14 Surprising Effects of Loneliness on Our Wellbeing

“Loneliness erodes the soul as water wears away rocks.” – Wilbur Smith

Loneliness can sometimes feel like one of the hardest issues to talk about because of the perceived stigma that surrounds it. Yet it’s something that affects around nine million people in the UK, and is often referred to as a growing epidemic. To tackle the problem, the UK appointed a Minister for Loneliness and is rolling out a social prescribing scheme. It’s hoped that the scheme will reduce the burden on the NHS, as 75% of GPs see between one and five lonely people per day.

When discussing loneliness, it’s important to differentiate between social isolation and feeling lonely. Julianne Holt-Lunstad and Timothy B. Smith, explain this in The New York Times as follows, “Social isolation denotes few social connections or interactions, whereas loneliness involves the subjective perception of isolation — the discrepancy between one’s desired and actual level of social connection.”

This means that loneliness can still occur even if we are surrounded by people, including friends, family or even a partner, because the company we’re surrounded by may not match our preferred level of social connection.

Loneliness can affect anyone at any age, regardless of their status, class or background. This is something that was clear to see in the Bohemian Rhapsody movie, which showed that even rock stars like Freddie Mercury can experience soul-destroying levels of loneliness. You need only listen to his song, ‘Living on My Own’ to understand some of the pain that it causes.

At the start of December, Nordic Cuddle attended the Mental Health and Loneliness event run by UCL. Some of the research presented noted that there are two peaks in life for experiencing loneliness, one occurring in adolescence and the other in old age. It was also suggested that loneliness was most common among 16-24 year olds and that young adulthood could be the loneliest time.

Many of the reasons why loneliness is increasing for younger generations is through no fault of their own. As one panellist at the UCL event pointed out, “Young people didn’t make this world, but they have to live in it.” This comment was in regards to the fact that austerity resulted in more people living at home for longer, which is contributing to greater levels of loneliness. Austerity also coincided with the rise in social media. As we spend more time on our phones, we’re ironically becoming lonelier as we miss out on the real life interactions we need and this takes a toll on our mental health.

We’re a social species that thrives on connection with others. When we lose out on this, we become exposed to some potentially severe health impacts, which can include:

Physical Health

1. Loneliness can be as damaging to our health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day

2. Research suggests that loneliness can be twice as deadly as obesity

3. The risk of developing coronary heart disease and stroke increase

4. Developing high blood pressure becomes more likely

5. Skin hunger, or touch deprivation can occur, which creates its own set of health related issues

6. The Albert Einstein College of Medicine, states that loneliness can bring about an inflammatory state within our bodies that damages the heart, but also has an impact on our ability to resist infection. It can also lead to loss of bone and muscle

7. According to the Campaign to End Loneliness, the likelihood of mortality also increases by as much as 26% for lonely individuals

Mental Health

8. Loneliness can make it feel like we lack social support and can lead to depression, which can have knock-on effects including poor sleep and suicidal thoughts

9. Research cited by The Campaign to End Loneliness, states that lonely people have up to a 64% increased risk of developing clinical dementia

10. Loneliness also puts people at an increased risk of cognitive decline

11. Lonely people report higher levels of perceived stress, even when relaxing

12. Weight loss or weight gain can occur. In an article for Insider, it was suggested that overeating is sometimes a method people use to try and numb the feelings of loneliness

13. Social situations appear more threatening to lonely individuals and interaction can become more difficult

14. George Monbiot also writes that loneliness can lead to alcoholism, paranoia and anxiety

Cuddle Therapy’s Role in Addressing Loneliness

“Loneliness is my least favourite thing about life. The thing that I’m most worried about is just being alone without anybody to care for or someone who will care for me.” —Anne Hathaway

In a previous blog post, we looked at research which showed that affective touch could mitigate feelings of loneliness. In addition, loneliness often comes about because we lack meaningful connections in our lives. At Nordic Cuddle, our motto is ‘connection through touch’ and we seek to provide that through comforting cuddle sessions. So while cuddle therapy isn’t a one-stop cure for loneliness, it can be part of a wider solution.

We are also on a mission to normalise loneliness by removing the stigma that comes from speaking about it. We have written about loneliness for various blogs and magazines, and participated in documentaries and short interviews for TV programmes. Most recently, we took part in a Sky News interview about cuddle therapy’s role in helping to tackle loneliness, which you can watch here. We are also calling for cuddle therapy to be part of the government’s social prescribing scheme to tackle loneliness, and you can read our letter in The Guardian.

We believe that it will take a collaborative effort and various societal changes to truly tackle this epidemic. We hope that the steps being taken by policymakers, companies and charitable organisations can make this happen to end the misery that so many people endure.

To enquire about a cuddle session with one of our cuddle practitioners in London, please click here.

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