WHY LONELINESS IS HARMFUL FOR YOUR HEALTH (AND WHAT TO DO ABOUT IT)
By Katie Murfitt
Loneliness. It’s been identified as a looming public health crisis, and given its effects on physical and mental health, loneliness can literally kill you. In fact, it’s been said that loneliness is a “fertiliser for other diseases”, being linked to heart disease, brain inflammation, Alzheimer’s disease, anxiety, and depression. In turn, these have a significant impact on quality of life, performance, and productivity. With up to 25% of Australians affected by loneliness, is it time to wake up to this sleeper problem that’s largely gone unnoticed in the public eye?
WHY DO WE FEEL LONELY AND ISOLATED?
There are many factors that lead to loneliness. It could be changes to your environment (e.g. migration), loss, major life stage changes, social anxiety. At The Skill Collective we commonly see factors leading to loneliness such as:
1.Loneliness due to different ages and life stages
As we age and move from one life stage to another, there are many triggers for loneliness. Transition points may mean that there is less time to catch up due to heavy workloads, or you’re at the age where everyone else seems to be coupling up and starting families, or perhaps you’re now an empty nester or facing retirement and loss of work relationships. These changes all have the potential for loss of social connections and therefore increase your risk for loneliness.
When does loneliness peak? The Australian Loneliness Report, a survey of over 1600 Australians, found that Australians over the age of 65 years are least lonely, whereas other age groups experience similar levels of loneliness. In contrast, a smaller-scale study (around 300 respondents) out of America suggested that loneliness peaks at three ages – in your late 20s, in your mid 50s, and in your late 80s.
2. Loneliness due to major life changes (migration, divorce, bereavement, significant health diagnoses)
Where major life changes involved there is inevitably a change in our physical and social circumstances:
When we migrate to a different country or state, loneliness may come from a lack of connection to friends and family, support networks, and even culture (if moving country). In essence you start ‘from scratch’ in your new home, finding a new social network and a new way to ‘belong’.
Divorce, relationship breakdowns, and bereavement can lead to loneliness as a significant part of your life is no longer there. Findings from the Australian Loneliness Report suggests that married individuals are the least lonely, and those in a de facto relationship are less lonely than those who are single or divorced.
Health diagnoses can often result in a change in your regular routine and reduce your exposure to others for health reasons. For example, higher levels of chronic illnesses lead to greater levels of loneliness, which in turn can worsen health outcomes.
3. Loneliness because you’re just not out there ‘in circulation’
A psychology study conducted in the 1950s by Leon Festinger and colleagues, which mapped the development of friendships amongst student housing establishments, showed that physical proximity (or propinquity) is linked with greater friendships. In other words, people tend to become friends with their neighbours.
So what has modern day life added to, or subtracted from, our understanding of being ‘in circulation’ for loneliness? Certainly, we see a shift away from community and recreation towards personal productivity and achievement. This leaves little time or energy for socialising beyond meeting core responsibilities. When you’re so busy juggling all your hats it can be difficult to get to know the neighbours.
Add to that the wonders of modern technology where there’s less of a need now to venture out into the world (e.g. for classes, to exercise, for work, for groceries, to find a date, etc.). Social media is now also where we spend a lot of our time, however our carefully-curated profiles make it harder to form genuine connections and meaningful relationships.
4. Loneliness because you experience social anxiety
Finally, having social anxiety can often lead to feelings of loneliness. When you consider that if you’re worried that others will think poorly of you, it’s natural to want to avoid making contact with people or, if that is unavoidable, to finish conversations as quickly as possible or to reveal as little of yourself as possible for fear of the other person judging you. This leads to others not knowing the ‘real you’, which can increase your sense of disconnect and loneliness. In fact, the Australian Loneliness Report found that:
One in four individuals reported experiencing high levels of anxiety in relation to social interactions. Higher levels of loneliness are linked to higher levels of social interaction anxiety, less social interaction, poorer psychological wellbeing, and poorer quality of life.
Lonely individuals are 13.1% more likely to be anxious about social interactions compared to those who don’t feel lonely, with younger adults reporting more social interaction anxiety than older adults.
If this sounds all too familiar and it’s time to make a change, be sure to grab our tip sheet on 5 Tips to help with Loneliness and Social Anxiety (see below). Alternatively, why not book an appointment with one of our team for a more tailored approach?
BUT…YOU DON’T HAVE TO BE ALONE TO FEEL LONELY
There’s a common misperception that being around others means you’re not lonely. However, as you can see from our point above, that you can be in a crowd but feel alone because social anxiety leads you to feel different and not good enough. You can be at a party with friends, but still feel lonely because a loved one is no longer part of your life.
By the same token, it’s possible to feel socially connected even though you’re physically alone. Social media and modern technology can make connecting with others easier, thus while close physical proximity may not be feasible, psychological closeness is possible.
CAN LONELINESS KILL YOU? WHY LONELINESS IS BAD FOR YOUR PHYSICAL AND MENTAL HEALTH
Evidence is mounting for the significant harmful impact that loneliness has on your physical and mental health. Not only does loneliness impact on maintaining positive health behaviours, it can also increase depression and anxiety symptoms. Some relevant findings include:
Loneliness is linked with an increased likelihood of heart disease and stroke, problems with the immune system, and potentially even impacting on cancer recovery.
Older individuals who felt lonely (not necessarily just social isolation) were more likely to develop dementia than those who did not feel lonely.
Lonely adults are more likely to be depressed and also anxious about social interactions compared to those who are not lonely.
Higher levels of loneliness are linked to poorer psychological wellbeing and poorer quality of life.
TIPS TO HELP YOU FEEL LESS LONELY
While loneliness is a complex issue, there are things that can be done to break down the barriers and start to make meaningful connections with others:
Find people with similar interests to yours, such as joining a bookclub, a sports team, or a cooking class. Because you are ‘doing’ things together there is a common point of interest.
Join community-based groups - they’re a great way to meet like-minded people who are also looking for social connection. Men’s Sheds, for example, are a great way for men to gather to work on their own projects while supporting each other socially.
Volunteer at a local animal shelter, community charity, or not-for-profit organisation and give back to the community while also meeting others who are passionate about the same cause.
Connect with old friends not just by waiting for the planets to align so that you can catch up in person, but you can shoot them a quick message to let them know you’re thinking of them. Remember, feeling lonely isn’t necessarily about physical proximity.
Finally, if anxiety in social situations is getting in the way of forming connections, you’re not alone. The Australian Loneliness Report found that around 40% of the Australian population feel uneasy when meeting new people. You can check in with one of our psychologist here at The Skill Collective to learn skills such as learning ways to calm the anxiety response, practising making small talk, and checking unhelpful self-talk that leads to social anxiety.
If social anxiety is causing your loneliness, be sure to grab our tip sheet on 5 Tips for Loneliness and Social Anxiety to learn more about what you can do.