It’s easy to blame our sleep issues on the general stress of the situation, but there may be another culprit lurking in the wings: Loneliness.
“I could see many people misattributing their poor sleep quality to something like, ‘I’m stressed out over the coronavirus,’ or ‘I’m stressed out because of my job,’” says Chris Segrin, Ph.D., a loneliness researcher and professor of communication at the University of Arizona in Tucson. “Those may be, quite obviously, real features of their stress. But what they may be overlooking is that either beneath all of it, or at least mixed in with all of it, is this feeling of, ‘I really wish I had more social contact.’”
An Epidemic of Loneliness
Even before the pandemic, health experts were worried about a loneliness epidemic in the U.S., reporting that two in five Americans say they sometimes or always feel their social relationships are not meaningful, and one in five say they feel lonely or socially isolated.
This year, the problem seems to have gotten worse, with one survey reporting that 47% of Americans say they feel lonelier than usual. And, according a study in The Journal of Sleep Research, that loneliness may be causing stress, anxiety, depression, and sleep problems among significantly more people.
Even Americans with no prior mental health issues are being affected: In a recent study, 15% reported that they experienced two psychological distress symptoms — anxiety, depression, loneliness, sleep difficulties, and/or hyperarousal — in the seven days prior to the survey.
“Being anxious, stressed, or lonely could lead to trouble sleeping, and the opposite is also true,” says study author Calliope Holingue, MPH, Ph.D., a postdoctoral fellow at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore. “When our sleep suffers, our mental health tends to suffer, too.”
The Connection Between Loneliness and Sleep
Experts are still trying to figure out the exact relationship between loneliness and sleep. As Holingue points out, it's not clear whether loneliness causes poor sleep or is a symptom of it (for instance, if you’re always exhausted you may be less inclined to socialize).
However, research shows that loneliness is correlated with higher self-reported sleep disturbance (ie: impaired sleep quality and insomnia), sleep inadequacy, and sleep dissatisfaction. And loneliness-related stress may be a reason why.
“The experience of loneliness is stressful,” Segrin says. “It's probably the case that that stress is the connective tissue between loneliness and disturbed sleep quality, just like any other stress. Like if you were just laid off from your job and were wondering, ‘How am I going to pay the bills?’ and you'd lay awake in bed at night with that worry, loneliness seems to have a similar effect on sleep and sleep architecture because of the stressful nature of the experience. And anything else that generates stress just compounds that problem for the lonely person — it’s stress piled on top of stress.”
When stress wreaks havoc on a person’s sleep in this way, it affects the restorative work the body is supposed to do during that time.
“[In] deep sleep, you experience the vast majority of the regenerative effects of sleep — for example, taking the events of the day and organizing them into our memory [and] deep muscle relaxation,” says Segrin. “Lonely people... never get down into that deep sleep nearly as much. [Their] brain doesn’t get to shut down as far, and their muscle relaxation doesn’t go as deep. Because they’re waking. They’re tossing. They’re turning. The quality of the sleep is not allowing them to really... recharge their batteries.”
At a very basic level, this type of poor sleep quality can cause you to wake up tired, cranky, and generally just not feeling your best. But over time, chronic poor sleep may cause or contribute to mental health issues.
“People who feel lonely often also feel depressed,” says Ellemarije Altena, Ph.D., assistant professor of neuroimaging and human cognition at the University of Bordeaux in France and the author of the study in The Journal of Sleep Research. “Both can be related to awakening too often during the night, not falling asleep well enough, waking up too early, and not feeling rested during the day.”
How to Cope with Loneliness and Get Better Sleep
Getting adequate sleep is foundational to your health and wellbeing. “Better sleep... is important as a ‘reset’ of the brain to better deal with emotions and thoughts,” says Altena. “It can ensure you can deal better with problems, fears, and repetitive thoughts the next day, and to put things in perspective.”
To feel more socially connected and improve your sleep, try these ideas:
Reveal your feelings
Talk about your concerns, instead of keeping everything bottled up. “Early studies during the first wave [of the pandemic] showed that it can help a lot to share thoughts and feelings with others,” says Altena “To sleep well, [it is important to] deal with these emotions during the daytime.”
Be proactive about masking up and meeting people outdoors or scheduling video chats. Regularly connecting with friends can help you feel less isolated, leading to sounder sleep.
“Setting up these sorts of recurring activities provides small but consistent opportunities to stay connected with people,” says Holingue. “I take a weekly walk with a close friend in my neighborhood. We wear masks... and catch up on life. Every other Monday, I have a video call with friends from work, which makes me feel less isolated.”
Inventory your social network
If you don’t get enough social fulfillment from your current contacts, think about people from your past.
“Many people have these dormant social relationships that are at the periphery of their social network,” says Segrin. “Think about sending an email message or a text message to some old friend who maybe you haven’t been in touch with for a while. ‘Hey, just checking to see how you’re doing. How have things been going?’ And see if there are opportunities to strike up connections.”
Find others with common interests
Expand your social circle by searching for local groups dedicated to your hobbies or interests.
“It’s very reinforcing to our self-concept when we encounter another person who shares an interest,” Segrin says. “That shatters that illusion that ‘There’s no one else in the world who understands me.’ [And when] you walk into that group [or meet them via Zoom], even though they’re all strangers, they’re really not strangers, because you have something in common with every one of them.”
Get more exercise
At the very least, try to go for daily walks. Physical activity can improve your sleep, and you may run into neighbors, which can lead to pleasant conversations.
“It will make you feel like you’re not alone, to share worries and thoughts, and to put things in perspective,” Altena says. “This may help to both feel less lonely but also sleep better and be less worried about sleep.”
Practice good sleep hygiene
Even if your sleep problems are caused by loneliness, you may see improvements by practicing good sleep hygiene. Go to bed and wake up at the same times every day. Sleep in a cool room. Create a bedtime routine.
“If you go out running and take a warm bath and eat bananas and drink your milk and do all these things [to promote] sleep, you can affect your sleep quality,” says Segrin. “You may not make it as ideal as someone who’s not completely non-lonely, but you can at least make it better.”
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