The Loneliness Effect, and 7 Measures to Overcome it

New study shows >45% of US adults are lonely. Can Empathy, Self-Compassion Help?

Posted Jun 08, 2018

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Source: jplenio/pixabay

Do you know that loneliness is gaining such a stronghold that Britain appointed its first loneliness minister earlier this year? Loneliness is becoming a significant public health concern in the Western world. The ‘Cigna 2018 US Loneliness Index’1 studied loneliness or social isolation among >20,000 adults in the US, and found that almost half of the adults feel ‘sometimes or always alone’. Young adults ages 18-22 were found to have the highest levels of loneliness. The study showed that one in 4 people in the US ‘rarely or never feel’ understood. Despite the ever-increasing ‘connections’ and connectivity through social media nowadays, one in five people reported that they ‘rarely or never feel close to people’.1

Another study2 published in April 2018, by Matthews and team, looked at data from 2232 individuals in Britain. The study found that ‘lonelier young adults’ have a greater likelihood of suffering from psychiatric problems and are at risk for more difficulty coping. These adults were also found to be at risk for unemployment. Many of them had faced bullying or mental health challenges as children.2

A review of studies done by Valtorta and team in the UK, revealed that lacking social relationships increased risk of coronary heart disease by 29% and of stroke by 32% among study participants. Coronary heart disease and stroke are two leading causes of death in the Western world.3

Remember that these numbers mention the risk or likelihood- not everyone who has felt lonely will experience the above after-effects. However, we need to further understand, research and address this concern with individual as well as societal/system based measures to combat and prevent loneliness.

Loneliness Does Not Discriminate: It Can Affect Anyone

In previous years, the 19th Surgeon General, Vivek Murthy noted the growing ‘loneliness epidemic’ in the US. He noted that rates of loneliness across the United States had doubled in the last few decades. Loneliness can affect people from all walks of life- be it CEOs, celebrities, young, elderly, new mothers or severely mentally ill.

Loneliness and social isolation may not be inter-changeable

A review of several scientific studies done in 2015 found that social isolation, loneliness and living alone can increase risk of early mortality by 29%, 26% and 32% respectively.4 Another study found depression in older people to be related to emotional loneliness.5 This study distinguished ‘social loneliness’ from ‘emotional loneliness’.

It is plausible that not everybody who is socially isolated would necessarily feel lonely (although the risk is certainly significantly increased) and not everyone who is lonely is necessarily socially isolated.

We do not fully know yet what all the factors contributing to the current high prevalence of loneliness are, although a 2017 study6 by Lee and team identified 3 themes leading to loneliness in new mothers- 1) negative comparisons of self with others based on perceptions of motherhood, 2) decrease in social connectivity and 3) deficient empathy in relationships.6 Clearly, beating oneself up (metaphorically) does not help prevent loneliness. Self-compassion can be instrumental in this regard. One might hypothesize that since compassion to self and others can improve self-esteem, mood and social connections, it is possible that compassion (to self and others) may also help reduce loneliness. Not many scientific studies have examined loneliness and its corelates, especially among young or middle-aged adults. More research needs to be done to further explore the causes and other attributes of loneliness.

7 Measures You Can Take:

Empathize: A study by Rance in 2016 stated ‘if you know a lonely older person, try tea and empathy’.7 Older people have become lonelier, especially in the western world. Oftentimes, the only people they talk to in a day or even an entire week are the mailman or the customer service representative of their bank. Clearly, there is a need for greater empathy and social connections. Empathy is something that benefits everyone. The above mentioned study by Lee on new mothers also identified low empathy in relationships as a factor contributing to loneliness.6

Give Yourself Compassion: Try building more compassion not only towards others, but, also towards yourself. Self-compassion is known to enhance life-satisfaction, overall psychological and emotional well-being and mood. People who are self-compassionate may also be likely to have better social connections. The opposite of self-compassion is excessive self-criticism. Self-criticism is very common, but, harms self-esteem as well as relationships even though it may not appear to be doing so.

Exercise: Study shows that people who exercised adequately may be less likely to feel lonely as compared to others.1

Interact with family/friends: Make it a point to have some meaningful conversations with loved ones/friends as often as possible. Many people nowadays end up prioritizing other activities in life at the cost of real social connections. If you do not have family members around and are having difficulty initiating or maintaining friendships, seek professional help from a psychotherapist. This can unearth what's causing or perpetuating this difficulty, and will help you find specific ways to overcome it. Therapy can help you develop a better relationship with yourself which itself can reduce loneliness and in turn, can enhance other relationships. Even one good relationship can make a marked difference. 

Carve Time for Yourself: Sometimes, people can get lonely if they are overworking for a prolonged period of time, or have piled up more activities than they can handle. People may end up feeling like they are just trying to catch up. This can leave little time to build and maintain meaningful social relationships. If you are at ease and not hurried, you may be more likely to want to talk to others and may be more likely to be able to develop meaningful social connections. Start with baby steps- attempts to declutter can go a long way if you have too much on your plate.

Refrain from Comparing: A large number of people frequently compare themselves or their lives unfavorably with others. This does not yield emotional or psychological benefit, but, can only hurt you. Your life is uniquely your own. It is a journey. Do not compare your journey with others.

Sleep Enough: The Cigna US Loneliness Index also found adequate and ‘just the right amount of sleep’ to be related to a lesser likelihood of loneliness.1 According to this study, ‘balance’ between various aspects of life and work was a key factor.1 If you don’t have balance yet, don't worry- you are not alone. It is a process, and you can achieve it. 

Each of these steps is progress and an accomplishment in itself. Treat yourself with compassion at each step, and that can go a long way. Moreover, whatever gives you a sense of meaning in life matters. For every individual, that can be different. Creating time to pause and reflect helps have a better relationship with ourselves as well as with others. You can find more resources on how to practice self-compassion, through the work of psychologist, Kristen Neff, here: http://self-compassion.org/category/exercises/#exercises

Note:  A link or an association does not mean causation. This article is for informational purposes only and is not intended to provide medical or psychiatric advice or recommendations, or diagnostic or treatment opinion. This is not a complete review or description of this subject. If you suspect a medical or psychiatric condition, consult a health care provider. All decisions regarding an individual’s care must be made in consultation with your healthcare provider, considering the individuals’ unique condition. If you or someone you know is struggling, please contact the 24x7, confidential National Hotline at 1-800-273-8255 or use the crisis text line by texting HOME to 741741 in the US.

copyright Richa Bhatia 2018.

References

References:

U.S. Loneliness Index Report, Cigna, 2018.

Matthews T, Danese A, Caspi A, Fisher HL, Goldman-Mellor S, Kepa A et al. Lonely young adults in modern Britain: findings from an epidemiological cohort study. Psychol Med. 2018 Apr 24:1-10. doi: 10.1017/S0033291718000788.  

Valtorta NK, Kanaan M, Gilbody S, et al. Loneliness and social isolation as risk factors for coronary heart disease and stroke: systematic review and meta-analysis of longitudinal observational studies. Heart. 2016; ISSN 1355-6037. https://doi.org/10.1136/heartjnl-2015-308790

Holt-Lunstad J, Smith TB, Baker M, Harris T, Stephenson D. Loneliness and Social Isolation as Risk Factors for Mortality. 2015; 10(2):227-237. https://doi.org/10.1177/1745691614568352

Peerenboom L, Collard RM, Naarding P, Comijs HC. The association between depression and emotional and social loneliness in older persons and the influence of social support, cognitive functioning and personality: A cross-sectional study. J Affect Disord. 2015 Aug 15;182:26-31. doi: 10.1016/j.jad.2015.04.033.

Lee K, Vasileiou K, Barnett J. 'Lonely within the mother': An exploratory study of first-time mothers' experiences of loneliness. J Health Psychol. 2017 Aug 1:1359105317723451. doi: 10.1177/1359105317723451. Rance M. If you know a lonely older person, try tea and empathy. Nurs Older People. 2016 Nov 30;28(10):14.

Erzen E, Çikrikci Ö. The effect of loneliness on depression: A meta-analysis. Int J Soc Psychiatry. 2018 May 1:20764018776349. doi: 10.1177/0020764018776349.