Research Explores Causes, Cures of Loneliness and Social Isolation
Often invisible to others, loneliness is one of the most commonly experienced negative emotional states.
Whether stemming from loss, lack of social connections, or clinical symptoms, feeling lonely can lead to depression, hopelessness, and lack of motivation.
Some people remember the unique pain of pandemic isolation, and still suffer in silence when social distancing-inspired feelings of social isolation remain.
Fortunately, according to research, there are ways to handle negative feelings, and improve mood.
Social vs. Emotional Loneliness
Nine E. Wolters et al. (2023) examined both emotional and social loneliness and their associations with depression, anxiety, and social isolation.
They described emotional loneliness as a "perceived absence of close relationships" and social loneliness as a "perceived absence of an available (quantity) and acceptable (quality) social network."
They explain that social loneliness often corresponds with social variables such as companionship, close ties with friends as well as the size of one’s social network, and emotional loneliness as absence of emotional support.
Because both loneliness and social isolation are linked with depression as well as both social and general anxiety, their research sought to understand how these emotional states interacted.
Studying a large sample of university students, Wolters et al. (ibid.) found that social loneliness was best explained by social isolation, and emotional loneliness by social anxiety as well as depression.
They found that general anxiety was solely related to loneliness through depression.
Of note, their findings highlight the significance of social anxiety over general anxiety as it is related to loneliness, which may inspire individuals feeling lonely to consider ways to break out of their emotional state.
The Significance of Social Contact
Because perceived social isolation or lack of support appears to be linked with feelings of loneliness for many people, there are a wide variety of social groups and programs that may offer emotional relief.
Designed to bring together like-minded individuals, special interest groups and activities can benefit people suffering from social anxiety through offering a way to connect through common ground (such as interest in specific sports or activities) or even through common interests, within classes or lessons designed to present new information or assist in developing new skills.
From sports, to art, to learning a new language, interacting with others in these settings facilitate conversation and creating new friendships, and may provide additional mental and psychological benefits such as improving mood, and increasing a sense of belonging.
Even loose social groups are beneficial for mood and mental state, as research notes that "weak ties" (as opposed to close relationships), not only provide social benefits, but some people actually prefer to receive support from acquaintances rather than close friends (See: Moreton et al., 2023).
Many individuals may also receive significant benefit through therapy and counseling, that can explore and identify personal sources of distress or emotional trauma.
The good news is that loneliness, rather than a fixed, permanent condition, is an emotional state that is subject to change.
Reconnecting socially, even slowly and perhaps superficially in some cases, will help individuals recapture hope, facilitating the road to recovery.
(Related articles may be found here, and here.)
The preceding article was originally published in Psychology Today, and is used with the permission of its author.
Wendy L. Patrick, JD, MDiv, Ph.D., is an award-winning career trial attorney and media commentator. She is host of "Live with Dr. Wendy" on KCBQ, and a daily guest on other media outlets, delivering a lively mix of flash, substance, and style. Read Dr. Wendy L. Patrick's Reports — More Here.
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