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The Relationship Between Loneliness and Depression

Loneliness may be a symptom or feeling experienced by those diagnosed with depression or anxiety, but the relationship is not a simple causal one.

Feeling depressed, anxious, or lonely sometimes is a normal part of being human–we all need other people in our lives and social connection to pursue meaningful work, play, and love. But sometimes, when loneliness persists and won’t let go or makes it difficult to function in your day-to-day life, it may be signaling deeper issues that a trusted mental health professional can help address.
Loneliness is emerging as a national public health crisis and has been shown to contribute to mental health issues such as depression and anxiety for both adolescents and adults. Because of this, national media outlets including the Associated Press, NPR, PBS, The New York Times, Vox, and others have lauded and promoted the US Surgeon General's recent advisory which promotes social connection as the key to combatting rising rates of loneliness and isolation in the United States. Riggs Director of Research Katie Lewis, PhD, is researching and publishing about issues related to loneliness and mental health currently, and the importance of relationships has long been a core value of the treatment at Riggs.

What are Some of the Causes of Loneliness?

The causes of loneliness are often interrelated and complex. Stressful life events like divorce, illness, or loss of a partner/spouse may cause feelings of loneliness, along with life transitions such as retirement, moving to a new place, or experiencing trauma or conflict.
Separately, individuals who belong to historically marginalized groups or those who have lost their community in some fashion may be at higher risk of experiencing loneliness. 
It is important to draw a distinction between loneliness and being alone. Loneliness is a felt experience that can occur whether someone is physically alone or not and may have more to do with feeling like one does not belong, is not seen, or is not valued and validated by those around them.

What are Some of the Effects of Loneliness?

Loneliness has ramifications well beyond the psychological distress it can cause in the moment. The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) notes that social isolation and loneliness put individuals at “higher risks for a variety of physical and mental conditions: high blood pressure, heart disease, obesity, a weakened immune system, anxiety, depression, cognitive decline, Alzheimer’s disease, and even death” (NIMH, 2019) Chronic loneliness has been demonstrated to increase cortisol levels in the body, which can lead to excess weight gain, muscular weakness, concentration issues, and more (Medical News Today, 2020). In addition, researchers have found that "lonely individuals process the world in a way that is dissimilar to their peers and to each other." (Science Alert, 2023)
Austen Riggs Center Research Related to Loneliness & Suicide Risk
Two active studies, as part of our broader research efforts, are underway which employ smartphone-based experience sampling methods to evaluate changes in suicide risk over time. Rooted in the broader Riggs belief that relationships are instrumental in supporting long-term adaptive functioning and resilience, these studies examine how daily interpersonal exchanges, social perceptions and beliefs, and emotional functioning influence short-term changes in both loneliness and in other mental health outcomes like suicidal thoughts and impulses. These studies seek to advance understanding of the impact of relationships, emotional functioning, and health on short-term changes in suicide risk, with the goal of informing treatment and advancing clinical knowledge. 
Selected Riggs Studies Related to Loneliness
Lewis, K., Roche, M. J., Brown, F., Tillman, J. (2023). Intolerance of aloneness as a prospective predictor of suicidal ideation during COVID-19. Journal of Affective Disorders-Reports. DOI: 10.1016/j.jadr.2023.100469
  • Lewis, K., Roche, M. J., Brown, F., Tillman, J. (2022). Attachment, loneliness, and social connection as prospective predictors of suicidal ideation during the COVID-19 pandemic: a relational diathesis-stress experience sampling study. Suicide & Life-Threatening Behavior. DOI: 10.1111/sltb.12922
  • Lewis, K., Roche, M. J., Brown, F., Tillman, J. (2022). Reduced social contact and attachment insecurity as predictors of loneliness during COVID-19: a two- month experience sampling study. Personality and Individual Differences, 195, 111672. DOI: 10.1016/j.paid.2022.111672

How to Cope with Loneliness

It is okay to feel lonely sometimes. When the feelings are chronic or having a markedly negative impact on your life, there are things you can do, such as:
  • Talking with family, friends, or work colleagues
  • Getting involved in your local community or finding a local interest group
  • Exercising or practicing yoga and other mindfulness techniques 
The important thing is to remember that you are not alone and that there are people and resources available to help.

When to Seek Help for Loneliness

As referenced above, loneliness can contribute to a variety of mental health issues including depression, anxiety, suicidal ideation, and more. If loneliness is having a negative impact on your ability to function in everyday life, you might want to consider speaking with a mental health professional or accessing connection resources, like the ones offered by the U.S. Surgeon General. If you or someone you know is in crisis, please call the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline by dialing 988.

Social Connection Resources from the U.S. Surgeon General 

At the Austen Riggs Center, one of our core values is: “relationships are central in human life,” a principle that is applied to every facet of our treatment program. If you or someone you care about is struggling with mental health issues and are looking for a different approach, please contact our admissions team to learn if Riggs might be a good fit.

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