Erin Tahvonen, LMHC
6 Signs Loneliness is Tanking Your Mental Health
Updated: Feb 25, 2021
Listen, there’s a reason solitary confinement is the most severe form of punishment. Even Tom Hanks started to unravel and began talking to a volleyball with enough social isolation. Humans are wired to be together, to interact, and when our need for connection doesn’t match our perceived level of support, we experience loneliness.
Loneliness in the short-term can have some useful effects, like inspiring us to reach out for the support we need. However, it is dangerous for our bodies and minds in the long run. Social isolation is linked to higher levels of anxiety, hostility, stress, feelings of dejection, lower levels of optimism and diminished happiness (Cacioppo & Hawkley, 2003). Additionally, it has a measurable effect on our physiological functioning, which includes higher blood pressure, increased risk of cardiovascular disease, 2-3 times higher risk of mortality post-heart attack, and increased mortality for those with cancer and COPD (Leigh-Hunt et al, 2017). In fact, it is related to all-cause mortality and increases risk of premature death by 26%. In all, loneliness has a comparable impact on your health to obesity or smoking 15 cigarettes per day.
Concerns about loneliness have been on the rise for years, but policies related to COVID-19 have heightened the risks. In a large national study, by May 11, 2020 (only two months into the most extreme social isolation protocols), 49% of respondents reported a great degree of loneliness, 80% reported significant depressive symptoms, 45% endorsed moderate anxiety while 17% said they had severe anxiety (Horigian, Schmidt & Feaster, 2020). Not only did people feel poorly but they were turning to unhealthy coping to deal with the stress.
Here are some signs loneliness is affecting your mental wellbeing:
1.) It’s always happy hour and you’re not happy
In the same study, Horigian and colleagues (2020) found that 30% of adults under 35 reported harmful levels of drinking and 44% said they had engaged in binge drinking during quarantine. These results aren’t surprising as previous studies show even transient loneliness increases solitary alcohol consumption, and solo drinking is correlated with increases in stress, negative moods, and social withdrawal – and so the cycle often continues (Aprin, Mohr, Brannan, 2015). The increase in daytime and solitary consumption was identified across groups, but showed up often for women who were used to a higher level of social support (Aprin et al, 2015). Shifting from active work, family, and social lives to socially isolated existence has taken a psychological toll even, and maybe especially, on people who are used to being socially fulfilled.
2.) You’re glued to your device
Odds are you or someone you know has turned to social media or online entertainment in lonely times, and you’re not alone. The feeling of loneliness is associated with compulsive technology use which, ironically, contributes to the feeling of loneliness (Kim, LaRosa, Peng, 2009). A vicious cycle ensues. In her book, Social Chemistry (2021), Marissa King reports Facebook has 2 billion users worldwide and a market value that exceeds the GDP of Norway. People have hundreds and thousands of “Friends” online but less than 5% of user make contact with more than 100 people in their friend list. The truth is, most people are not using social media to enhance real relationships; we’re vaguely keeping track of people on the far outer edge of our social worlds. Sometimes these compulsive tendencies lead to internet addiction where, just like in other forms of addiction, there is an increased need for online duration and a decrease in the positive feelings associated with use (Odaki & Kakan, 2010). Several things contribute to the negative feelings that arise from too much technology including unhealthy social comparison (Favotto, Michaelson, Pickett & Davison, 2019), establishment of unhealthy coping strategies like escape and isolation, and worsening of social anxiety for those who already deal with this concern (Kim et al, 2009).
3.) You wake up tired
While duration of sleep doesn’t necessarily differ between individuals who are lonely and those who are socially connected, the quality of sleep changes. Loneliness is associated with poor sleep quality and daytime dysfunction (Matthews, Danese, Gregory, Caspi et al, 2017). You may experience signs such as waking up and not feeling rested, drowsiness and urges to nap during the day, or physical symptoms such as headaches and fatigue. It isn’t just your perception; sleep is shown to be less productive and restorative when assessed subjectively, using self-reports, and objectively, using biological sleep monitors (Marucha et al, 1998; Cacioppo & Hawkley, 2003). And you’re not in it alone. Your loneliness can even make your partner’s sleep less restful (Segrin & Burke, 2014).
4.) Your head (and your pants) say “gym” but your heart says “Netflix”
If you feel like you’ve packed on the “Covid 19” you are certainly not alone. Here’s how loneliness could contribute: When you encounter a stressor, your body activates your sympathetic nervous system and HPA-Axis releasing, among others, the stress hormone, cortisol. Cortisol affects energy, blood sugar, blood pressure, and inflammation. Fun fact: It also has an impact on fat storage and use of carbs and proteins, and high levels of this stress hormone can contribute to fat being stored centrally – meaning in your belly and core (Epel, McEwen, Seeman, Matthews, Castellazzo et al, 2000). Additionally, being lonely decreases your drive for physical activity and makes it more likely you’ll discontinue physical activities over time (Hawkley, Thisted & Cacioppo, 2009).
5.) The little things really are the big things
Wait, that is supposed to be a good thing, right? Well, not when the little things are stressors. Research shows that when you’re socially isolated, you don’t necessarily encounter more frequent or severe stressors, but you tend to rate them as more intensely stressful (Cacioppo & Hawkley, 2003). That means the small irritations you face on a daily basis – when your colleague asks just one more question as the meeting is wrapping up or you burn dinner in the oven – feel far more like mountains than molehills. Being more irritable than normal can also be a sign of depression and anxiety, which is highly related to loneliness. As an added bonus, uplifting events don’t give us the same boost; the positive feeling is less intense due to decreased activation in the ventral striatum, important to the reward pathways (Cacioppo & Hawkley, 2003). And, another big whammy – when we’re lonely, we tend to ruminate more than when we feel socially connected (Cacioppo & Hawkley, 2003). Rumination is what is happening you become preoccupied with a repetitive, stressful thought that causes emotional distress. In turn, rumination can affect your anxiety and sleep quality (Zawaclzki, Graham & Genn, 2013).
6.) Your relationship is getting a little tense
Each factor above has an impact on us as individuals, but the added stress related to loneliness can damage our relationships as well.Attachment style plays a major role in how we handle the experience of loneliness.For people with a secure attachment style, you may be able to maintain a positive self-image, and advocate for yourself by asking for what you need from your partner. However, more anxious attachment types fare worse when it comes to lonely feelings, with a stronger connection to anxiety (Erozkan, 2011). The dynamic within the relationship influences perceptions of loneliness, as well, with highest levels of loneliness found in individuals who maintain relationships with low support and high levels of relational strain (Hsieh & Hawkley, 2020). Even if you’re content in your relationship, you might find yourself with a higher need for physical space at home these days, which stems from a strong need for self-preservation in the face of loneliness and can contribute to feeling isolated (Layden, Cacioppo & Cacioppo, 2015).
The effects of loneliness are real but, fortunately, there is help out there. If you are struggling, reach out to a health professional you trust. If you are in crisis, reach out for help 24/7 at the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline @ 1 (800) 273-TALK (8255) or text HOME to 741741.