Experts state we are facing a loneliness epidemic and some of us are more vulnerable than others. In the last 20 years one in five Australians have consistently reported ‘often’ feeling lonely and during the COVID-19 lockdowns loneliness reporting rates increased to almost 1 in 2 Australians.

Young adults between 15 and 24 years old have been found to be especially vulnerable to isolation and doctors link it to increased social media use. Women are also reporting higher increases in loneliness compared to men.

Large international research studies have found that isolation increases the risk of premature death at similar rates to smoking. It has been approximated that prolonged loneliness is equivalent to smoking 15 cigarettes a day and worse than 6 standard drinks of alcohol a day.

Loneliness can also significantly impact our mental health and has been linked to depression, substance use, sleep problems and Alzheimer’s disease. A Harvard study followed participants across the lifespan finding those reporting positive social connections at 50 years old were the healthiest at 80 years old. The study also found that relationships had a stronger impact on happiness compared to money or status. Research shows that it is not the quantity but the quality of relationships that matters such as relationships in which we feel cared for and experience a sense of belonging.

The history of social connection

Social connection is deeply linked to our survival. Historically we depended on our social network for food and protection. Nowadays, we can eat and survive in isolation, however our brains are still wired for social connection. When we are disconnected, we experience ‘social pain’ which triggers feelings of rejection and abandonment. The function of social pain is to stop unlikeable behaviours, like selfishness, and promote pro-social behaviours, like thoughtfulness and kindness. In the wild, pro-social behaviours increased the likelihood of group survival.

Unfortunately, there is a downside to social pain beyond the immediate unpleasant sensation. Occasionally, social pain can trigger an unhelpful cycle of thoughts, feelings and behaviours.  For example, when we are feeling lonely, we can become more sensitive to perceived negative social cues.  We might be quicker to interpret someone’s actions, such as avoiding eye contact, as a rejection, even though they might have just been distracted or perhaps were feeling shy themselves. It can become a vicious cycle whereby the more socially anxious we feel the more paranoid our perception of social interactions can be. We can start to behave in ways that reduce our opportunity for connection such as avoiding social interactions, declining party invitations, not responding to text messages or becoming withdrawn and hostile in social gatherings.

What helps?

It can help to start by naming your experience of loneliness. It can be difficult and sometimes feel shameful to admit that we are lonely but remember your experience is shared by almost 5 million other Australians. Try and practice self-compassion by considering the many external, cultural and historical factors that impact on our global experience of loneliness.

Next, try and identify any thoughts or behaviours that might be creating a negative cycle of loneliness. For example, are you anticipating being rejected before you contact someone? Have there been invitations for social connection (such as text messages or invitations to share a coffee with colleagues) that you have declined? Consider how to gently challenge these thoughts and behaviours and identify small steps towards re-connecting with others.

Finally, consider a structured social experience that involves an activity you enjoy like a hobby or exercise group.  If you cannot think of an activity, remember back to when you were a child or teenager…was there an activity you used to enjoy that you could try again now as an adult?

There are many options from low-cost groups such as Neighbourhood Houses or Community Hubs, to more expensive choices such as a paid language course, art class or travel group. There are also ways you can combine physical activity and social connectedness such as local community exercise groups, Park Run, The Man Walk and social team sports for adults. Facebook pages are also a great way to meet new people in your area with a variety of pages to suit your interest and hobbies, such as dog meetups or book clubs.

Loneliness and isolation can have a significant impact on our mood and at times can be part of an experience of depression. Joining a support group to improve your mental health can be a great way to experience social connection with others and learn how to boost your mood.

At the Food & Mood Centre we are currently running a group-based study for Australian’s who are experiencing depression. The programs are run online via telehealth over an eight-week period, and you can participate from anywhere in Australia. If you would like to learn more, head to our study page.

We are all wired for social contact and with self-compassion, a little courage and some gentle guidance we can all experience more fulfilling relationships.

This article was written by Sally Brown. Sally is a clinical psychologist at the Food & Mood Centre with a background in social psychology, healthcare worker wellbeing and mood disorders. Sally is currently working as a Research Fellow and group facilitator on the HARMON-E Trial