust scale components. Next, they showed that there were significant correlations between loneliness and depressive symptoms. Furthermore, in this second step, the authors established a relationship between depressive symptoms and the emotion regulation scores. People who engaged in higher degrees of reappraisal (turning negative into positive emotions) also had lower depression scores. Participants with high self-disgust scores, additionally, had higher depression scores, even after taking into account loneliness and emotion regulation scores. The final model, in which self-disgust was tested as a mediator between loneliness and depression, also yielded significant results.
Noting that as a correlational study, the direction of relationships cannot be firmly established, the British authors believe that they were able to demonstrate “that self-disgust may represent an affective mechanism through which loneliness progresses to the development of depressive symptoms” (p. 113). Furthermore, unless individuals who regard themselves and their behaviors with revulsion can reframe or suppress their negative self-evaluations, they will only exacerbate the potential to become depressed.
If you feel that you rate highly on the quality of self-disgust, the Ypsilanti et al. findings provide these five suggestions for feeling better about yourself and improving your feelings of happiness:
1. Work on increasing your social support. Given that this was a one-time, correlational study, it’s not possible to know whether a lack of contact with other people was the cause or the effect of the maladaptive thoughts involving low self-worth and outright revulsion. Finding ways to alleviate loneliness by developing better social skills could help individuals overcome self-disgust.
2. Use mindfulness to reduce the tendency to ruminate over your shortcomings. In mindfulness training, people don’t try to push away their depressive thoughts, but instead learn to accept them for what they are and not fall prey to excessive rumination.
3. Have a little self-compassion. You might not like the way you look, or even feel good about the things you do, but instead of becoming overwhelmed with disgust, recognize that no one is perfect and that you're allowed to have some flaws.
4. Try self-affirming messages. Along with gaining greater acceptance of yourself and your real or imagined flaws, turn your thoughts toward the features of yourself that you like. Give yourself a mental pat on the back when you find that you're not becoming overly self-critical and judging yourself with unrealistic standards.
5. Practice emotional suppression and reappraisal. The emotion-focused coping strategies that don’t change the situation, but do change the way you feel about it are ideally suited for learning to manage the feelings you have about the qualities you have that you can’t change. From your body type to the shape of your nose, whether you’re accident-prone or forgetful, you can learn to draw your attention from away from ruminating about these supposed flaws and think about something else. You might even decide that some of your worst "flaws" actually make you quite lovable.
To sum up, becoming happier with your qualities rather than distressed about them can be an important step in conquering both depressive thoughts and the feeling that you’re not interacting with people to the extent that you would prefer. Take it easy on yourself, and your fulfillment will only continue to flourish.
Ypsilanti, A., Lazuras, L., Powell, P., & Overton, P. (2019). Self-disgust as a potential mechanism explaining the association between loneliness and depression. Journal of Affective Disorders, 243, 108–115. doi:10.1016/j.jad.2018.09.056.