It is vital to know how loneliness affects mental health. Being completely alone and believing no one cares about you can feel very isolating. It is easy to feel empty and hollow when you’ve experienced loneliness.
Loneliness is sometimes caused by a current circumstance. Those who have been lonely for a long period of time may settle into a resigned state that becomes more difficult to discuss. This year’s Loneliness Awareness Week (17th to 21st June) is an initiative that aims to reduce the stigma surrounding loneliness and to make it more acceptable to discuss.
The topic of how loneliness affects mental health is finally getting some attention, although not as much as other countries — the UK, for instance, has a Minister for Loneliness. However, we’re moving in the right direction.
There has been an increase in people sharing their social connection, or lack thereof, just as there has been a push to dissolve the stigma around mental health issues. Unfortunately, we are becoming more and more lonely. Recent years have seen a sharp rise in the number of people who lack confidants or have few. You’re not alone if you feel lonely.
Social connection plays a crucial role in our physical and mental health, and loneliness can have detrimental effects, so speaking out–and changing your habits–will become increasingly important. In this article, we describe how loneliness hurts us and social connection benefits us, both physiologically and psychologically.
Loneliness is contagious
A fascinating study examined how loneliness spreads within communities and found that individuals catch loneliness from one another through a contagious process. People moved away from social networks as they became lonelier, causing a domino effect.
A person’s close friends also reported an increase in loneliness when he or she reported an increase of one day per week. In the authors’ view, tackling loneliness in society could be improved by targeting the people in the periphery to prevent them from unraveling and to help fix their social networks.
Studies show that individuals who become more isolated over time are less likely to trust others, which creates a vicious cycle of social isolation and loneliness. In studies of this type, social connection is suggested to be precarious and vulnerable to a variety of forces, which makes it that much more important to do our best to maintain our networks together and to stay involved.
Loneliness may increase inflammation
One study found that those who reported feeling lonely had higher levels of inflammation biomarkers and that their inflammatory genes were more active, and their antiviral genes were less active. Furthermore, their sympathetic nervous system activity was increased, which is the part of the nervous system responsible for stress-related or threat-related behaviors.
A specific component of loneliness appears to be the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, which regulates the stress response by regulating stress hormones. Researchers observed similar changes in monkeys that are less social, giving the impression that these connections, which could be causal, may be common across social species.
In thousands of years ago, as humans emerged, the feeling of loneliness would signal something dire – that you were apart from your group and at risk. A derivative of this phenomenon is going on today, except loneliness can often be prolonged or chronic, which could produce significant changes in the stress response and mood, over the long term.
Loneliness is deeply connected to depression
There is a relationship between loneliness and depression that is related to the stress connection. Do loneliness or depression cause loneliness? This is kind of a chicken-and-egg scenario. The risk of each is likely to be influenced by each other in a little bit. Social isolation is a symptom of depression; chronic loneliness may affect your mood or impact your affect. Study after study has found a reciprocal relationship between the two, in which each contributes in their own way over time.
Newer studies have found, however, that loneliness largely predicts mental health rather than mental health mainly predicting loneliness. This is why it’s so important to cultivate real-life connections in addition to social ones.
Related: Loneliness and Depression
Loneliness affects cognition, maybe even dementia risk
Additionally, researchers found that loneliness has some even darker consequences, such as how we think: it has been linked to problems with attention, executive function, cognition and may even lead to Alzheimer’s. Over 12,000 people were followed for 10 years in a study, and those with the highest levels of loneliness had a 40% higher risk of dementia.
According to the study of the author, they are not the first to demonstrate loneliness increases dementia risk. “However, this study involves the largest sample by far, with a longer follow-up period. The population is more diverse.”
Well-being may be influenced by social connections
The opposite of loneliness is social connection, which not only reduces loneliness’ effects but can also improve our mental and physical health. Social connections and well-being are closely related, as numerous studies have found. Harvard researchers found that people with those strongest social ties were the healthiest and happiest during a study that followed people for almost 80 years. A person’s social network over a lifetime is the main predictor of happiness and longevity.
Studies indicate that social interactions predict our feelings of happiness and well-being even on a day-to-day basis-in one study, even “weak” social interactions predicted happiness, which suggests that psychological benefits can be reaped even from “weak” interactions with classmates or acquaintances. You might be able to do something similar by just conversing with your neighbors or colleagues every day.
Mental health benefits from social support
It is also associated with psychological comfort and increased resilience to trauma and stress, not just inflammation and stress hormones. Strengthening social ties is predictive of a better outcome for those who have overcome serious adversity. We seem to be able to foster social connectedness in simple, shorter-term ways.
A study found that people who participated in a type of mindfulness training meant to promote social connection and compassion and reduce stress hormone levels–up to 50%–had significantly fewer feelings of stress than those who took part in other types of training.
Researchers have also found, time and time again, that social connections have a profound impact on our perceptions of stress and on our sense of well-being.
Relationships can create context for finding purpose and meaning
Furthermore, relationships play a crucial role in a more general sense — they provide context and enable us to make sense of the world in new ways. When we can’t decide what to do about a decision, talking to another person may provide the insight we need. You may feel more connected to your community by planning events or taking part in a community activity like gardening, which brings you closer to a larger group with similar values. Many people these days may feel existential ennui, and this can relieve it.
In order to solve the loneliness epidemic in a meaningful way, we must focus not only on individuals but also on communities and policies. That’s why we have added the blog on how loneliness affects mental health to aware our audience. We can all do little things to become more social and help our neighbors and family members do the same – putting the phone down and getting in touch with old friends, calling our neighbors, and returning phone calls are a few examples.