Can technology help heal loneliness

Loneliness: Influence on the success of the therapy

Loneliness is not a mental disorder, but it can trigger and exacerbate one. Trusting relationships, on the other hand, contribute to psychological stability. There are different interventions for "treating" loneliness.

Mentally ill people are often lonely. Loneliness can also trigger and worsen mental disorders. The opposite of loneliness, i.e. being part of a human community and important, trusting relationships, on the other hand, contributes to psychological stabilization and recovery. Since both can have a major influence on the success of therapy, psychologists and psychotherapists should deal with loneliness, even if its termination is not a primary, but at most a secondary therapy goal.

To be lonely means to have no one to value and trust, live, work or plan a future with and talk about important things. One can therefore also be lonely when one is surrounded by people among whom there is no significant caregiver. Feeling lonely is so painful and depressing because the need for social contact is a strong basic human need. If it remains unfulfilled, it basically represents an existential threat.

Loneliness is relatively common. Various studies show that loneliness already occurs in kindergarten and primary school: around eight to twelve percent of children are affected. Among adolescents and adults, at least seven percent feel constantly lonely and outcast. The number of those affected increases with age: between 20 and 40 percent of older people aged 55 and over describe themselves as lonely.

Various reasons

The reasons for loneliness are many. The most common include difficulties in initiating and maintaining interpersonal relationships, moving and being highly mobile, separations and divorces, and the loss of a partner or other significant person through death. In the case of the elderly, restrictions in mobility and mental and physical functions are added as reasons, and in the case of disabled and mentally ill people, prejudice and stigmatization exacerbate the problem.

Loneliness is dangerous. According to a recent study published in the journal Science, loneliness is synonymous with constant stress. Compared to non-lonely people, lonely people sleep worse and are less able to recover. They also eat less healthily, consume more alcohol and cigarettes, and exercise less. In addition, they suffer more frequently from cardiovascular diseases and depression, complain of reduced well-being and a poor quality of life, have a weakened immune system, more suicidal thoughts and die earlier. In addition, lonely elderly people lose physical and mental health more quickly and suffer more from dementia than those who are socially involved. So loneliness goes hand in hand with a high risk of illness.

Loneliness is influenced by many different factors. For example, a long-term study carried out by Finnish and Dutch social scientists shows that loneliness is caused by physical illnesses and limitations, chronic stress at work and in private life, lack of relaxation, reduction in social activities and depression, nervousness and the feeling of not being needed can amplify. On the other hand, a decrease in loneliness can be observed when it is possible to build up a satisfying social network and find a reliable partner.

"Loneliness is on the rise," says internist Christopher Masi from the University of Chicago. In his estimation, loneliness could become a serious problem for large parts of the population in the near future due to demographic developments (fewer births, more elderly people) and social trends (increase in divorces and one-person households). It is therefore imperative to develop interventions against loneliness. According to Masi, there have been different approaches to "treating" loneliness for several decades. They are based on the following theories, which require appropriate interventions:

  • Genes and Learning: Around 50 percent of the tendency to loneliness is innate, 50 percent is acquired. A genetic disposition does not necessarily lead to loneliness, but innate vulnerability in crisis situations can intensify certain lonely ways of thinking and behaving.

Interventions: People who tend to be lonely because of a disposition learn to avoid reinforcing and triggering factors. In addition, they learn social skills that help end or prevent loneliness.

  • Personality: Whether loneliness can be understood as a personality trait is controversial. However, lonely people have characteristic similarities: They are not infrequently suspicious, cynical and aggressive towards their fellow human beings. They evaluate themselves and others negatively and expect others to reject them. They are shy and pessimistic and have poor self-esteem. They also tend to be biased in social situations and behave in ways that others reject them.

Interventions: The targeted perception and examination of their characteristics and the effect of their behavior helps those affected to overcome them. Exercises that promote self-awareness can be supplemented by training to strengthen self-esteem and by measures that increase the feeling of belonging and connectedness with others.

  • Cognitions: Loneliness is a consequence of a negative interpretation of being alone. It is also often associated with an over-sensitivity to social threats. This focuses attention mainly on negative aspects of social relationships while suppressing positive aspects. The resulting cognitions impair social interactions and increase loneliness.

Interventions: On the one hand, we start with the interpretation of being alone: ​​For example, it can be viewed as an opportunity and an opportunity for development or relaxation and not as a misfortune. On the other hand, the perspective of social relationships is being worked on. Dysfunctional cognitions are checked against reality and changed in such a way that an uninhibited, positive interaction with other people is possible.

  • Environment: Lonely people often deal with people who are also lonely. Non-lonely people, who often meet lonely ones, become lonelier themselves.

Interventions: Lonely people do not take lonely people as role models and learn through them to avoid or overcome loneliness. Training in social skills, reducing social deficits and increasing social contacts, for example by encouraging group activities, voluntary work or the intensification of friendships, are also beneficial.

  • External obstacles: Loneliness is a result of spatial isolation and a lack of mobility.

Interventions: Regular home visits and telephone calls can help here, as can a drive and pick-up service or a move to an area that is more conveniently located or barrier-free. Unwanted isolation can also be overcome inexpensively and easily with modern technologies such as video conferencing, social networks and other Internet services. ►

According to Masi, changing social cognitions, i.e. checking negative thoughts about other people and social relationships, reducing fears of rejection and building positive social thoughts and behaviors, helps most effectively against loneliness. All other measures that improve social support, skills and opportunities for interaction have also proven their worth. To reduce loneliness, hypnosis, self-acceptance exercises and training against shyness, social anxiety and depression are also suitable. It is always important that the conditions for contacts and encounters are created. However, care must be taken to ensure that the measures meet the special needs of certain groups, such as children, the elderly or widowed. Psychotherapists can take on the tasks of changing dysfunctional cognitions with the help of cognitive-behavioral procedures and practicing social skills, stimulating social contacts and support and helping the patient to build a social network. In this way, regardless of the diagnosis or therapy, they can act as mediators between the patient and their social environment and help make patients feel less lonely.

Dr. phil. Marion Sonnenmoser

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Masi C et al .: A meta-analysis of interventions to reduce loneliness. Personality and Social Psychology Review 2011; 15 (3): 219-66.
Miller G: Why loneliness is hazardous to your health. Science 2011; 331 (6014): 138-40.
Shankar A et al .: Loneliness, social isolation, and behavioral and biological health indicators in older adults. Health Psychology 2011; 30 (4): 377-85.