Updated: Nov 18, 2022
It's not clear whether we are in an epidemic of loneliness, but what is clear is that loneliness can have negative impacts on our emotional and physical health. In 2016-2017, 1 in 20 adults reported feeling lonely ‘often’ or ‘always’ and whilst we often assume loneliness to be associated with older age, those aged 16-24 reported feeling lonely more often than those in older age groups. These are stats from the Office of National Statistics.
Many definitions of loneliness refer to social isolation and lack of contact with others, and while this certainly can be a factor driving loneliness for some - for many people this was emphasised during the pandemic lockdowns - feelings of loneliness can often be experienced despite us having a busy work, family and/or social life and having people around us.
We may have many social connections but that doesn’t necessarily mean we feel connected. We’re probably very aware that psychological difficulties can result from feeling lonely - it’s obvious how loneliness may impact mood and drive feelings of anxiety as we worry about our situation or our future. However, we’re less aware that psychological difficulties can themselves be a factor contributing to feelings of loneliness.
Depression can create feelings of numbness that can interfere with feeling connected to others, additionally, because we don’t feel our best, depression can often make us withdraw from people around us, further deepening feelings of loneliness. Social anxiety brings with it worries of being judged negatively in some way, by others. It can be difficult to feel relaxed in the company of others if we’re worried about what they’re thinking of us so we might start avoiding social contact or feel isolated in social situations. Past hurt and rejections can lead to fears of becoming close to or trusting others, and if we carry those beliefs (understandably – nobody likes hurt and rejection) we can see how they could create barriers to allowing a sense of closeness with others. We may fear and avoid closeness if we’ve lost someone near to us through bereavement. Regardless of the reason for avoiding closeness, it’s very difficult to feel a sense of companionship without allowing some vulnerability, and this can feed feelings of loneliness. Perhaps we carry beliefs about our own perceived deficits e.g. we feel that we aren’t good enough for or worthy of friends or companions, and this may be a factor in keeping us from creating meaningful relationships. These are just a few examples of how our thinking and behaviour can contribute to a vicious cycle of loneliness.
As well as emotional factors, practical factors can also lead to situations of loneliness – we may not have money to do the things our friends are doing or we may live in a remote area with little opportunity for social activity.
Loneliness is topical, the European Commission has just published a report looking at the risk factors (such as age, marital/partner status, living arrangements, socio-economic factors) for loneliness as part of its pilot project on monitoring loneliness in Europe. Loneliness is the theme of this year’s Mental Health Awareness Week (9th-15th May 2022) and a quick search on PubMed (one of the most widely accessed repositories of clinical publications) indicates there’s been a huge increase in research on the topic of loneliness in recent years, with 513 publications in 2016 rising steadily to 2,272 publications in 2021.
An research paper published in 2021 (by Hickin et al) looked at 28 different studies exploring the effects of psychological interventions on loneliness. The 2021 study found that psychological interventions, including, cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) reduced loneliness across different stages of lifespan.
CBT can be helpful in identifying factors that are potentially contributing to feelings of loneliness and exploring ways to reduce the impacts of those factors. Whilst we all feel lonely from time to time, if loneliness is having a significant impact on your wellbeing and quality of life, then it may be worth exploring CBT.
Hickin, N., Käll, A., Shafran, R., Sutcliffe, S., Manzotti, G., & Langan, D. (2021). The effectiveness of psychological interventions for loneliness: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Clinical Psychology Review, 88, 102066. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/34339939/#affiliation-3
Loneliness - What characteristics and circumstances are associated with feeling lonely?
Victor, C. R., & Yang, K. (2012). The prevalence of loneliness among adults: a case study of the United Kingdom. The Journal of psychology, 146(1-2), 85-104. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/22303614/