The Impact of Loneliness
Loneliness is a significant and growing public health issue. It is not synonymous with social isolation, and people with many social contacts can still report feeling disconnected and alone, just as people who are alone can report not feeling lonely. Around 15–30% of adults report chronic or severe loneliness, a state associated with significantly increased risk of mental health problems (e.g., depression), physical illness (e.g., poor cardiovascular health), and premature death. It is therefore important to have effective treatments for loneliness. Traditionally, loneliness treatments have primarily targeted either improving people’s social skills or their number of social supports. Unfortunately, to date, such approaches have had only limited success, thus highlighting the need for more effective treatment approaches.
Loneliness is most commonly defined as a negative emotional state caused by the perception of unmet social needs. As such, because loneliness is a negative emotional state, this suggests that emotion regulation patterns (i.e., the strategies we typically use to try to control or manage our emotions) might be useful both for understanding loneliness, and for developing more targeted and effective treatments for loneliness.
Last year, to explore this potential, we published a study on loneliness and emotion regulation in the journal Personality and Individual Differences (Preece et al., 2021). This was done as a collaboration between researchers from Curtin University, the University of Western Australia, Stanford University and Harvard University.
People can use a wide range of strategies to try to regulate their emotions, and we know from other research that some strategies lead to better long-term outcomes than others (e.g., in terms of well-being, social functioning, and mental health symptoms). The aim in our study was therefore to test the role of emotion regulation in loneliness, by examining whether differences in emotion regulation strategy use could help explain people’s loneliness levels. To do this, we administered a comprehensive set of loneliness and emotion regulation questionnaires to 501 adults, and statistically looked at the predictive power of the emotion regulation patterns.
Overall, we found that patterns of emotion regulation strategy use were a great predictor of loneliness, explaining over half (52.2%) the differences in people’s loneliness levels.
In terms of cognitive emotion regulation strategies, high loneliness was characterized by trying to regulate emotions with:
- More use of Rumination (i.e., dwelling over and over again on difficult emotions or thoughts).
- More use of Catastrophising (i.e., blowing out of proportion the negative consequences of a situation)
- More use of Blaming one’s self and others
- Less use of Cognitive reappraisal (i.e., changing the way one is thinking about a situation to change it’s emotional impact).
In terms of behavioral emotion regulation strategies, loneliness was also characterised by trying to regulate emotions with:
- More use of Expressive suppression (i.e., trying to not show others that you are feeling an emotion).
- More use of Actively rejecting or withdrawing from others.
- Less use of Seeking social support.
Why does this matter?
Together, this is a pattern of emotion regulation strategy use that has elsewhere been found to be ineffective at reducing negative emotions and mental health symptoms (e.g., depression, anxiety), and can in fact increase negative emotions over time. As such, our results suggest that this emotion regulation pattern may also help explain the development or maintenance of loneliness. Our behavioural emotion regulation findings, in particular, indicate an interesting paradox: people with high loneliness are, by definition, craving social connection to relieve unmet social needs, but at the same time, such individuals are more likely to respond to their emotions by withdrawing away from others.
Emotion regulation could therefore represent a promising treatment target for loneliness, in terms of trying to switch these emotion regulation patterns to more healthy patterns. Specifically, our findings suggest that targeted emotion regulation interventions for loneliness could aim to decrease use of rumination, self/other blaming, expressive suppression, and behavioral withdrawal strategies, and increase use of cognitive reappraisal and seeking of social support strategies (e.g., via techniques from cognitive behavior therapy, dialectical behavior therapy, acceptance and commitment therapy).
The results of our research have recently been featured in a Psychology Today article. This feature article on loneliness in Psychology Today can be read here, and you can also read the details of our original scientific article here. For more information about loneliness, you can visit Ending Loneliness Together.
By Dr David Preece