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Loneliness

Why Some People Are More Likely to Become Lonely

Struggles emerge from hiding and suppressing feelings.

Key points

  • Loneliness is associated with both physical health conditions (e.g., obesity) and mental health issues (e.g., depression).
  • Research suggests half the variance in loneliness can be explained by emotion regulation strategy use.
  • Lonely people are more prone to use dysfunctional emotional regulation strategies like rumination, self- and other-blame, and catastrophizing.
StockSnap/Pixabay
Source: StockSnap/Pixabay

A recent study—by researchers from Harvard University, Stanford University, Curtin University, and The University of Western Australia—suggests more than half the variance in loneliness can be explained by the emotion regulation strategies people use. The research, published in the October issue of Personality and Individual Differences, will be described below, following an introduction to the psychology of loneliness.

Understanding Loneliness

What does it mean to feel lonely? Loneliness means experiencing unpleasant emotions (e.g., anxiety, sadness, distress) due to perceived social isolation and lack of intimacy and close relationships (e.g., friendship).

Feeling lonely is not the same as being alone. One could be alone and not feel lonely, and one could be in a crowd and still feel lonely.

To feel lonely is to experience a sense of being painfully disconnected, left out, and isolated, with no one to turn to for emotional and social support. Lonely people often believe nobody understands or shares their concerns, that nobody really knows them or even cares to get to know them.

Loneliness, particularly when chronic, has been linked with many health problems, including mental health conditions (e.g., anxiety, depression, insomnia) and physical health conditions (e.g., stroke, heart disease, obesity). For instance, research suggests loneliness increases pain.

The causes of loneliness are not well understood. On a societal level, digital media use may explain increased loneliness in adolescents. The COVID-19 pandemic has also contributed to increased loneliness around the world.

Many lonely people desire to make friends but feel unable to do so. Common reasons lonely people fail to make friends include low trust, lack of time, introversion, choosiness, fears of rejection, and pragmatic reasons (e.g., health conditions).

Might loneliness also be related to how people regulate their emotions? For an answer, we review, below, an investigation by Preece et al., on the potential link between loneliness and emotion regulation strategies.

Investigating emotional reasons for loneliness

Sample: 501 Americans (50 percent male); average age of 47 years (18-88 years, range); 80 percent White; 20 percent with a bachelor’s degree (as their highest level of education). Roughly 20 percent were from the Northeast, 20 percent the West, 21 percent the Midwest, and 39 percent the South.

Participants were instructed to complete various emotion regulation and loneliness measures (sample items in parentheses):

  • The UCLA Loneliness scale; 20 items. (“How often do you feel that you have a lot in common with the people around you?”)
  • Emotion Regulation Questionnaire; 10 items; assesses the use of cognitive reappraisal and expressive suppression emotion regulation strategies (“I control my emotions by not expressing them.”)
  • Cognitive Emotion Regulation Questionnaire; 36 items; evaluates cognitive emotion-regulation strategies, like self-blame, blaming others, rumination, catastrophizing, and refocusing on planning (“I think about how I can best cope with the situation”).
  • Behavioral Emotion Regulation Questionnaire; 20 items; measures behavioral emotion-regulation strategies, like distraction, social support, and withdrawal (“I avoid other people”).

Loneliness and Emotion Regulation Strategies

The results showed emotion regulation strategy use predicts loneliness:

Specifically, emotion regulation tactics explained more than half the variance in loneliness. Increased loneliness correlated with greater use of a variety of maladaptive emotion regulation strategies, particularly self-blame, blaming others, and rumination; and with less frequent use of reappraisal or thought reframing (i.e. finding the silver lining in a situation).

Individuals with high levels of loneliness, the data showed, tended to hide their feelings and suppress their emotional expression (a strategy called expressive suppression). In addition, they tended not to seek social support and to reject the social support offered.

So, the results revealed a paradox: Those “high in loneliness are, by definition, craving social connection to fill unmet interpersonal needs,” yet they often respond “to negative emotions by suppressing their expression and actively avoiding social contact. As such, these habitual emotion regulation patterns may perpetuate states of loneliness and social isolation.”

Maladaptive Emotion Regulation Strategies

In summary, differences in how people regulate their emotions might explain why some of them experience more loneliness than others. In the above investigation, the loneliest individuals showed a greater tendency to use maladaptive emotion regulation strategies such as:

  • Blame attribution: Responding to an unpleasant experience by either blaming oneself or holding others responsible.
  • Catastrophizing: Focusing on and emphasizing the awful, horrible, and unbearable nature of a situation.
  • Expressive suppression: Hiding one’s feelings and preventing the expression of the emotion (i.e. maintaining a “poker face”).
  • Rejecting/withdrawing: Avoiding social situations as a way to deal with uncomfortable emotions.
  • Rumination: Dwelling on the feelings or thoughts related to unhappy events.

In addition, the loneliest individuals were less likely to use the strategy of cognitive reappraisal, which is the strategy of giving positive meaning to a stressful or upsetting event. An example of cognitive reappraisal is viewing an unpleasant occurrence as an important life lesson or an opportunity to learn how to become stronger and more resilient.

Takeaway

As reviewed above, new research shows there is a link between loneliness and habitual use of maladaptive emotion regulation techniques (e.g., catastrophizing, self-blame, rejecting social support). Therefore, targeting dysfunctional emotion regulation strategies may reduce loneliness. This can be achieved through psychotherapy, like cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). CBT-based self-help books may also be useful.

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