Loneliness isn’t just about being physically alone; it’s the difference between the amount of social interactions we want and what we actually have. Some people could feel lonely despite meeting and socialising with others a couple of times a week, while others could feel connected and not lonely at all even if they only socialise once a month. Loneliness is a unique, subjective experience.

Social isolation, on the other hand, objectively measures the quantity of social interactions. Loneliness is more about feeling socially isolated or rejected: quality over quantity. The quality of our connections matters because, as social beings, we need relationships with those who value and trust us.

Temporary or chronic loneliness?

Traditionally, loneliness was seen as a persistent feeling, but this is not accurate, and we understand that loneliness can and does change. It’s evolved to prompt us to do something, pushing us to pay attention to social interactions, and social threats, and reconnect with others (for survival, originally). While loneliness is usually mild and temporary, urging us to reconnect, chronic loneliness can change the way we think or behave.

Chronic form of loneliness is not only emotionally painful but also a risk factor for mental and physical health issues. That’s why interventions to reduce loneliness are important.

While loneliness can be studied as emotional and social dimensions, it is commonly understood and measured as a single, unified experience. In essence, while there are nuances in the experience of loneliness, they are often so related that measuring them separately does not make it easier to help the person.

Are we lonely often?

Loneliness is rather common, with some studies estimating 1 in 8 (12%) of kindy and first graders feeling lonely. It drops to 1 in 12 (8.4%) later in school. While only 1 in 20 middle-aged adults feel intensely lonely all the time, one-third (32%) of adults over 55 feel lonely at any point in time, showing that loneliness is not a rare problem.

Loneliness linked to major mental and physical health issues

The impact of chronic loneliness is widespread, affecting both our emotions and our physical health. In young adults, it’s linked to increased blood pressure, leading to permanently elevated systolic blood pressure in older adults. 

Loneliness can also lead to sleep problems and reduced immune system functioning (getting sick more often). Long-term effects are evident too, with socially isolated children more likely to have high blood pressure, weight issues, abnormal cholesterol levels, and elevated high sensitivity C-reactive protein when they grow up.

Loneliness linked to mental health problems

Lonely people also have more negative emotions and less positive feelings. We can think of loneliness as not just a “feeling”, but a set of attributions, expectations, and perceptions that reinforce feelings of loneliness. 

According to a study of more than 15,000 people between 35–74 years of age, 1 in 10 people reported feeling lonely (10.5%). Loneliness was more prevalent in women, singles, and those living alone without children. While loneliness showed a decline with age, it was a significant predictor of depression, increasing its chance almost by a factor of two (OR=1.92). Generalised anxiety and suicidal ideation were more common as well among lonely people. Additionally, lonely people tend to smoke more and visit doctors more often. 

This was in line with another study, which showed that regardless of age, loneliness predicts higher anxiety, stress, depression, and worse mental health over time. Importantly, they found no evidence that mental health problems increased loneliness, meaning that loneliness can create mental health problems later, but mental health problems do not seem to create loneliness, except for eating disorders: loneliness predicted greater eating disorder risk and vice versa.

Lonely people know more lonely people and it’s contagious

Loneliness tends to cluster within social networks, and lonely individuals are more linked to other lonely people, and generally less linked to non-lonely others. However, being around lonely individuals can influence non-lonely individuals to become lonelier over time as well. This supports the idea that loneliness can be contagious

As lonely people experience more negative emotions, leading to more negative interactions, loneliness creates a cycle of negativity. Lonely individuals not only communicate negativity towards others, but others are also more likely to respond negatively to negativity, maintaining the cycle of negative affect and interactions. 

How to break the loneliness cycle?

Loneliness interventions can either target social skills, and social support, create more opportunities for social interaction, or address the problems with social interactions. 

According to loneliness research, interventions addressing unhelpful social thinking have the most effect compared to interventions targeting social support, social skills, and opportunities for social interaction. This makes sense, if we think of loneliness as a sensitivity to social threats, where we focus more on negative social cues, remember more negative aspects of social interactions, have higher expectations for socialisation, and, based on these, we are then more likely to behave in ways that confirm these negative expectations. 

While our lonely behaviours may have short-term protective features, protecting us from negative interactions, over the long term, negative thoughts create negative social interactions, which then increase our mental burden (cognitive load), diminish our capacity to “do the right thing” (executive functioning), and negatively impact our physical and mental health.

Changing unhelpful thoughts leads to connectedness

Addressing unhelpful social thoughts with the help of a psychologist directly targets the unhelpful loneliness cycle, making it a particularly effective intervention. Cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT) showed success in reducing loneliness. The key aspect of this intervention is to help lonely individuals identify negative automatic thoughts and treat them as hypotheses to be tested rather than unquestionable facts. 

The idea behind this is if we reduce the negative thoughts around social interactions, our behaviours will likely change as well around others: we start focusing less on negative aspects of interactions, and think and say fewer negative things in front of others, which then likely be more inviting for others, leading to an increase in positive interactions and less feelings of loneliness.

What are negative automatic thoughts?

Negative automatic thoughts are behind most mental health problems. They are repetitive, spontaneous, and almost subconscious patterns of negative thinking that are easily triggered by different situations. They are negative, as in, often self-critical, pessimistic, and focus on problems rather than solutions. 

Regarding loneliness, lonely people might focus only on the negative aspects of interactions, and ignore any positive aspects (filtering). They might expect the worst outcome (catastrophising), and see things in extremes, without accepting that most things are somewhere in the middle (black-and-white thinking). Lastly, lonely people might make broad, sweeping conclusions about themselves or social interactions based on a single interaction (overgeneralization). 

Cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT), as mentioned earlier, is an approach that can help to target negative automatic thoughts. In CBT, people learn to identify these quick and unhelpful, challenge their accuracy, and develop more balanced and realistic ways of thinking. This can be particularly beneficial in reducing feelings of loneliness and improving overall mental well-being.

Please note that this blog post by Personal Psychology is not intended to provide professional advice. If you or someone you know is experiencing mental health difficulties, it is important to seek help from a qualified healthcare professional.