As I was reading for my Personality Psych class I came across a section on loneliness, and how there is a correlation between loneliness and illness (simple things like colds and flus). In one study that had people opt to be exposed to a virus and found that those who reported stronger bonds with friends and family (and less loneliness) were less likely to get sick. Whereas those who were lonely were much more likely to get sick. As I read that study I had to wonder if anyone had done a similar study correlating Fibromyalgia and loneliness, and sure enough I found a 2014 study from Wolf & Davis that did just that.
There has been a lot of research on the topic of loneliness and illness. From findings that breast cancer patients who report loneliness have higher pain levels, to the same results in the elderly. It seems that lack of social support and/or feeling lonely can definitely contribute to our pain. So, we’d expect to find the same results with Fibromyalgia.
This study actually looked at a little bit more. They examined whether chronic feelings of loneliness were connected to positive and/or negative interpersonal events, as well as how day-to-day changes in interpersonal events correlated to day-to-day changes in pain. The sample looked at 118 Fibromyalgia patients who were asked to provide daily diaries for 21 days. These diaries detailed interpersonal events, loneliness, pain, sleep quality, mood, and coping. The diary entries were made via an automated cellphone call that asked the participants specific questions throughout the day (three calls per day).
They were asked to enter their pain level on a scale of 0-100. Loneliness was rated on a scale of 1-5. Participants were asked about specific interpersonal events (both positive and negative) had occurred. For example they were asked if they celebrated something with their spouse/ partner, or if their spouse or partner was critical or angry with them. Participants were asked about 14 specific events related to their spouse/partner, 15 specific events with family, and 11 specific events with friends. participants that did not have a partner or spouse were not asked questions related to partner/spouse interaction. After each set of questions they were asked to rate (1-5) how desirable positive events were overall, the same for how stressful the events were overall. Finally, they were asked each day to rate several questions related to depression.
Scoring of the data was rather interesting. In order to compare an individual to their self, as well as to others in the study scores for each individual were averaged out and compared to each days average scores. Then each individual’s averages were compared to the averages of others in the study. Loneliness was examined on two levels. Level one looked at day to day loneliness (or how much a specific day varied from that person’s average loneliness rating), Level two used the individual’s mean loneliness rating to determine chronic loneliness.
Wolf and Davis then examined whether chronic loneliness or episodes of loneliness correlated to daily pain levels, interpersonal events, and event appraisals. Second they looked at whether loneliness (chronic or episodic) moderated the relationship between negative personal events and stress, as well as between positive interpersonal events and enjoyment appraisals.
What Wolf and Davis found was that those who were chronically lonely reported fewer positive interpersonal events, and more negative ones. Not surprisingly, they also reported more interpersonal stress and less enjoyment. Those who were chronically lonely also reported higher pain levels, and more depressive symptoms. They were also younger than the average participant (average age was 52), and more likely to be unpartnered/unmarried.
Single days of elevated loneliness were characterized by fewer positive interpersonal events, more negative interpersonal events, higher perceived stress, and lower enjoyment, as well as higher reported pain and more depressive symptoms.
Higher chronic loneliness was significantly linked to increased pain and stress, while episodic loneliness was only marginally linked to increased pain and stress.
It was generally found that if a person reported feeling lonely in the morning their scores were consistent throughout the day.
Loneliness was also found to be a moderator between positive interpersonal events and reports of enjoyment. Basically, this means that days with more positive interpersonal events than normal brought a nice boost to their enjoyment (despite being lonely).
So, what they found is that loneliness increases pain, but that despite pain we can still find enjoyment in positive interpersonal events (and that said pain and/or loneliness), and that the more of said positive events we have the more enjoyment we get from those events.
A few things to keep in mind about loneliness – you can feel lonely in a room full of people who love you. Social network size doesn’t really correlate with loneliness, it’s really a matter of how you feel. How connected you feel to those around you. When it comes to chronic illness and loneliness any correlation is definitely a chicken and egg problem. We may feel unable to connect with others because we don’t feel they can understand what we are going through. Or, given the correlation between higher risk of illness and loneliness (as with the virus study) one could question whether our loneliness leads to chronic pain and fatigue, or if the Fibromyalgia brings the loneliness. Loneliness has also been linked to physical stress responses, as well as stress-related inflammation.
It sounds to me like we all need to strive to have more positive interactions in our lives, and avoid the negative ones as much as possible. This may mean getting out and finding new people to connect with, or even connecting with others online, via Skype, or phone. Anything we can do to increase positive interactions is good for decreasing loneliness, which may very well lead to a decrease in our pain (or at least our perceived pain). Maybe it’s just all part of distracting ourselves, and that’s ok.
Reference: Wolf, L. D., & Davis, M. C. (2014). Loneliness, daily pain, and perceptions of interpersonal events in adults with fibromyalgia. Health Psychology, 33(9), 929-937. doi:10.1037/hea0000059