Most Australians will experience loneliness at some point in their lives. Loneliness is a feeling of distress people experience when their social relations are not the way they would like them to be. It is a personal feeling of social isolation, but it is different to feeling alone. We can be surrounded by others but still feel lonely, or we can be alone but not feel lonely (Lim et al, 2016).
Dr Michelle Lim is a Senior Lecturer in Clinical Psychology at Swinburne University and leads the Social Health and Wellbeing (SHAW) Laboratory. She is also a registered clinical psychologist and a board approved supervisor for the Psychology Board of Australia. Her research explores how loneliness can negatively impact social functioning and exacerbate mental health symptoms like social anxiety, depression, and paranoia.
Lim says it’s estimated that one in four Australians experience problematic levels of loneliness. ‘That figure goes up depending on age groups,’ she tells Wellbeing by Teacher. ‘For example 18-25 is a highly vulnerable age group and we can see that that figure goes up to one in three young people aged 18-25 reporting what we call problematic levels of loneliness.’
Lim says there are some age groups that are more vulnerable than others, like those aged 55-65, and there are several theories on why this may be the case.
‘It could be things like unstable employment, it could be the fact that they have older parents that they’re caring for, or younger children who are still dependent on them. It could be partly to do with their level of social resources that limit them reaching out and maintaining networks.’
People aged 75 and above are also vulnerable to loneliness, but this is often due to health issues, chronic illness and the loss of loved ones.
What happens when you experience loneliness?
Lim says that loneliness is defined as a discrepancy between what you feel you’re getting versus what you actually want. It is distinctly different from something like social exclusion, which is when you feel that you’re excluded from people.
‘Loneliness is very much about your relationships not really meeting your social needs and making you feel meaningfully connected, so it’s very subjective. You may have many friends or many people around you, you could be living in the family home or married or employed, but you may feel that those relationships are not adequately meeting your needs,’ she explains.
Even though loneliness is not a new concept, Lim says it has been rife with many misconceptions about what it means to be lonely or a loner. It is often portrayed as ‘something wrong with you’.
‘People may be lonely but reject the idea that they are lonely because of these prior mistruths and beliefs about what that is. Actually, it is a very normal signal for us to do what we need to do, which is reach out and connect with other people.’
Lim says that often people don’t realise they’re lonely, or if they do, they don’t know how to reach out to others for meaningful connections. Instead, they resort to ‘light touch connections’.
‘So the lonely person themselves may do very light touch connections clearly because they don’t want to be a burden to people, thinking there may be something wrong with them because they’re feeling this way,’ she says.
Impact of loneliness on your health
Lim says the most robust evidence on the connection between loneliness and physical health is on cardio metabolic disease. ‘Basically loneliness is hard on your health and is hard on your heart.’
Loneliness is processed in the brain and is a stressor, she explains. When we are stressed and we have higher cortisol levels, it affects other systems including our heart, immune system and pain tolerance levels.
‘There’s lots of international data that show that if you are lonely you are more likely to have a higher incidence of cardiovascular disease five years down the line, and also type-2 diabetes, so it’s actually quite hard on the metabolic systems,’ Lim says.
Loneliness can also lead to poorer lifestyle choices, like eating unhealthy foods and exercising less.
‘If you feel like you don’t have meaningful connections, you’re also less likely to have people asking you to do healthy things or there’s less incentive for you to actually do healthy things,’ Lim shares. ‘There’s nobody regulating your behaviour, but there’s also no incentive for you to do these things to be healthy. That’s why you have these massive ramifications on loneliness and physical health.’
Loneliness can also impact on your mental health and mood. Lim says that in many studies, it has been found that loneliness and social anxiety have a reciprocal relationship.
‘If you’re lonely, you’re more likely to be socially anxious. If you’re more socially anxious, you’re going to avoid people and therefore feel lonelier.
‘The more worrying statistics, especially in international data, is that if you are lonely, you are 11 times more likely to have made a suicide attempt in the past year, and about three-and-a-half times more likely to make a suicide attempt in your lifetime, and that’s a worry.’
The importance of meaningful relationships
One of the key strategies for reducing loneliness is nurturing quality relationships.
‘We do recognise that we can’t be friends with everyone and it’s really quite difficult to divide your resources to have a large group of friends,’ Lim says. ‘Younger people will have large groups of friends but may not know them very well. And as we get older, we actually narrow our social network and then actually focus on a handful of friends that we can actually build high quality relationships with.’
Lim says it’s important to recognise that this is different for everyone – ‘a meaningful relationship’ doesn’t necessarily need to be with a friend; some people feel meaningfully connected and satisfied with family relationships or their spouse.
‘Meaningful relationships are critical, and what is meaningful to one person is not meaningful to another,’ she says. ‘What we often try to advocate for is the improvement of even one relationship with someone special in your family, or having an acquaintance become a friend; to actually not focus so much on making new friends but really improving the friendships and the networks that you currently have.’
Lim, M. H., Rodebaugh, T. L., Zyphur, M. J., & Gleeson, J. F. (2016). Loneliness over time: The crucial role of social anxiety. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 125(5), 620.
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