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Austen Riggs Research Update: Social Connection and Loneliness During COVID-19

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Austen Riggs Center Research Psychologist Dr. Katie Lewis Writes About the Psychological Impact of Social Distancing in the COVID-19 Era.

Poor relationship quality and reduced frequency of social contact during the COVID-19 pandemic were associated with greater reports of loneliness and disturbed sleep patterns, both of which could contribute to declines in mental and physical health, according to preliminary findings of a study by Austen Riggs Center Research Psychologist Katie Lewis, PhD.  

Results from the 8-week experience sampling project, which Lewis and colleagues from Riggs and West Chester University conducted between April and August 2020, suggest that:  

  • Insecure attachment styles predicted greater degrees of loneliness  
  • Days involving less frequent in-person contact were associated with greater loneliness  
  • Sleep disturbance was related to loneliness both as a general risk factor and as a more immediate source of risk at the daily level  

These findings contribute to a broader literature that has linked social isolation, loneliness, relationship quality, and sleep disturbance to poor physical health outcomes and, in particular, to impaired immune functioning.  

In this video, Lewis shares additional insights from the study’s current findings, as well as describes the next steps forward, including the follow-up study that aims to better understand the long-term impacts of social behaviors, personality factors, and sleep functioning on a range of health-related outcomes. 

Read more about the initial study at www.austenriggs.org/LonelinessResearch 


 
Transcript:  

Hi everyone, I’m Dr. Katie Lewis. I’m a research psychologist at the Austen Riggs Center.  

Last spring, I conducted a study on the impact of social distancing on loneliness in collaboration with my colleagues from the Austen Riggs Center and from West Chester University. We were interested in learning whether loneliness would increase in a general adult sample over the course of the pandemic, and whether factors like the form and frequency of social contact and certain personality traits would affect loneliness over time. 
 
In all, nearly 200 adults from across the United States participated in our study, reporting on their mood and social behaviors twice per week for a period of 8 weeks between the months of April and August of 2020.  

We have thus far found that individuals who described themselves as having an insecure attachment style–meaning that their experiences in close relationships are characterized by anxiety, fear, or uncertainty–were more likely to report greater experiences of loneliness during the study period. Having particular days that involved less frequent in-person social contact were also associated with greater loneliness. And finally, we found that sleep disturbance was related to greater loneliness both as a general risk factor and at the daily level as a more proximal predictor of loneliness. Overall, our findings suggest that sleep impairment, experiences in close relationships, and lower access to in-person social support were all risk factors for loneliness. 

These findings are important in part because social isolation, loneliness, relationship quality, and sleep disturbance have all been linked to poor physical heath outcomes and in particular to impaired immune functioning. As we learn more about the long-term physical health implications of the pandemic, it will be essential to consider not only medical and pharmacological interventions, but also to promote behavioral and broader social interventions that support health, well-being, and longevity.  

Toward this end, our research group has recently completed a follow-up study supported with funds from the American Psychological Foundation and the Division 39 Marsha D. McCary grant, that follow the same study sample, now six-eight months after their participation in the initial study from this past spring, with the goal of understanding the long-term impact of social behaviors, personality factors, and sleep functioning on a range of health-related outcomes. We hope that our findings will contribute to the growing knowledge about the long-term heath impact of the pandemic and suggest possible future pathways for intervention.  

We promise to keep you updated. Thank you so much for your time.  

 

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