More than 2000 young British adults were surveyed by scientists from King’s College London. Findings suggest a link between poor sleep quality and loneliness.
The findings were published in the journal, Psychological Medicine, and noted that lonely people were 24% more likely to experience daytime sleepiness and difficulty concentrating on tasks.
King’s College researchers define loneliness as the distress felt when a person feels their social and personal relationships are inadequate. This is different from social isolation, in which people can still be isolated without feeling lonely, or feel lonely while surrounding by people.
Many studies have looked at the effects of loneliness in the elderly; however, not many realize the problem is common in the younger generation as well. Reports from the Mental Health Foundation indicate that people between 18 and 34 years of age experience the most loneliness. Unfortunately, however, very little is known about how loneliness affects overall sleep health in young adults, hence the reason for this research.
Scientists gathered sample data from the Environmental Risk Longitudinal Twin Study. This included 2232 twins between 18 and 19 years of age, all of whom were born in Wales and England. Loneliness was measured using responses to four questions:
Sleep quality over a period of one month was measured as well, including how long it takes for the individuals to fall asleep and how many disturbances they experience throughout the night. Furthermore, they were asked about any daytime dysfunctions like having trouble staying awake throughout the day.
Essentially, about 25% to 30% of individuals reported sometimes feeling lonely, and an additional 5% reported feeling lonely frequently. Even after adjusting for mental health concerns like anxiety and depression, which are linked to loneliness and sleep problems, scientists still found a link between poor sleep and loneliness.
A theory for why lonely people have restless sleep is that they may feel less safe; therefore, scientists looked at how past experiences of violence – such as from child maltreatment, crime, or abuse – impacted their sleep difficulties. Interestingly, the link between poor sleep and loneliness was 70% stronger in those who were exposed to severe violence. Several biological processes are considered that could explain the link, especially with respect to increased stress responses. Additionally, prior research indicates that lonely people experience changes in cortisol levels, which shows that there is some form of activation in the stress response. This physiological change may be playing a role in these individuals’ sleep problems.
One of the researchers in the study, Professor Louise Arseneault, from King’s College London Institute of Psychiatry, Pyschology & Neuroscience, notes that poor sleep quality is just one of the things that compounds loneliness. These findings highlight how important it is to identify, target, and treat negative thought behaviors and perceptions that surround feelings of loneliness.
Additionally, Professor Arseneault noted that the young people in this study are currently in college, away from home for the first time. That can certainly make loneliness worse; therefore, it is crucial that they receive the support they need to address these feelings and avoid mental health problems down the road that can result from poor sleep.
Another researcher, Timothy Matthews, added his thoughts about the findings. He noted that the team identified an additional culprit to the link: violence. It made the association between poor sleep and loneliness even stronger, compounding sleep problems and confirming the theory that many people who are lonely have sleep problems because they feel unsafe. We are in our most vulnerable state when we’re asleep, so it would make sense that someone with past exposure to severe violence would have trouble being and sleeping alone, as they can’t be as vigilant with their safety. Isolation from others makes it even more difficult for them to get restful sleep. It is critical to understand that loneliness may contribute to pre-existing issues, so proper support and treatment can be tailored to that individual.
© 2021 American Sleep Association.