How do perceptions of loneliness affect our mental health?

Jason Brien.

Loneliness is a distressing feeling that accompanies the perception that one’s social needs are not being met by the quantity or the quality of one’s social relationships. For example, it may look like your friend has plenty of social interactions and should therefore not be lonely, but does your friend view things the same way? Your friend may view these social interactions as superficial and perfunctory (just ordinary everyday activities without any real meaning). Alternatively, a person may live a hermetic lifestyle and not feel lonely at all. It is the subjective perception of social isolation (real or imagined) that leads to feelings and perceptions of loneliness. How can perceived loneliness affect our physical and mental health? 

1.  Cognitive functioning:

Research has shown that perceptions of loneliness can negatively affect cognitive performance, can lead to cognitive decline, diminished executive control (working memory, flexible thinking, and inhibitory control) and can increase the risk of developing Alzheimer’s Disease and Dementia. 

2.  Depression:

People who report feeling lonely also report depressive symptoms such as feelings of sadness, decreased life satisfaction, low self-esteem and self-efficacy and increased pessimism. Loneliness and depression can influence each other. Feelings and perceptions of loneliness lead to the development of depressive symptoms and those depressive symptoms influence the desire and ability to engage in social interactions thus perpetuating the feelings and perceptions of loneliness.  

3.  Alcohol misuse/abuse:

Perceptions of loneliness is a significant contributing and maintaining factor in Alcoholism. Researcher believe that lonely people who drink heavily are more likely to experience alcohol related problems. Their perceptions of loneliness decrease their perceived social support thus preventing them from reaching out for help and support and preventing others from encouraging and offering help and support. 

4.  Suicide:

Loneliness is a contributing factor to both suicidal ideation and completed suicides. The risk of suicidal ideation and completed suicides increases as perceptions of social isolation and loneliness increases. 

5.  Development of personality disorders:

Loneliness can underlie many personality disorders including Borderline Personality Disorder, Schizoid and schizotypal personality disorders, antisocial personality disorder and psychopathy. Borderline personality disorder for example is predicated upon the fears of abandonment and loneliness.

6.  Child abuse and dysfunctional families: 

People who were continually abused as children and people who were raised in dysfunctional families where invalidation was the norm, are more likely to report feelings of loneliness in adulthood. The effects of the abuse and invalidation has destroyed self-esteem and impaired social skills and interpersonal trust. 

7.  Stress and immune function:

Loneliness is a source of both acute and chronic stress. Lonely people are more likely to experience stress and will have less internal and external resources necessary to deal with the stress. Stress in and of itself is associated with impaired cellular immunity and inflammation. 

How to cope with loneliness?

Join a social group or activity: Given today’s COVID-19 climate, it can be somewhat harder to join ‘real world’ social groups or activities. This may mean joining ‘online’ social groups or activities. Ideally, you want to join a group or an activity that you have an interest in or a passion for. 

Adopt a pet: Pets have been shown to reduce perceptions of loneliness and increase perceptions of companionship. Owning a pet can also connect you to other people whether it’s walking your dog and meeting people or joining animal and pet appreciation groups. 

Strengthen existing relationships: Some people are only comfortable being around a small group of people. Quality over quantity can really help ease perceptions of loneliness especially if that small group is healthy, nourishing and supportive. 

Practice self-care: Loneliness can cause us to reject and dismiss ourselves and our fundamental needs. It is important to take particular care of our physical, mental, emotional and spiritual/religious health. 

See a therapist: A therapist is not only a person to talk to. They can help you to gain insights and develop coping skills. Not everyone is comfortable talking to a therapist but there are other options out there (anonymous mental health call centres, church officials, etc).