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Loneliness and Sleep

Do you feel lonely because you didn’t sleep well? Is your loneliness impairing your sleep? It seems to work both ways when it comes to these two problems.

You are probably not going to feel like a friendly person if you didn’t get enough sleep. What is more, other people will see you as less approachable and may avoid contact with you.

The second scenario is the one in which you feel lonely and you don’t have sleep problems at first. You may have moved to a new state or had to say goodbye to a loved one. Your loneliness is likely to make your sleep quality worse in the future. This can make you feel more lonely in turn and throw you into the cycle of poor sleep and loneliness.

Here you can read about how loneliness affects sleep and vice versa. We also provide general information about the health risks of loneliness and poor sleep and offer solutions for better sleep in case you are or someone you know is very lonely.

How loneliness affects sleep

People who are lonely often feel too tired to fulfill all of their daily tasks. This has led many researchers to question the connection between loneliness and sleep.

As one study reports, social isolation and feelings of loneliness are closely related to non-restorative sleep (sleep that doesn’t make you refreshed).

Humans are highly social beings and it is natural for us to function properly when surrounded by other people. Isolation makes us feel less safe. Life seems a more threatening and dangerous place. It could be that these things cause poor sleep in lonely people.

The lonely suffer from many “micro-awakenings” throughout the night. A micro-awakening is a short nightly awakening that disrupts normal sleep cycles – a person who frequently wakes up spends more time in light sleep stages. This means they get less of the deep, restorative sleep. The tricky part here is that lonely people don’t remember waking up at night. However, these sleep disturbances can be seen on polysomnographs.

Research shows that lonely individuals may have the same sleep duration as those who aren’t lonely. What differs is how efficient and restorative their sleep is. Some of them complain about the inability to fall asleep.

Poor sleep leads to problems like daytime sleepiness, low energy levels, mood changes, depressive outlook, and stronger feelings of loneliness. A person like this is likely to remain lonely because we need energy and will to see people in order to be a good company for them.

How poor sleep affects loneliness

An interesting study from 2018 has shed new light on the link between sleep and loneliness.

The results show that we are less likely to be socially interactive if our sleep was even slightly compromised. People were tested when they were well-rested and when they were sleep-deprived.

After a night of poor sleep, they showed less tolerance for human proximity in real life (when a researcher approached them) and on a computer (they paused a video which showed people approaching the camera). After insufficient sleep they reported feeling lonelier; their loneliness was gone after a good night of sleep.

Sleep efficiency and social closeness

Figure 1. a) Differences in reaction to social closeness people exhibited when well-rested and sleep-deprived. b) Feelings of loneliness between the two. Image source: Sleep loss causes social withdrawal and loneliness. Nature Communications. 2018.

This study had another interesting point. Each participant was interviewed after both good and poor sleep. These interviews were shown online to a large group of people who knew nothing about the experiment. They were the “judges” whose task was to assess how lonely the interviewees appeared to be, whether they seemed approachable and whether they would cooperate with them.

Sleep-deprived individuals gave out a general impression of being more lonely and less approachable. The sad information is that judges chose those who were well-rested over the sleepy ones for possible group task/cooperation.

This means that someone who hasn’t slept well not only feels lonelier but is also perceived as lonely by others. There is avoidance on both sides which keeps a lonely person in their lonely position.

Surprisingly enough, the judges reported feeling lonelier after watching sleep-deprived individuals’ short interviews. It seems that loneliness is not only undesirable but also contagious.

Both loneliness and poor sleep are strong risk factors for numerous health problems. They include physical and psychological diseases. It is interesting that many consequences of prolonged loneliness are exactly the same as the consequences of prolonged sleep deprivation. They include:

  • Depression. Negative thoughts and expectations without seeing an opportunity for improvement. It may lead to suicidal thoughts.
  • Pain. The subjective feeling of pain increases.
  • Dementia. Being deprived of human contact has a negative effect on cognitive functions. One study shows that just feeling lonely does more damage than being actually isolated from people.
  • Immune system. Loneliness weakens the immune system as lonely people have low activity of natural killer (NK) cells.
  • Cardiovascular diseases. They include high blood pressure and coronary heart disease.
  • Cancer. When we sleep well, our body can fight against cancer cells. If we are sleep deprived over a long period of time, we allow those cells to grow. Lonely people seem more likely to develop cancer.

There are more dangers behind loneliness. Alcohol abuse is often linked to loneliness. It provides instant relief and gratification; which masks the sadness of being lonely. Adults who suffer from loneliness are likely to abuse their children. Furthermore, teens and adults who were abused often lack social skills and end up being lonely themselves.

Types of loneliness

Not every type of loneliness is the same. You may feel lonely one day because you didn’t get a text back or you may feel lonely because you actually have nobody to talk to.

Different authors divide loneliness into various categories. Perhaps the main two are emotional isolation (when you feel emotionally distant from your friends or acquaintances) and social isolation (when you don’t have a social network and almost never interact with other members of society).

How to sleep better if you are a lonely person?

The first thing you can try is to fight your loneliness. Social interaction should improve your sleep.

  • You can do this through group therapy or events. They can offer help and support for lonely people. As lonely people typically tend to be hypervigilant in social situations, they may easily withdraw from friendships. This is what you should be aware of and try not to do it.
  • Work on your social skills and learn how to begin and maintain a meaningful conversation. There are many videos on websites like Youtube that can help you learn these skills.
  • Find your negative thoughts and rationalize them. If you think you’re going to embarrass yourself, try to understand that other people get embarrassed, too. Stop making bad scenarios in your head. Do not generalize (“I never succeed in talking to people, they are always better than me”). Whatever those thoughts are, find them and eliminate them.

These are all things you can attempt alone or with a therapist. The third point is a part of CBT (cognitive behavioral therapy) and it has given excellent results in treating loneliness. Once you’re less lonely, you may find yourself having a better night’s sleep.

Other sleep-improving advice includes:

  • Lowering your stress levels. You can do deep breathing exercises or have enjoyable, stress-relieving activities in the evening.
  • Take a warm bath. Warm water relaxes us and increases deep sleep. Do this about one hour prior to your bedtime.
  • Avoid alcohol. Although alcohol helps relieve the pain of loneliness, it severely decreases your sleep quality. It doesn’t get you into the real, natural state of sleep. You’re rather sedated and deprived of both deep and REM sleep.
  • Cut caffeine intake after early afternoon. Some authors advise stopping at 2 pm because caffeine takes about 12 hours to leave our body. Going to bed with plenty of caffeine in your system will give you non-restorative sleep.
  • Do physical exercise during the day and expose yourself to bright light in the morning and afternoon. These help your internal clock run smoothly, improve mood, relieve stress, improve self-image and make you sleep sounder.

Last but not least, wake up at approximately the same time every day (weekdays and weekends) and go to bed at the same time. Many clinicians report this sole rule to be extremely helpful with many physical and mental conditions. Good sleep hygiene is the most important pillar of healthy, restorative sleep.

Additional resources

  1. Sleep loss causes social withdrawal and loneliness. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6092357/ Accessed May 18, 2019.
  2. Loneliness Impairs Daytime Functioning But Not Sleep Duration. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2841303/ Accessed May 18, 2019.
  3. Pain, Depression, and Fatigue: Loneliness as a Longitudinal Risk Factor. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3992976/ Accessed May 18, 2019.
  4. Relationship Between Loneliness, Psychiatric Disorders and Physical Health? A Review on the Psychological Aspects of Loneliness. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4225959/ Accessed May 18, 2019.
  5. Loneliness: Clinical Import and Interventions. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4391342/ Accessed May 18, 2019.
  6. Loneliness Is Associated with Sleep Fragmentation in a Communal Society. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3198207/ Accessed May 18, 2019.

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