Many people experience loneliness at some point during their lives, but not everyone experiences it the same way.
Feeling lonely is completely subjective—people may feel social loneliness, emotional loneliness, and/or existential loneliness. That said, what causes feelings of loneliness is much less understood.
According to a new study published in Women’s Midlife Health, over one-third of the adult population in the U.S. reported feelings of loneliness. This is alarming, given that this “state of distress” is often negatively linked to various mental and physical health issues.
Moreover, the study authors mentioned that loneliness is often less understood when it comes to minorities and women, both of whom are at higher risks of experiencing abuse and trauma. As such, researchers set aim at trying to better understand loneliness and its possible link with trauma.
The Study Participants
Fifty people between the ages of 35 and 60 who identified as women and who were fluent in English were recruited and interviewed for the study. The women lived in economically distressed neighborhoods in North Philadelphia. The Temple University Hospital System (TUHS) completed its research between February 2017 and April 2018.
As per the study, the women had an average age of 50 and 74% were African American. Half of the study subjects were single, more than half were unemployed, and 70% reported prior mental health struggles. During the study, assessment tools confirmed that 78% of the subjects had anxiety and 64% had depression.
Common themes emerged from interviews conducted within the study group. Perceived causes of their collective loneliness included trauma, unhealthy relationships, and the burden of responsibility for others. Trauma was the most common theme, with only three participants not reporting any trauma in their lifetimes.
Physical abuse was reported by 80% of participants, while sexual abuse was reported by 58%. Emotional abuse or neglect was reported by an additional 62%. Overall, the study found that physical and emotional abuse was notably associated with loneliness.
Furthermore, a person’s loneliness score increased when she had several traumatic events in her lifetime. Interestingly, the study did not find increased levels of loneliness when participants reported experiencing sexual abuse, witnessing violence, and being raised by non-biological caregivers.
Many participants described feeling detached and feeling a need for companionship or someone to talk to, even when other people were around. One participant responded to the interview questions by saying, “Mentally I grew up alone, even though I was in a house, a family, and people around me … Mentally, I was broken.”
Another woman stated that she didn’t want to continue the cycle of abuse, saying, “I’m just trying to break that cycle because I’m not going to raise my kids like that.”
The Need For Trauma-Informed Care
Because loneliness is correlated with feelings of despair, suicidal ideation, and other mental health issues, trauma-informed care is desperately needed. The physical health consequences of loneliness are also apparent.
Being lonely has been associated with poor immune response, coronary artery disease, and poor sleep. It’s been linked with cognitive decline, poorer mental health outcomes, and dementia as well.
Trauma-informed care is important for most populations. However, given the results of this study, low-income, midlife, and minority women in particular should be screened for trauma and loneliness—particularly in primary care and mental health settings.
Trauma-informed care takes into account a person’s past experiences and builds trust between the patient and the provider. It keeps the patient’s safety, emotional and physical, at the forefront. More research is needed, but supporting women in midlife is essential, especially focusing on mitigating loneliness and providing access to and support for trauma treatment.