The Campaign to End Loneliness has released a landmark report, the first of its kind to look at how psychological approaches can help tackle loneliness.

Loneliness happens when the social connections that people want don’t match their actual experience of relationships with others. Loneliness is a subjective and emotional response and we need to better understand its emotional impact on individuals. People describe loneliness with words like anxiety, fear, shame and helplessness.

These powerful emotions can influence how we act. Loneliness can also affect how we anticipate and interpret our social experiences.

This can mean we are more apprehensive or fearful of social situations or pick up on social rejection cues too readily. This can create a downward spiral where loneliness can cause someone to withdraw further from family and friends and become lonelier.

The report is focussed on older people but has lessons for all adults. It gathers the current research and evidence available to us about what we can learn from psychology, as well as making policy recommendations for how this learning can be applied and help the millions of lonely people across the UK.

What works

There are a number of psychological approaches that show promise for easing loneliness in later life. The three with the most relevant research evidence are cognitive behavioural therapy, mindfulness and positive psychology.

Cognitive behavioural therapy helps people understand their thoughts, feelings and behaviours so they can change some of these to manage their difficulties.

Mindfulness can help people become aware of their thoughts during difficult times and choose to accept or reject them.

Positive psychology promotes positive emotions, helping people to override negative feelings and thought patterns.

What we can do

Through public campaigning, we can help individuals to understand how loneliness affects them and those around them and build this understanding into their everyday lives.

Organisations providing services for people who may be lonely can adjust their work to use some of the learning about the psychology of loneliness. Group activities, social prescribing and emerging psycho-education courses can all use these insights to improve the design of their services. Indeed, many already do.

There is a group of people with chronic loneliness, which may be part of a complex set of problems, or due to difficult life events such as bereavement. This group may be best helped by one-to-one support directly focused on helping them alleviate loneliness using psychological techniques.

We hope that the evidence and insights in this report will shine new light on this issue and improve our collective ability to tackle loneliness. This is the first policy report on loneliness and psychology in the UK and there is still much to learn. Nevertheless, the case for action is clear.

Kate Shurety, Executive Director of the Campaign to End Loneliness said:

“As a result of lockdown millions of people say loneliness is affecting their wellbeing and there has been unprecedented action across all levels of government and society. The subject has never been more relevant As meeting physically has often been impossible due to lockdown, there has been an increased understanding of the role of psychology to deal with loneliness. This report hopes to help people tackle their own loneliness and support people to better understand the emotional impact of their thoughts and feelings.”

Baroness Diana Barran MBE, Minister for Civil Society said:

“Since becoming Minister for Loneliness, I have become ever more struck by the seriousness of loneliness and the impact it has on people’s lives. It can affect our health, wellbeing, productivity, and self-esteem. This is the first policy report on the psychology of loneliness in the UK. I hope that the way it crystallises what many people are doing instinctively can be used to spread these approaches, so everyone can connect in order to live full and satisfying lives.”

Jeremy Bacon, Older People Lead at the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy, said:

“Anxiety and depression are not inevitable features of later life. Access to psychological support that addresses problems contributing to loneliness has never been more important and BACP welcomes this report as a timely contribution to understanding psychological aspects of loneliness.

“It is vital that the UK governments fully recognise the psychological impact of the Covid-19 pandemic and increase access to talking therapies as part of the response to rising need.”

Andy Langford from Cruse Bereavement Care said:

“All of us will experience bereavement in our lives. Being bereaved can be a hugely isolating experience, and feelings and chronic loneliness is not uncommon. For many, the death of someone close can create or deepen feelings of being alone.

“As the report finds, we know that the right support at the right time can help someone who is chronically lonely. Cruse provides this support through our network of 5000 incredible trained Bereavement Volunteers, including via one-to-one support. We would encourage anyone who is struggling to reach out, whether that’s to a friend or family, or a support service like Cruse.”

Aidan Jones, Chief Executive of leading relationships charity Relate, said:

“The impact of loneliness at any age can be emotionally debilitating and physically harmful. In later life, when some people already find themselves with reduced social networks and increased health issues, it can be very difficult to deal with. Often, even when people are in relationships, they can still feel lonely. Understanding the root psychological causes for loneliness and creating targeted ways to help individuals in need can make all the difference to quality of life. Reaching out and ensuring someone feels heard and understood is an important first step. Relate offers relationship support services across England and Wales to people of all ages from all walks of life.”

Dr Mani Krishnan, Chair of the Old Age Faculty at The Royal College of Psychiatrists said:

“This comprehensive report clearly articulates not just the reasons that older people are so vulnerable to experiencing loneliness, but meaningful ways to prevent this and to provide support. It is essential that we recognise the impact on loneliness on the mental health of older people and take on board the messages of this report to ensure that psychological therapy is available to all older people, including those in digitally-excluded and hard-to-reach groups.”