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Why insomniacs struggle with social isolation even more in the loneliness epidemic

Have you heard of the ‘loneliness epidemic’? In particular when describing how life has been for much of the world since the pandemic? After times of collective separation, we’ve all been finding our way back into social connection to varying degrees. And it’s been a lot.

Maša and I noticed how loneliness comes up in both of our work: through her sleep coaching and the authentic relating workshops that I host. We both hear people sharing about how they can feel alone when around others. Yet loneliness is often still a taboo subject.

Research from the Mental Health Foundation shows that one-third of Brits ‘would never admit to feeling lonely’. Three quarters (76%) believe that 'other people often feel ashamed or embarrassed about feeling lonely'.

These results came from 6,000 people who were interviewed in 2022 - showing that even after the pandemic, loneliness still has a stigma. This gives a flavour of how isolating loneliness can be: in both the experience itself, as well as through thoughts about it.

Maša and I decided to collaborate and shine a light on loneliness. We want to acknowledge how it's actually a byproduct of being human in our modern world. As well as being especially challenging if you struggle with sleep. So this guest blog article was born! We'll explore how loneliness relates to well-being, health and sleep. Along with tips for creating more social connections in your life.

Are you ready to go against social awkwardness and get into this taboo topic with me? My name is Andrea Callan and I'll be guiding the way, with some input from Maša too. I'm constantly curious about how social and self-connection contribute to well-being. Thanks for being here with me - let's get the low down on loneliness.

What is the global loneliness epidemic?

As countries around the globe attempt to tackle the common challenge, it's often a prominent topic in news headlines. Results released from the European Commission’s first EU-wide survey on loneliness found approximately 13% of people felt lonely ‘most or all of the time’ in 2022. In America, the Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy, called attention to the ‘public health crisis of loneliness, isolation, and lack of connection in [the] country’ by launching a landmark advisory on the issue. It outlined potential health impacts of loneliness as:

‘Physical health consequences of poor or insufficient connection include a 29% increased risk of heart disease, a 32% increased risk of stroke, and a 50% increased risk of developing dementia for older adults. Additionally, lacking social connection increases risk of premature death by more than 60%’. Surgeon General's National Strategy to Advance Social Connection

In South Korea, young people have been identified as being particularly at risk with hikikomori’. This Japanese term refers to ‘adolescents and young adults who become recluses in their parents’ homes, unable to work or go to school for months or years’. The Ministry of Gender Equality and Family in Seoul has pledged to offer these young people an allowance of around $500 to encourage them to leave the house. So loneliness is most definitely a thing. With more people all over the world experiencing isolation in the pandemic, awareness has increased around the importance of social connection for well-being. Yet, loneliness has actually been referenced since the 1800s, so you could say it is a natural human response to modern life.

What is loneliness?

In the Financial Times article The loneliness epidemic threatens our health as well as our happiness, Professor Andrea Wigfield, discerns between loneliness and social isolation as:

‘Loneliness is different from social isolation. The latter is an objective measure of whether a person lives alone, has friends and family, and belongs to social groups. Loneliness, on the other hand, is the self-reported, subjective feeling that one’s social relationships somehow fall short, in quantity or intimacy or both.’

For some insights into the subjective feelings that loneliness can bring, there is the Loneliness Scale. This test from UCLA has a range of statements for people to indicate which they resonate, such as:

  • I lack companionship,

  • I feel as if nobody really understands me,

  • My social relationships are superficial,

  • People are around me but not with me,

  • I feel completely alone,

  • I am unable to reach out and communicate with those around me,

  • I feel isolated from others.

The loneliness of insomnia

Maša noted how many of these statements relate to the insomniac’s struggle:

‘It can be so frustrating when you just can’t seem to drop off to sleep. In those hours in the middle of the night, it can feel like you’re the only one in this often desperate situation. Whilst the rest of the world is resting’.

Sleep deprivation can lead to lower quality social engagement. That’s because having less energy impacts a person’s anxiety levels and ability to manage emotions. It goes the other way around as well - if you're having unfulfilling social connection, that can make sleep a struggle. A common experience that can come from not experiencing the social connection you would like is a tendency to feel lonely even when you may be surrounded by people.

What is feeling lonely, even around others, about?

Something I often hear in workshops is how connection can be ‘hit or miss’ at social events. This could be on nights out, at parties, meals or other gatherings. Conversation in groups can be fast-paced as it often competes with a stimulating environment. This can take away from the opportunity for presence to connect in deeper ways. So people can come away from their social event not feeling fully seen or heard. Which can look like:

  • Not feeling included in a larger group,

  • Not feeling safe to share how you are really feeling, or deeper parts of yourself,

  • Feeling frustrated with surface-level conversation or ‘small talk’,

  • Focussing on waiting for your chance to speak whilst others are talking,

  • Being interrupted or talked over,

  • Sharing an idea but the conversation moves on without any acknowledgment.

It may not seem like too big a deal: sometimes you have a great night, other times it’s so-so. However, without being seen and heard, you miss out on the fulfillment of connection. Researcher Brene Brown describes this as an ‘energy that exists between people when they feel seen, heard, and valued’. What does our sleep coach have to say about it?

‘These kinds of social experiences can be dissatisfying on a subtle level. But because they are familiar, it might not be so obvious. You might find yourself reaching for a drink as a way to try to soothe yourself and ‘take the edge off’. Or letting loose to 'get out of your head' or pass the time. When it comes to bedtime, your body is left with the stimulation from the alcohol in your system. There's also the frustration from your unmet need for connection underneath that. Which takes a while to wind down from, so once again, you find yourself having a rough night's sleep’. Maša Nobilo, Restful Sleep Sleep Coach.

Approaches for dealing with insomnia and loneliness

So what came first, the poor sleep or the loneliness? It doesn't matter, and that's what’s liberating! Because it means that this can be tackled from either side. You have choice on whichever way may feel more accessible for you.

You could start with some fundamentals of better sleep through reviewing sleep hygiene in your daily routine. From there you will have more energy to go out and find more social connection. Or you could choose to first focus on creating more social interactions. When you experience more connectedness, you'll improve your well-being, which helps your sleep.

How to feel less lonely and experience more social connection

If you'd like to try out some ways to experience more connection in your everyday life, I've got you in the tips below. These include practical ways to meet and interact with more people. There's also some considerations for conversation from the authentic relating workshops that I host.

Enjoy a new hobby and be part of a community

Being seen and known can be achieved in many ways. It can be through both deep conversation, as well as more casually. The latter comes about by being a ‘familiar face’ at places that you and others regularly attend. You can do this through hobbies that have a community of people who attend and have shared interests. For example: volunteering, salsa dancing, joining a writing group, attending CrossFit classes, whatever appeals to you. By sharing a hobby, you instantly have something in common with the other attendees. This also sets a time in your schedule for some low-pressure, social connection.

A sleep coaching thought from Maša… ‘Some weeks you may feel too tired to commit to doing something after work. You’d rather crash on the couch, but can you see the activity as essential for your well-being? Once you reframe the activity, there is even the possibility of opening up to the idea that the experience could energise you’.

Shift your focus away from what you don’t yet have

Here’s another mindset shift to try out. It's common to feel frustrated or defeated by wanting more connection. This can lead to a spiral of limiting beliefs which can keep you stuck. Instead, can you practice gratitude for what you have? Even if that is simply a returned smile from the person who delivered your post this morning. Or a high five during CrossFit that gives an extra boost to your energy levels.

Gratitude has many proven health benefits, as well as being shown to be beneficial to maintaining relationships. It focuses the mind on attracting more of what you do want (two high fives next week!), rather than dwelling on what you may not have.

Visit regular places in your routine

You can also create community in your routine at the places you visit during your week. For example, going to a specific co-working space, gym, park or coffee shop at a consistent time each week. This is another way of being seen and known, bringing little moments of social connection. Whether it's the coffee shop staff knowing your name and order, or sharing a joke with someone you see at the gym.

Another way to practice connection is by chatting with people who work in hospitality or customer service roles. After all, part of their job is to be friendly with you! Be sure to choose a quieter moment, when they aren’t dealing with a rush of customers. You can see how these experts respond to some of the conversation tips below - whilst adding to their tip jar.

Aim to be interested, rather than interesting

OK, who feels, or cringes slightly, at this one...? See if you can avoid doing that thing where you ask a question that you would like to be asked. As great as your answer may be, that approach is focused on you, so you can end up not being so present with the other person whilst waiting for your turn to be heard.

The trick is to get interested in the other person and what’s going on in their world. A way into this from authentic relating is:

‘If you aren’t feeling curious about the person you're with - can you get curious about them? Can you get a glimpse into their inner world of experience and learning, joy and pain? What can you learn from this person?’.

Think about questions that invite the other person to share more about themselves. You can create a list on your phone, so you have options ready for conversations. These can be things like ‘what is something in your near future that you are looking forward to?’, ‘what brings you joy?’ or 'what's something you are proud of?'.

Another approach that may be more comfortable is to talk about familiar topics. Listen out for details that you find interesting and ask follow-up questions to go deeper. These can be things like where people are from or what they do for work.

Paying attention when listening

Most people enjoy talking about themselves when they get the chance. So by giving them a space to speak you’re boosting your chances of them enjoying spending time with you. When a person answers your question, don’t move straight on to the next thing. Stay with what they shared and expand on that, either asking a follow-up question or reflecting on something that touched you from what they said. Think of it like following a thread to see where it may take you.

For example, when you ask someone where they are from, you can follow up with asking them for a fun fact about the place. I always encourage the more silly or obscure answers, the better! This encourages playfulness to build some memorable connection and it slows the conversation down. Slowing down gives the person time to think and you a chance to bring some presence to what it's like to be with them.

In some of my recent conversations, I found out that Superman was created in Ohio and the ukulele originated from Madeira. Hearing the ukulele reference, I got curious to know if the person from Madeira enjoyed guitar music. It turns out that they did, but not as much as electronic music. Talking about that brought us to realise that we enjoyed some of the same artists. We then discussed some of our favourite places to enjoy music. I got some useful tips and made a friendly acquaintance who I may see at future musical events.

This just goes to show that it doesn't really matter what you talk about in conversation. Feeling heard comes from asking questions that reflect your curiosity in the other person, as well as slowing down for more presence.

Presence - the hard bit, especially if you’re struggling with sleep

This is the core factor underlying all of the tips and it can be challenging when you’re rushing through a busy day or are feeling too tired to be social. You may notice limiting beliefs coming in about what it means to be getting through the day after a night of patchy sleep and need some motivation to stick with it.

For motivation, can you remind yourself of how important social connection is for your mental well-being? When you allocate specific times in your weekly schedule for social engagement, you can progressively cultivate your ability to be present when interacting with others, as well as with yourself.

You can also challenge yourself to stick with social connection time for short amounts of time. You could give yourself a 30-minute target for being fully present with socialising, then check in to see how you may feel after that. If you want to leave, you've still honoured your commitment to social connection. Or you may feel energised to stay...

A way to build your presence in social interactions is through cultivating more self-connection for yourself. This can be done through reflective activities such as journalling, artistic expression, crafting or anything else that allows you to slow down and be with yourself.

Building presence with yourself

Authentic relating has been referred to as a ‘relational meditation’. This is because when you bring mindfulness to your interactions with others, it can heighten your awareness and overall state of well-being. The first principle from Authentic Relating is to welcome everything: in your and others' experiences, as well as in the world. You can practice welcoming everything in connecting with yourself by getting curious about what may be going on for you and trying to not to judge whatever you may notice. This means welcoming all emotions and thoughts, as well as any sensations in the body. There may be a temptation to just focus on happy feelings, achievements and celebrations. However, we can acknowledge more of our wholeness by noticing sadness, tired eyes or a sense of grieving a loss, for example.

Practicing self-connection can be scary if it's something you may have previously avoided it with hustle culture, staying busy or other distractions (doomscrolling, anyone?). However, it can be learned with practice and the good news is that not only will all uncomfortable emotions eventually pass, they actually contain a gift of insight within them. I speak more about this on my Instagram page, self-connection is a skill.

Being present to notice when others may not be available

Presence also allows you to notice when conversations may naturally draws to a close, or if you or the other person would like to move on. This can be something to look out for as availability for connection will vary. Factors like the environment and familiarity you have with the person can influence this. There will also be unknowns, like the person's mental health status and what they may have going on in their life.

Essentially, some people will be available in the moment, some won’t. By staying present with what is, you can see how it feels to be with different people in different moments. By practicing this, you will become more attuned to when someone may not be available. As well as noticing if you are feeling energised by the connection or if you would like to move on.

Get support with social connection for well-being and better sleep

As we’ve touched on with these tips, there are lots to consider when it comes to social connection. With so much to pay attention to, it can feel overwhelming to bring more awareness to these. Which is why isolation is an understandable choice for people to conserve energy!

Yet, as we need ways to approach social connection as a vital part of our well-being, support can be helpful. I help people come out of feeling lost, stuck, insecure or people pleasing. In supporting their self-connection, they can then find more clarity and confidence. You can find out more at my self-connection is a skill Instagram page.

If you would like to work through social struggles, how they impact your insomnia and vice versa, check out Restful Sleep sleep coaching. Maša even offers a free discovery call, so if you have any questions about social connection and your sleep, you can book in with her. Wishing you well in your connection experiments, Andrea.

Andrea Callan is constantly curious about how social and self-connection contribute to well-being. She helps people to connect to themselves and each other. She writes about this from the perspective of personal and professional development.


About the author

Maša Nobilo, Sleep Coach

From first-hand insomniac to certified Embodied Facilitator with training in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for Insomnia, the Feldenkrais Method and Embodied Yoga Principles, Maša is well-equipped to support you on journey to restful sleep.
Learn more below.

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