Loneliness can cause sleep deprivation in young adults

Sleep deprivation

According to new research, loneliness can be just as bad for sleep as caffeine, money troubles and screen time

Research by King’s College, London recently published in the Psychological Medicine journal suggests that loneliness could be the cause of a reduction in sleep quality among 18 to 34 year olds.

According to the findings, young adults who reported feeling frequently lonely were more likely to suffer from poor sleep quality, as well as tiredness throughout the day and poor concentration compared to those who did not feel lonely.

Loneliness is a huge issue in the UK, with more than 66% of British adults suffering from regular lonely feelings. Among the population, young adults using social media suffer the most from loneliness, with more than 40% saying they wish they had more friends. 48% of people aged over 55 said they never feel lonely, whilst 16% of 18 to 34 year olds always feel lonely.

This is supported by research from the Mental Health Foundation, who found that although loneliness is often associated with older people, it’s actually more common in young adults.

But the researchers at King’s College found that we know far less about how exactly loneliness affects the health of young adults, including its effect on sleep quality.

Exploring the findings: how loneliness affects sleep quality in young adults
Regarding the study, member of the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology and Neuroscience at King’s College London Professor Louise Arseneault explained, “We tested associations between loneliness and sleep quality in a nationally representative sample of young adults.”

Data from 2,232 young adults was analysed in order to obtain the results. Participants were asked four questions to measure their loneliness, including, “How often do you feel alone?” and “How often do you feel that you lack companionship?” The study also gathered data on their sleep pattern, including duration, disturbances and time taken to fall asleep.

Results showed that 30% of the participants reported feeling lonely sometimes, while 5% felt lonely often. Crucially, the study also found that participants who identified as lonely were 10% more likely to have poor sleep quality than those who weren’t lonely. They were also 24% more likely to experience trouble concentrating and daytime tiredness.

Even after accounting for outside factors such as symptoms of depression and anxiety, the findings remained viable.

Why does loneliness affect the way young people sleep?

Despite the fact that the study did not present a clear reason behind the link between loneliness and sleep, researchers on the study did share some of their theories.

Some researchers turned their focus to the evidence behind the link between loneliness and an increase in cortisol — our natural “stress hormone” — which could lead to sleep disruption.

Thomas Matthews, co-author of the study and another member of the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology and Neuroscience, highlighted that the link between loneliness and sleep deprivation was most prevalent among those who had a history of exposure to violence.

He said, “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. It is therefore important to recognise that loneliness may interact with pre-existing vulnerabilities in some people, and that these individuals should receive tailored support.”

Professor Arsenault emphasised the importance of addressing loneliness in young people before it becomes an even more serious problem:

“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. Many of the young people in our study are currently at university, living away from home for the first time, which can compound feelings of loneliness. It is therefore important that they receive appropriate support to address these feelings before they turn into severe mental health problems.”

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