We all feel lonely from time to time, but feelings of loneliness are personal. One common description of loneliness is that it’s the feeling we get when our need for rewarding social contact and relationships has not been met.1 Recent research has discovered that loneliness doesn’t just affect our day-to-day living, but that loneliness and sleep are connected, too.
Is Loneliness A Mental Health Problem?
Feeling lonely itself is not a mental health problem, but loneliness and mental health are linked. Having a mental health problem can increase your chance of feeling lonely. For example, someone who suffers from depression may not socialise as much as they would like. This can lead to them feeling isolated and distant from their friends and family. Also, some people can have misconceptions about what certain mental health problems mean. So, you may find it difficult to speak to them about your problems, increasing any feelings of loneliness. You could also experience social anxiety and find engaging in everyday activities that involve other people challenging. This will lead to feeling lonely.
Some research suggests that loneliness is associated with an increased risk of certain mental health problems, including depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, sleep problems, and increased levels of stress.2
What Causes Loneliness?
As everyone experiences loneliness differently, everyone can have different reasons as to why they feel lonely. It’s not always clear as to what causes someone to feel lonely. For some, certain life events could trigger loneliness, including:
- A relationship break-up
- Retiring and losing the socialisation you had at work
- Changing jobs and feeling distant from new colleagues
- Starting at university
- Moving to a new area without family or friends
However, others may feel lonely at certain times of the year, such as Christmas. Plus, some research suggests that certain circumstances can make people more vulnerable to loneliness. For example, someone could:
- Have no friends or family
- Be estranged from family
- Be a single parent or must care for someone else
- Belong to a minority group and live in an area without others from a similar background
- Be excluded from social activities due to mobility problems or money issues
- Experience discrimination due to a disability or health problem – including mental health
- Experience discrimination due to gender, race, or sexuality
- Have experienced sexual or physical abuse
What Is the Connection Between Loneliness and Sleep?
Research at the University of Chicago has found that loneliness and sleep could be entwined. Among patients spending the same number of hours in bed, the study found that lonely people slept about thirty minutes less than non-lonely people. Experts are working to untangle the connection. Mark W. Mahowald, M.D., is the director of the Minnesota Regional Sleep Disorders Centre. He suggests that many people feel lonely because they are mildly or moderately depressed. Mahowald believes that lonely people “have less structured lives and, lacking stimulation, go to bed without feeling tired”.3 If you go to bed when you don’t feel tired, this encourages insomnia, a sleeping disorder which disrupts your sleep and leads to poor sleep quality.
Loneliness also increases stress, which can in turn disrupt our sleep. Loneliness contributes to spikes of cortisol, and higher levels of cortisol mean that you’ll have trouble falling asleep. It’ll also lead to someone waking up more frequently during the night, so your quality of sleep is hugely affected.
Loneliness also appears to create a state of vigilance and high alert, which interferes with our ability to relax and rest enough to get a good sleep.
Can Sleep Disorders Cause Loneliness?
Just as loneliness leads to poor sleep, a sleeping disorder can lead to loneliness. A study titled, “Sleep Loss Causes Social Withdrawal and Social Isolation” was published in the journal Natural Communications. In this study, researchers tested the effects of sleep deprivation on social isolation. They found that sleep-deprived people were more likely to refrain from social interactions. Matthew Walker, senior author of the study, states that “the less sleep you get, the less you want to socially interact”. He also argues that “other people perceive you as more socially repulsive” if you’re sleep deprived, and this only increases the isolating effects of poor sleep.4
The study also revealed how poor sleep and loneliness contribute to and strengthen each other. When we’re sleep deprived, we feel lonelier and keep people at a distance, and then we feel even more lonely. In Walker’s view, we are a “social species”, but sleep deprivation turns us into “social lepers”.5
Can You Help Yourself Get A Better Sleep?
As loneliness and sleep are connected, helping yourself get a better sleep means that you also need to help your feelings of loneliness. Thinking about what makes you feel lonely may help you find a way to feel better and sleep better.
Take it slow. If you’ve felt lonely for a long time, even if you already know lots of people, it can be daunting to think about trying to meet new people or opening up again. You don’t have to rush into anything. You could start by going somewhere like a café, the cinema, or a sports event – somewhere you can be around people without being expected to talk to them. You might find that simply being around people is enough to help with your feelings of loneliness.
Make new connections. If you’re feeling lonely due to a lack of satisfying social contact in your life, you could try to meet new people. Joining a group or class based on your hobbies or interests is a great way to meet people who have similar likes as you, so it’s easier to start talking to them. Volunteering is also a great way to meet new people and to help yourself feel better, as helping others can improve your mental health.
Try to open up. You might feel that you know plenty of people, but the problem is actually that you don’t feel close to them. Or perhaps you feel like they don’t give you the care and attention you need. If this is the case, it might help you to open up about how you feel to your friends and family. If you don’t feel comfortable doing this, you could consider talking to a therapist instead.
Don’t compare yourself to others. We all do it, but it can be helpful to remember that things are not always as they seem. People share what they want people to know about them on social media, but they could be hiding much more. It can be hard seeing people on social media who appear to have everything, like a good job, a partner, or a great social life, but remember that you don’t know how people feel when they’re alone or not looking at their social media.
Think about your diet. Eating regularly and keeping your blood sugar stable will help your mood and energy levels.
Exercise. Regular exercise is good for both your physical and mental health. It provides an outlet for frustrations and releases mood-enhancing endorphins. Yoga is a great way to reduce anxiety. Limit your workouts to mornings and afternoons. You can read more about how exercise helps improve your sleep in our article, ‘Five Ways Exercise Helps You Sleep’.
Spend time outdoors. Spending time in green space or bringing nature into your everyday life can benefit your physical and mental wellbeing. Interacting with nature can improve your mood, reduce stress and anxiety, help you feel more relaxed, and can improve your self-esteem.
Spend time with animals. Spending time around animals can help with feelings of loneliness, whether it’s a cuddle with your pet or you’re seeing an animal in their natural environment.
Avoid alcohol and drugs. While you might want to use drugs and alcohol to cope with difficult thoughts or worries, in the long run they’ll actually make you feel worse. Alcohol and drugs will keep you from dealing with underlying problems, which only worsens your feelings. Also, alcohol interferes with your sleep – read more about this in our article here.
Although these are ideas for you to try, the best way you can help yourself is to talk to your doctor. Your doctor will ask you about how you feel, and you should let them know if you’re having trouble sleeping. This’ll help them to determine if there’s an underlying sleep disorder, or if you’ve developed one due to loneliness.