Man leaning against a wall

Loneliness and mental health

How to manage feelings of loneliness and maintain your wellbeing in difficult times

Loneliness doesn’t just make you feel down – it may also increase your risk of developing mental health conditions.

 

What is loneliness?

Loneliness is a negative emotion that can affect your mental health. Loneliness develops when you aren’t getting enough meaningful social connection.

If you’re experiencing loneliness, you may feel sad, alone, separate from others or lost – even when you aren’t isolated.

Humans are social creatures who thrive on reliable connections with other people. Deep relationships are essential for preventing loneliness and supporting mental wellbeing.

That’s not to say you should never be alone. In fact, enjoying your own company is healthy and gives you space to recharge.

But spending too much time alone without significant social connection may be harmful.

 

Aloneness and loneliness are not the same

Loneliness doesn’t always occur from simply spending a lot of time alone.

You can be alone and not feel lonely if you have close networks and strong, supportive relationships.

On the other hand, even with plenty of friends and a lively social media network, you can still feel incredibly lonely and experience mental health concerns. Loneliness is a missing or lost connection with your significant friends and family.

 

What causes loneliness?

Isolation is one of the major causes of loneliness (though not all people who are isolated will experience feelings of loneliness).

Isolation means having little or no contact with other people – for example, staying at home for long periods, refusing to see other people or avoiding social situations.

Around the world, the COVID-19 pandemic has suddenly and unexpectedly forced many people into isolation.

If you’re used to going out to maintain your meaningful social connections and now need to stay at home, you may be facing loneliness for the first time. If you have been experiencing loneliness for a while, the pandemic may have made your feelings stronger.

Other causes of loneliness may come from a sudden change in your usual circumstances, such as:

  • Starting a new school or job
  • Moving into a new area or home
  • Ending a relationship
  • Dealing with the loss of a loved one
  • Changing habits and therefore not sharing the same interests as others
  • Coping with life after the kids have moved out of the home.

 

How does loneliness impact your mental health?

Loneliness can cause you to feel a range of negative emotions that may affect your mental health.

If you don’t take steps to address these feelings before they escalate, you may be at risk of developing more serious health conditions.

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic [1], researchers had identified loneliness as an important public health priority, calling it an ‘epidemic’ that posed a bigger risk for premature death than smoking or obesity.

Today, there’s a growing body of evidence linking long term loneliness with a range of mental health conditions, like depression, anxiety and stress.

Loneliness may affect other habits that contribute to mental health conditions, too. For example, in 2017, researchers found a link between loneliness and poor sleep quality [2] in young adults. Not getting enough sleep can influence your mood and mental wellbeing.

Loneliness doesn’t just impact your psychological health – it can also play a role in your physical health. In a 2015 study [3], people who experienced loneliness were more at risk of developing a rage of health conditions. The data suggested that having better quality social relationships is linked to decreased health risks.

If you’re feeling lonely, it’s essential to take steps to address your feelings early on and intervene before things escalate.

 

How to manage feelings of loneliness and reduce mental health risks

To combat loneliness, aim to increase your meaningful social interactions. Keep in touch with the people who make you feel better and bring out the best in you.

The COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated that life is unpredictable. It may not always be possible to see people in person.

If you can’t be physically present with your significant family and friends, you can:

  • Organise phone calls and video chats
  • Write letters and emails
  • Set up private chat groups on WhatsApp or Facebook.

As well, some people find that pets can help with loneliness. As pets provide consistent affection and companionship, they may help to reduce the loneliness associated with isolation. In fact, loneliness is one of the most common reasons why people get pets. In 2019, researchers from the University of Sydney [4] found that new dog owners felt a reduction in loneliness within three months of getting a pet.

Importantly, take care of your physical and mental health if your social interactions are limited. Remember to:

  • Focus on self-care – treat yourself to a relaxing bath, a massage or something else that makes you feel good
  • Stay active – regular exercise keeps you fit and healthy
  • Eat a healthy diet – nourish your body with healthy foods, eat plenty of fruits and vegetables, and cut back on processed foods
  • Reduce alcohol – drinking too much alcohol impacts your health and mood, so stick to the recommended guidelines [5]
  • Get a good night’s sleep – regular sleep (7-9 hours a night) is vital for maintaining wellbeing.

Loneliness demonstrates that our mental health can thrive on relationships with people we trust, who give us goals and a sense of purpose in life.

Remember, quality is more important than quantity when it comes to your social network. Staying connected to others and building meaningful social relationships can help to reduce your risk of loneliness.

 

Further reading if you are thinking about suicide

 

Don’t let it build up. SuicideLine Victoria is a free 24/7 telephone and online counselling service offering professional support to people who are concerned about their emotional and mental health. Call 1300 651 251. If it is an emergency, call 000.

 

References

[1] Advancing social connection as a public health priority in the United States

https://psycnet.apa.org/doiLanding?doi=10.1037%2Famp0000103

[2] Sleeping with one eye open: loneliness and sleep quality in young adults

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5551384/

[3] Loneliness and social isolation as risk factors for mortality: a meta-analytic review

https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/25910392/

[4] Companion dog acquisition and mental well-being: a community-based three-arm controlled study

https://bmcpublichealth.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s12889-019-7770-5

[5]  How much alcohol is safe to drink?

https://www.health.gov.au/health-topics/alcohol/about-alcohol/how-much-alcohol-is-safe-to-drink#:~:text=If%20you’re%20a%20healthy,risk%20of%20alcohol%2Drelated%20harm