If you’ve ever experienced loneliness, the irony is you’re not alone. An estimated 45% of adults have reported feeling lonely occasionally, sometimes or often – and this is in England alone. That equates to a staggering twenty five million people according to Campaign to End Loneliness.
Feeling lonely can have a huge impact on your mental health but it can also cause your sleep quality to drop too. While it’s fairly obvious why feeling lonely will affect your sleep, did you know that the same lack of sleep can actually increase loneliness?
Turns out the relationship between sleep and feeling lonely is a two-way street. Here’s why.
How does loneliness affect sleep?
Feeling all alone in the world can be overwhelming. And the reason it can influence our sleep patterns so much is that it essentially taps into our sense of vulnerability.
When we feel isolated, we experience the need to be more vigilant, and hyper-vigilance means it’s a lot harder to wind down at the end of the day.
Vulnerability also creates anxiety and stress. Elevated levels of the stress hormone, cortisol, make it difficult to drop off, and chronically high cortisol levels may begin to suppress the body’s natural immune system. It can also cause high blood pressure and increase the risk of heart disease and stroke.
Loneliness hurts. So much so that the extent of the physical damage it can do is comparable to smoking.
Let that sink in.
How does sleep affect loneliness?
So, this is the weird bit. The average person won’t necessarily think that their bad night’s sleep will make them more of a loner the next day. Think again.
A study by the University of California revealed that sleep-deprived people act in a similar way to those with social anxiety issues. During the study, participants were shown videos of people walking up to a camera, and when the person got too close, they pushed a button to stop playback. The sleep-deprived participants stopped the videos between 18-60% further back compared to when they were well rested, indicating they felt that their personal space was being invaded more.
Shockingly, the same study also discovered that being sleep deprived makes you less attractive as a social prospect.
Over 1000 observers were shown videos of study participants, unaware that some were sleep deprived. They were asked to rate each one based on how lonely they looked and whether they would want to socially interact with them. And – you guessed it – the sleep deprived participants were consistently ranked as more lonely and less socially desirable.
Even worse, this feeling was discovered to be contagious.
After viewing just a 60 second clip of a lonely person, participants reported feeling alienated themselves as a knock-on effect.
Sleep and feeling alone – a bidirectional relationship
As you can see, people experiencing both a lack of sleep and loneliness can find themselves stuck in a damaging cycle.
The good news is that improving one can also help to improve the other. Get better quality sleep and you’ll immediately be in a better position to feel more sociable and confident. And by meeting new people and making connections, your mental health can substantially improve, leading to sounder sleep.
Tackling both issues at the same time can be an effective strategy for improving your mental health. We’ve come up with a few ideas to get you started…
Ideas for combatting loneliness
- Pen pals & friendship apps
When you haven’t been social in a long time, making new connections can feel like a monumental effort. You don’t have to push yourself – try picking up letter writing as a hobby. You can meet new and interesting people at your own pace. And as an added benefit, just the act of writing a letter can be a meditative process. Friendship networking apps can also be a useful option if you’re currently finding in-person socialising a little intense.
- Go to live events
Believe it or not, it’s ok to go to a local gig alone! Get to know the live music scene or try that comedy night. Everyone is there for the same reason – they want to have a good time and it can be a brilliant icebreaker if you want to get to know new people. Being part of a larger experience might help to bring you out of yourself, and if it’s a big event, you don’t need to stress about messing up. It’s unlikely you’ll bump into the same people in future.
- Volunteer or join a group
Joining a hobby group or volunteering is a fantastic way to meet new people, and the best part is, you’re all united by a common interest or goal. Thinking of getting back into 5-a-side football? Try looking for local teams for a great after-work social. Prefer focussing on a task to give your socialising more structure? There are plenty of volunteer groups that could use your skills. Tree planting can get you outdoors alongside like-minded people. Or digitally volunteering to transcribe old documents can bring you closer to other amateur historians.
- Follow your passion
At times when you feel alone, delving into a passion project is a good stress-relieving outlet. Indulge your creativity with painting, writing or sculpture. Rediscover your love of the gym. Dust off that old guitar. Occupying your mind productively is excellent for staying grounded and focussed. A new project can also give you renewed confidence and inner fire. And when you feel confident, you’re automatically more approachable.
- Foster an animal
Our animal friends have been keeping the loneliness at bay for centuries. Fostering an animal lets you focus on something outside of yourself and will provide you with cute, cuddly companionship. It’s rewarding work too. You’ll be helping charities that are often overstretched with resources and desperately in need of extra hands to help out. The more you foster, the more you’ll also be able to connect with and learn from other volunteers in your area too.
Ideas for getting better sleep
- Improve your sleep hygiene
Sleep hygiene is all about your nightly routine and whether you’re placing yourself in the best position to rest effectively overnight. Your bedtime behaviours are what set you up for a good night’s sleep so it’s always useful to see if there are any changes you could make for better quality rest. Keeping to a strict bedtime, cutting down on caffeine in the afternoon and reducing alcohol consumption can all go a long way towards sounder sleep.
- Exercise early
Getting regular exercise is good for your body as it is but it can also assist with sleep too. Exercising tires your body out in a healthy way and triggers your sleep drive naturally. A type of chemical produced by the body called endocannabinoid is also released as you exercise and is a fantastic de-stressor with plenty of additional benefits. Just remember not to exercise too close to bed or else your elevated cortisol will keep you awake!
- Put your phone away
Our phones are one of the major culprits when it comes to disturbed sleep. Ideally you should put it away a couple of hours ahead of bedtime, but if you are loath to put it down for too long, at least give yourself 30 minutes without it. Smartphones and tablets produce blue light which can trick your brain into thinking it’s daytime – not ideal for a full night’s rest. Doomscrolling through the news also won’t help. You’ll be much better off with a good book.
- Give your sleep space an MOT
Rolling over in bed shouldn’t be accompanied by a symphony of creaking springs. Old, sagging mattresses, beaten up pillows and rickety frames will absolutely get in the way of quality sleep. We recommend giving your bed an MOT if you’ve had your current setup for a while because it’s the foundation to better sleep and better health. As the old saying goes, never skimp on anything that separates you from the ground – no matter whether it’s shoes, chairs or mattresses.
- Create a calming environment
Your room should invite sleep in. Keep it dark, cool and comfortable. Invest in good quality bedding that won’t make you sweat or overheat. Consider the rest of your bedroom too. A cluttered, disorderly space can make you feel subconsciously stressed so try to keep it tidy and welcoming at the end of the day.
We wrote this article to highlight the issue of loneliness as part of Mental Health Awareness week. Visit the Mental Health Foundation’s website to find out more, donate and discover additional resources if you need assistance.