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Feelings of loneliness lead to restless sleep, study suggests

Loneliness negatively impacts sleep quality, scientists conducting a research on young adults in Great Britain have found. It seems that the stress levels related to feeling alone are the ones that interfere with a good night’s sleep.

It might seem paradoxical that in the age of connectivity, loneliness has become a serious mental health issue. But scientists say that this is exactly the case and that even with all the modern technology aimed at making keeping in touch easier, people are reporting worrying levels of loneliness. A few years back, the Mental Health Foundation releases a report, fittingly called the Lonely Society, in which it tried to paint a vivid picture of what loneliness looks like in contemporary society, especially given the serious health problems involved when people feel disconnected.

Almost half of respondents agreed or strongly agreed that the society is getting lonelier but technology helps, said over a half of the participants. But still, one in ten admitted to feeling lonely often and a quarter of participants said that they are worried about feeling lonely. And the prevalence was higher among young adults, aged 18 to 34, reaching 36%.

This is why researchers from King’s College London concentrated their studies on young adults, the age group most prone to feelings of loneliness. And while it is obvious that loneliness can lead to depression and anxiety and studies have linked feelings of loneliness to a compromised immune system, high blood and increased risks of heart disease and strokes, scientists wanted to study the effects of loneliness on sleep patterns, especially as previous research has suggested that loneliness can cause fragmented sleep patterns.

Researchers from King’s College sampled data from the Environmental Risk Longitudinal Twin Study, a cohort of 2,232 18-19-year-old twins born in England and Wales. They measured loneliness by scoring responses to four questions: “How often do you feel that you lack companionship?”, “How often do you feel left out?”, “How often do you feel isolated from others?” and “How often do you feel alone?”.

The questions were specifically tailored so that the scientists could have a clear picture of how lonely a person felt as people can be socially isolated without feeling lonely, or feel lonely despite being surrounded by many people.

After determining loneliness levels, scientist looked at sleep quality by also paying attention to the time it takes to fall asleep, sleep duration and sleep disturbances, as well as daytime dysfunction such as staying awake during the day.

When looking at the results, scientists found that there was a clear link between loneliness and poor quality sleep and the relationship remained even after they accounted for symptoms of mental health problems such as depression and anxiety, which are commonly associated with sleep problems and feeling lonely.

Loneliness leads to restless sleep

Lonelier people were 24 percent more likely to feel tired and have difficulty concentrating during the day, according to the study which was published by King’s College.

The researchers at King’s College hypothesised that this could be due to feelings of insecurity. One way in which they tried to measure this is by looking at the data of the youngster that have been exposed to violence, including crime, sexual abuse, child maltreatment and violent abuse by family members or peers. For these participants, the association between loneliness and poor sleep quality was almost 70 per cent stronger.

“We also found that past exposure to violence exacerbated the association between loneliness and poor sleep, which is consistent with the suggestion that sleep problems in lonely individuals are related to feeling unsafe,” said the leader of the study Timothy Matthews, from the College’s Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology & Neuroscience.

“This makes sense as sleep is a state in which it is impossible to be vigilant for one’s safety, so feeling isolated from others could make it more difficult to sleep restfully, and even more so for individuals who have been exposed to violence in the past.”

The association between violence and restless sleep shows that sleep patterns are affected by past experiences and that in order to help, specialists should tailor their responses to each patients’ pre-existing vulnerabilities.

And researchers conducting the study also hope that the new data will make psychologists pay more attention to early therapeutic measures that could break the vicious cycle of loneliness.

“Diminished sleep quality is one of the many ways in which loneliness gets under the skin, and our findings underscore the importance of early therapeutic approaches to target the negative thoughts and perceptions that can make loneliness a vicious cycle,” said professor Professor Louise Arseneault, from the same Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology & Neuroscience, in an article.

Arseneault also pointed out that most of the participants to the study were current students and that in these particular cases, being away from their families and familiar surroundings, loneliness could be exacerbated and early intervention could go a long way in helping the youngster feel more engaged and thus quite sleeping with one eye opened.

Sylvia Jacob