Everyone has experienced feelings of loneliness at least once from time to time, but problems can arise once loneliness becomes chronic. In the contemporary world, loneliness and social isolation are considered an epidemic, as they affect anyone independently of age, gender or socio-economic status. In the UK, 45% of adults feel occasionally, sometimes or often lonely in England (the equivalent of twenty five million people), and the number will keep on growing as the population ages. These numbers are alarming due to the mental and physical health risks linked to loneliness. Loneliness, the subjective experience of feeling alone, doesn’t depend on the amount of people physically around us. It is often defined as the lack of desired social interactions, meaning that lonely individuals don’t have the interactions they find meaningful. Due to the implementation of social distancing guidelines due to the coronavirus pandemic, loneliness has been more prevalent in our society and we have to focus on minimising its effects on people.
Research on loneliness has found that those who lack social interaction are more likely to suffer from a variety of health conditions. The list includes cardiovascular disease, stroke, and dementia. Adults with few or no social contacts (socially isolated) or do not feel happy in the ones they currently have (lonely), are at an increased risk of premature mortality. A lack of meaningful social interactions is associated with a 29% increase in risk of incident coronary heart disease and a 32% increase in risk of stroke. A study published in 2016 found a link between loneliness and a heightened risk of developing coronary heart disease, which the World Health Organisation (WHO) considers the global number 1 cause of death. A meta-study on loneliness and its effects on health found a connection between a lack of meaningful connections and health risks equally heightened as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. Additionally, the analysis found that loneliness is twice as harmful to overall health as obesity.
While feeling lonely isn’t a mental health condition, loneliness has long been associated with lower self-esteem and limited coping mechanisms, such as alcohol abuse, and is considered a predisposing factor in depression. Elderly people who experience high levels of loneliness are at an increased risk of low levels of mental health and low capacity to withstand stressors, resulting in low physical and psychological quality of life. Additionally, chronic perceived isolation can contribute to poorer cognitive performance and executive functioning, faster cognitive decline, and a heightened sensitivity to social threats.
How do we reduce and help deal with feelings of loneliness? Humans are “social animals”, we fare poorly in isolation and social engagement are very important for our wellbeing. Keeping in contact with friends and maintaining healthy relationships are essential to keep our minds, and bodies healthy. With social distancing guidelines still in place, using social media platforms such as Facebook, WhatsApp, and Zoom are useful and diverse tools that can help us stay in touch with our loved ones.
Interventions include enhancing social skills, providing social support, increasing opportunities for social interaction, and addressing maladaptive social cognition. Volunteering is one way to help beat feelings of loneliness. Surrounding yourself with other people with whom you share passions and interests provides an opportunity to build meaningful connections. Prosocial behaviour such as volunteer work involves oxytocin, a hormone involved in social bonding, which acts as a buffer for stress. Additionally, volunteering can help relieve symptoms of depression, as it can provide a sense of purpose and engagement.
Trying new things, such as a new hobby, can help with feelings of loneliness and depression. The University for the Third Age (U3A) provides a large variety of classes and activities for retired or semi-retired people. Additionally, AgeUK provides friendship groups across the country.
Loneliness is a major health issue in the UK, and has been exasperated during lockdown. To tackle loneliness we need to address all factors involved in feelings of loneliness. Knowing what can affect your mental health and learning coping mechanisms to deal with your emotions is the best place to start. Here at FitQuid, we aim to help build a sense of community and belonging, striving to motivate our users to be more happy and healthy by providing opportunities to socialise and connect with others who share the same interests and passions.