Loneliness and isolation

Loneliness and social isolation have become significant health and wellbeing issues in Australia and most parts of the Western world.
Older adult male looking wistfully out a window

Loneliness and social isolation have become significant health and wellbeing issues in Australia and most parts of the Western world.  More and more research shows the wide-reaching and serious consequences of this growing phenomenon that can impact every aspect of a person’s life.  

And it’s not just costing our physical, mental and emotional wellbeing.  A recent report by researchers at Curtin University tallied up the financial cost of loneliness in Australia to be $2.7 billion each year (Lu, The Guardian, 2021). 

You are not alone in feeling lonely

Loneliness can affect every one of us.  In fact, one in two Australians reported feeling lonelier since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.  And, people aged 18 to 25 years and 56 to 65 years are more likely to be vulnerable (according to 2018-2019 online surveys).  

According to the Telstra Talking Loneliness Report, 2021:

  • Four in ten (44%) Australians regularly feel lonely 
  • More than half of all Australians (54%) feel they lack companionship 
  • One in four Australians (24%) say they don’t have people they can regularly talk or turn to 
  • Almost two in three Australians (63%) say they regularly feel isolated from others

What is loneliness?

A sense of belonging and connectedness is an integral part of a healthy life, emotionally, spiritually and physically. As human beings, we There’s a difference between being alone (feeling comfortable with your feelings and thoughts, and enjoying the sense of freedom, enjoyment and creativity that may come from this) and feeling lonely (experiencing sadness, loss and having an absence of friends and interests). Human beings are highly social creatures. We enjoy and flourish in our connections with others. Sometimes, for a range of reasons, we find ourselves experiencing loneliness – a subjective state of negative feelings about having a lower level of social contact than desired (Peplau & Perlman 1982).

How does it differ from social isolation?

Unlike loneliness, social isolation is an objective state of having minimal contact with others.  It is often caused by external factors such as geographical distance from community, mobility or communication challenges or compromised mental and/or physical health.

How does loneliness affect our health?

Experiencing loneliness has multiple impacts on mental and physical wellbeing including an increased risk of the following;

  • mental health problems e.g. depression & social anxiety
  • insomnia
  • low self-esteem & confidence
  • increased stress (due to higher levels of cortisol)
  • higher risk of dementia & Alzheimers disease
  • poorer cardiovascular health
  • reduced immunity 
  • obesity
  • stroke
  • cognitive decline
  • premature death

Loneliness, isolation and mental health

Loneliness and isolation are also linked to depression, social anxiety and paranoia with a 13.1% increased risk of developing social anxiety and a 15.2% increased risk of developing depression

And while the symptoms of depression and loneliness often overlap, unlike depression, loneliness is characterized by the hope that all would be perfect if only the lonely person could be united with a longed-for person.

What makes us more vulnerable to loneliness?

Risk factors for loneliness are diverse, spanning social, psychological and cultural contexts. Social risk factors include:

  • Bereavement and widowhood
  • Recent divorce or separation
  • Living with psychiatric disorders 
  • Poor or declining physical health
  • Children moving out of home
  • Retirement
  • Carers 
  • People living with a disability
  • Socio-economically disadvantaged
  • Single parents 
  • Moving out of home/starting uni
  • Living alone
  • Culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds
  • Enforced isolation (eg. due to pandemic)

Psychological risk factors

Some of us are more likely to link our loneliness to our inner self.  We may be more prone to self-blame or low self-esteem and therefore lack coping skills when it comes to loneliness.  Those who lack self-belief can lack the confidence to make friends.  And if we have a fixed outlook on life we’re far less likely to try to improve the situation because we consider our loneliness unchangeable.

Our coping style is also influential.  Those who are more emotion-focused tend to manage problems by managing emotions.  So if something makes us sad we’ll sit with the sadness rather than attend to it, likewise, if something makes us angry we’ll use anger to control it.  Whereas those of us who are problem-focused are more likely to see problems as external and make an attempt to fix them.

And the way we interpret social experiences makes a difference.  We’re much more likely to suffer from loneliness and isolation if we’re sensitive to social rejection; inclined to feel like a burden; or are distrustful of others.  Some of this may stem from our experience in childhood.  A time when poverty, parental discord, or being bullied also leads to insecurities …and loneliness.  

Cultural risk factors

Cultural factors such as social roles, status and identity influence how we interpret situations and judge our satisfaction with family and friends.

For example, our social identity (the groups we consider ourselves to be a member of) can dictate our social life e.g. a man might be less likely to join a mothers group based on gender or a middle-aged woman might not join an older person’s bridge club because she doesn’t want to be seen as ‘old’.  In fact ‘internalised ageism’ sets an expectation to be lonely in older age.  As we age we can mould our behaviours accordingly – resulting in a self-fulfilling prophecy. Source: https://www.campaigntoendloneliness.org/

How do grief and loss impact loneliness and isolation?

Loneliness, isolation and loss

Loneliness often occurs in the midst of major life changes which can be felt as losses, resulting in grief.  Examples include the loss of a loved one due to bereavement, loss of social supports due to moving to a new city, or loss of identity and financial freedom due to an illness or disability.

In older age, a range of losses can lead to emotional loneliness and shrinking social contacts.  Multiple deaths comprising of a spouse, siblings and peers, can be compounded by failing sight and/or hearing which affects communication.  And the onset of physical limitations restricting mobility can restrict opportunities to socialise with family and friends.

Source: Fakoya, McCorry, & Donnelly, M. (2021). 

Loneliness, isolation and bereavement

Losing a loved one causes emotional loneliness, which is usually a different experience from social loneliness.  In particular, losing a partner means losing a major attachment figure so support from family and friends does little to compensate.  

For widowers, loneliness can present their biggest single challenge for coping with daily life.  In fact, losing a partner is associated with the highest emotional loneliness, followed by losing a child and losing a parent.  Those who have cared for their spouse in the lead-up to their death or who have witnessed their partner suffering from a severe disease are also at a great risk of post-loss loneliness.

After the loss of a loved one, most people will experience high peaks of loneliness, followed by a slow reduction over the months to follow.  Intervention is important.  Whereas most incidents of loneliness last for 1 year or less, when it lasts longer it’s likely to go on for 3 or more years (Baker 2012).As a direct response to Australia’s loneliness epidemic, Griefline has added the ‘Care To Call’ program to its service offering.  

Support is available

Whatever the situation, you can connect with others who understand on the Griefline Online Forums for peer-to-peer support and connection. And check out the Care to Call program which offers a free befriending service to eligible participants experiencing loneliness as a result of grief or loss. You can always call our free helpline on 1300 845 745 to speak to a trained volunteer.

View and download our loneliness and grief fact sheet

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