The Impacts of Loneliness on Our Wellbeing
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 around us 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, and this is reflected in some of his song lyrics.
At the start of December, Nordic Cuddle, a London-based cuddle therapy company, attended the Mental Health and Loneliness event run by UCL. Some of the research presented stated that there are two peaks in life for experiencing loneliness, one occurring in adolescence and the other in old age.
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:
- Loneliness can be as damaging to our health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day
- Research suggests that loneliness can be twice as deadly as obesity
- The risk of developing coronary heart disease and stroke increase
- Developing high blood pressure becomes more likely
- Skin hunger, or touch deprivation can occur, which creates its own set of health related issues
- 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
- According to the Campaign to End Loneliness, the likelihood of mortality also increases by as much as 26% for lonely individuals
- 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
- Research cited by The Campaign to End Loneliness, states that lonely people have up to a 64% increased risk of developing clinical dementia
- Loneliness also puts people at an increased risk of cognitive decline
- Lonely people report higher levels of perceived stress, even when relaxing
- 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
- Social situations appear more threatening to lonely individuals and interaction can become more difficult
- George Monbiot also writes that loneliness can lead to alcoholism, paranoia and anxiety
As the Campaign to End Loneliness point out, having strong social networks, friendships and connections can help reduce the risk of developing certain diseases, mortality and can also help us recover when we fall ill. This is why schemes like Chatty Café are so important as they help bring people together, who might not otherwise know where to turn too.
At Nordic Cuddle, we provide cuddle therapy sessions in London to people from all walks of life, aged 19-75+ years old. We also offer ‘Coffee Connection’ sessions where we provide hand-holding and hugs over a coffee in cosy London cafes. We were pleased to see research from UCL in 2017, which showed that affective touch could help mitigate feelings of loneliness, meaning that hugs can help people feel less lonely. While cuddle therapy isn’t a one-stop cure for loneliness, we hope it can be part of a wider solution.
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 find out more about Nordic Cuddle and the work we do, please visit: www.nordiccuddle.com 0003