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The impact of lockdown on isolation and loneliness

Researchers from Queens' Centre for Improving Health-Related Quality of Life are examining the impact of physical distancing regulations on social interaction, isolation and loneliness.

Dr Jenny Groarke is a Health Psychology Lecturer and member of the Centre for Improving Health-Related Quality of Life (CIHRQoL). Through her research she examines how various interventions and activities, such as music, mindfulness, stress management and cognitive behavioural therapy, can reduce negative emotions, anxiety and stress.

Woman with a sad expression

She explains why she is now focussing her research on the impact of COVID-19 with the launch of a new study examining the impact of physical distancing regulations on social interaction, isolation and loneliness:

“Loneliness can be profoundly damaging for mental and physical health. Social isolation and loneliness are not the same, but they are closely related. The current recommendations to stay at home, practice social distancing, and limit social interactions mean that many people will be feeling the effects of isolation,” says Dr Groarke.

She adds, “To reduce the spread of COVID-19 isolation is mandatory – but loneliness is not. The government lockdown offers us an opportunity to understand the relationship between isolation and loneliness. We will examine the prevalence and experience of loneliness during a period of enforced social isolation, which will help us clarify the link between social isolation and loneliness. Beyond these theoretical interests, it is critical that we take a broad approach to understanding the mental health impact of COVID-19, so that we can effectively and efficiently respond to future pandemics.”

Take part in the study

Through the study, which you can take part in here, Dr Groarke and her team are hoping to gain unique and important insights into how a situation such as the government lockdown can impact on loneliness.

“We are asking people to complete a survey where they will answer questions about their level of social contact, social support, feelings of loneliness, and how they are coping with the government lockdown. We will invite participants to complete the survey again in two weeks’ time. We are also carrying out interviews to understand these experiences in greater depth. We are particularly interested in hearing from younger adults, who voices are often left out of studies on loneliness. Together, this will help us understand more about people’s experiences of distancing over time and how we might help with feelings of loneliness,” she explains.

It’s hoped the study might help inform the COVID-19 response, she adds. “Experiencing loneliness can be unbearable for some and it might lead people to break social distancing rules, and so understanding this experience and how people are coping is paramount to help us to design supports that will help people to continue social distancing for as long as necessary to keep people safe.”

woman alone on a bench

A loneliness epidemic?

While it is too early to tell if social distancing as a result of COVID-19 has sparked a loneliness epidemic, one recent study carried out in Spain during the COVID-19 pandemic found that loneliness was associated with higher emotional distress, and that loneliness was higher in females, young people, and those who have less contact with relatives.

“There are a number of ongoing longitudinal studies, including ours that will help us to understand the impact of social distancing on loneliness,” says Dr Groarke. “An initial report from one of these studies is that loneliness has been relatively stable since the beginning of the lockdown, but is higher among 18-29-year old’s, people living alone, with lower household income, and those with a mental health condition.”

Dr Groarke notes that younger people, in particular, are feeling the effects of social distancing and lockdown. “We already know that 33% of people in the UK often or very often feel lonely, with 16–24-year-olds reporting the highest rates. As this group is forced out of school and university and away from their peers, and as people of all ages around the world have to adapt the ways they connect with others.”

man alone on a beach

 Combatting loneliness

While there can be positive social effects of distancing for some people who are learning new ways to interact online or reconnecting with friends and family, not everyone is as fortunate.

“Some people may be more affected by lockdown than others,” notes Dr Groarke, “such as those whose living situation is already isolating because of physical or mental health conditions, and those without access to the internet or knowledge of the digital communication platforms available. New communication technologies provide opportunities to be social during the COVID-19 pandemic, however, we still need to connect using more accessible methods like a telephone call, or simply smiling or waving to someone you see out and about, to enhance connection with people who may be feeling lonely or isolated without these newer methods.

“There are four main approaches to managing loneliness applied by psychologists:

  1. Developing social skills
  2. Giving social support
  3. Developing opportunities for social interaction, and
  4. Recognising unhelpful social beliefs.

“It is not clear yet whether these same approaches can be scaled up to manage loneliness as a result of social distancing.”

Person using a mobile phone

Linking loneliness and health

Loneliness is a significant public health issue, notes Dr Groarke.

“Loneliness is associated with an increased risk of mortality similar to other known risk factors like smoking and alcohol consumption. The reason for this link is not well understood, however, some very recent research has suggested sleep disturbance is a potential mechanism.

She adds: “The negative impact of loneliness also extends to mental health. Loneliness is a predictor of social anxiety and depression. Difficulties with loneliness in adolescence also predict later suicide attempts. Loneliness is associated with alcohol abuse.”

Take part in the study here.

School of Psychology