Loneliness and depression – Let’s take a deep dive in order to overcome it

Loneliness and depression both come with lots of shame and downward spirals. Read about the types of loneliness and how to break free from it.

Loneliness and depression can go hand in hand, and can deeply, deeply affect you. Social withdrawal is a classic symptom of depression, and so it’s not hard to see why one might end up feeling lonely. But the other side of the coin is true too: A profound sense of loneliness can be a root cause of depression itself. 

And many of my clients profoundly struggle with loneliness – and yet you’d never think it if you met them on the street. Like depression, loneliness can be invisible. It carries a lot of stigma and shame, as loneliness can be interpreted as a sign of being unpopular or disliked by some. So a lot of people will never share that they’re feeling lonely. I myself have felt very lonely during certain times of my life. And so do many, many others:

In Great Britain, levels of loneliness increased since spring 2020. Between 3rd April and 3rd May 2020, 5% of people said they felt lonely often or always – that’s about 2.6 million people! And from October 2020 to February 2021 that proportion increased to 7.2% of the adult population – about 3.7 million adults. Young people seem to be affected in particular (ages 16-24) (1).

Loneliness is sadly widespread.

So in this post, I’m taking a deep dive into loneliness. I will be talking about:

  • The types of loneliness
  • The effects of loneliness on our physical and mental health
  • Why so many of us feel lonely
  • And what to do to stop feeling lonely

A lot of what I’ve learned stems from either my own observations, discussions with others or Vivek Murthy’s incredible book “Together”. 

The 3 dimensions of loneliness

Loneliness is not the same as being alone. According to Murthy, it’s the subjective feeling that you’re lacking the social connections you need. 

And researchers argue there are three dimensions of loneliness (1)

  1. Intimate 
    The perceived absence of a significant someone, such as a spouse. A person (or your core people) you can rely on for emotional support during crises. Up to 5 people.
  2. Relational
    The perceived absence of quality friendships or family connections. These are people who you typically see fairly regularly and who may help out with tasks such as loans, childcare or projects. Up to 15-50 people – but the quality rather than quantity of friendships is what matters most. 
  3. Collective 
    A perceived absence of your outermost social layer: a social network, group, team, school or national identify you belong to and identify with. The number here can range from around 150-1500.

So if you are feeling lonely, which area do you think this most applies to in your life?

The effects of loneliness on our physical and mental health

Loneliness has profound impacts on both your physical and mental health. And those effects can be immediate and measurable, for example higher blood pressure and stress levels, reduced immune function and increased inflammation, disrupted sleep, increased overeating and alcohol consumption, and an increased risk of Alzheimer’s disease. Loneliness and depression are also linked, as are aggressive behaviours, anxiety, impulsivity and suicidal thoughts (2).

All that from loneliness. And again, it doesn’t matter whether you are surrounded by lots of people. It’s about your own sense of social connectedness. One can feel profoundly lonely even when surrounded by thousands of people. And the same time, you can also feel a complete lack of loneliness when you’re all by yourself days and days on end. It comes down to how you feel.

Interestingly, it is thought that loneliness is a physical warning sign just like hunger and pain. Feelings of loneliness are uncomfortable and unpleasant, and ideally it’s that discomfort that makes you take action to connect with others. It’s an evolutionary survival mechanism in that way! Back in our cave days, if you found yourself cut off from your group/tribe, you might well not survive. So loneliness has a purpose. But when you feel chronically lonely, like so many people do these days, then your health can really start to decline…

"While loneliness has the potential to kill, connection has even more potential to heal."

Vivek Murthy

Why so many of us feel so lonely

In our modern-day societies there has been a massive shift towards individualism. There is this idea that you make your own destiny, totally independent from others. But what’s called self-determination and actualisation often comes at the expense of strong social bonds and networks. The tribe we all once belonged to is breaking down for many of us, or even completely non-existent. Our modern-day culture prioritises fame, wealth and success over values such as kindness, loyalty and service.

For example, young parents often feel very cut off from their friends because all they have time for is work and childcare, without the support from what was once the village around them. Working professionals need to work such ridiculous long hours that their work schedules don’t even allow for the celebration of birthdays or other special occasions. Some older adults can feel forgotten and devalued. Technologies, such as social media, might connect us in some ways, but are actually also linked with higher rates of loneliness. Instead of meeting your butcher, baker and veg farmer once a week, you order everything online and the social element is completely gone. Many of us don’t even know our neighbour’s names. 

If you’ve moved countries, you might be facing social isolation due to language barriers, loss of your past identity and status or simply due to cultural differences. There are also big political divides driving groups of people apart from one another. And if you are widowed or if you have a chronic illness or disability then you’re also at greater risk of suffering from loneliness. 

No group, no matter how educated or successful, is exempt from loneliness.

What to do to stop feeling so lonely

So how do you approach loneliness? Well, the most beneficial relationships for our health are the ones that are reciprocal. The ones that mirror each other’s values and create a positive feedback loop, teaching us to love ourselves as we love our friends. 

Because not all social interactions are uplifting, wouldn’t you agree? Sometimes we spend time with someone else only to feel even more disconnected, misunderstood and not valued, seen or heard. It’s a disheartening and upsetting experience. And perhaps you’ve had many of these encounters. 

So when instead you spend time with someone and truly feel seen, appreciated, understood and listened to, then it’s a very powerful and healing experience. For many of us, truly connecting with another human being is a deeply meaningful activity with positive effects that last for a long time. 

Address the three types of connections

As I wrote above, there are three dimensions of loneliness and that means there are three dimensions of connections too. Depending on where you might feel particularly lonely, consider spending time and energy on the following:

  1. The inner circle: Close friends and intimate partner(s)
    The quality of your intimate relationships is a huge predictor of your health and happiness, more so than your IQ, your genes, money or fame. (3)
    So nurture those relationships as best as you can, or investing in building them up – from scratch if needed. This step was one of the most important things I did in my journey of overcoming depression!
  2. The middle circle: Occasional companions
    Gather with people you share interests with. You might not know everyone’s deepest secrets but you can enjoy the ways in which your lives intersect. Growing up, many of us took these middle circle connections for granted as we constantly saw these people at school, during clubs or around the neighbourhood. As adults, these connections can get lost, particularly if you’ve left your hometown. Laughter and music groups in particular seem to bond people more than other activities. But joining any kind of group can really help to rebuild your middle circle.

     

  3. The outer circle: Colleagues and acquaintances
    Familiar people make us feel welcome and help us feel rooted in our place. The connections in your outer circle are people you only see now and again, but they are people that recognise you and offer a smile. They could be people you see at work, in your community, through organisations, places of worships or even online. 

Loneliness and depression

In order to show up authentically, we need to keep in mind that a certain degree of self-awareness and self-compassion are needed. Liking and knowing yourself is an important part of truly connecting with another being. 

And of course, this is where the combination of loneliness and depression can make life hard. I know from my experience. Both loneliness and depression often bring up a lot of shame in us, and so it’s hard to reach out. We turn inwards and stop interacting with others, which slowly chips away at our self-esteem. And the longer you avoid connection, the harder it is to reach out to someone because you no longer feel worthy. The downward spiral of both loneliness and depression can be hard to break.

A lot of people also beat themselves up over how they feel. Instead of noticing that their loneliness and depression result from complex circumstances that are often outside their own control, they take full blame and think it’s all down to their own faults and flaws. And that belief then further erodes one’s self-worth and confidence. 

Vivek Murthy offers “a back door out of loneliness” for people who find it hard to break out of loneliness: Service. Loneliness and depression make you very much focused on yourself (again, I know this too well). But by doing something for others, that focus shifts in a very positive way. You end up feeling more connected and your self-worth grows as you notice that you have value to add to the world. 

 

"Service is a powerful pathway of getting out of loneliness. It takes the focus off of you and puts it onto someone else."

Vivek Murthy

An invitation to book a free Zoom call with me

Overcoming depression requires a truly holistic approach, and for some people focusing on loneliness and finding ways to reconnect and to belong again are key. If you are interested in exploring my work and to see whether I might be able to help you overcome your depression too, then book a free half hour Zoom chat here. Zero obligation – I am genuinely here to help.

References

1 https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/wellbeing/articles/mappinglonelinessduringthecoronaviruspandemic/2021-04-07

2     Hawkley, L. C., & Cacioppo, J. T. (2010). Loneliness matters: a theoretical and empirical review of consequences and mechanisms. Annals of behavioral medicine : a publication of the Society of Behavioral Medicine, 40(2), 218–227. https://doi.org/10.1007/s12160-010-9210-8

3 https://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2017/04/over-nearly-80-years-harvard-study-has-been-showing-how-to-live-a-healthy-and-happy-life/

loneliness and depression

Hello, I'm Claudia

I’m Claudia Smith, a qualified nutritional therapist, functional medicine practitioner and coach specialising in depression. This is where I share my thoughts and advice on natural and holistic approaches to overcoming depression.

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