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  • Loneliness is on the rise in the U.S., particularly since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • New research suggests that a lack of trust in others may make loneliness worse.
  • Experts say that certain attachment styles — specifically anxious or avoidant — may also play a role.

Loneliness is an epidemic in America. Along with depression and anxiety, it’s gotten worse during the pandemic.

In 2021, the Loneliness in America Survey shows that 36% of all Americans, regardless of age, report frequent loneliness, or say they feel lonely “almost all the time or all the time.”

One way to relieve loneliness is by forming new social bonds, but this can be difficult, especially if loneliness goes hand in hand with a lack of trust in other people.

Using behavior testing, hormone measures, and brain imaging, a September 2021 study sheds light on how loneliness might be linked with lower levels of trust in others.

Previous research has suggested that loneliness and a lack of trust in others are linked.

A study from 2017 suggested that lonely people may focus more attention on threatening social stimuli, expect social rejection, and evaluate themselves and others more negatively.

New research is broadening our understanding of how trust and loneliness are related.

What the new research found

“We found clear evidence that chronically lonely individuals have lower interpersonal trust,” says Dirk Scheele, PhD, a co-author of the new study.

The researchers studied 42 people with severe or persistent loneliness who weren’t diagnosed with a serious mental health condition at the time of the study, and a control group of 40 people.

The participants completed a series of tasks that researchers assessed through self-report, behaviors, hormone levels, and brain scans.

In one task — a trust game involving imaginary start-up capital — researchers asked participants how much of the money they were willing to share with each of the faces they were shown on a screen. Participants who were more lonely shared less money with others compared with the control group, which researchers interpreted as lower levels of trust.

Jana Lieberz, MS, a researcher at the University of Bonn in Germany and lead author of the new study, says lower levels of trust among lonely people could be related to a biased interpretation of social stimuli, like facial expressions.

“Neutral stimuli — such as the neutral faces used in our study — might be perceived as threatening by lonely individuals due to reduced interpersonal trust,” Lieberz said.

The study also looked at brain activity during interpersonal encounters with unfamiliar people. Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) showed changes in activity in areas in the anterior insular cortex, a region of the brain involved in trust.

In addition, following small talk, participants who reported severe loneliness were in a less positive mood, suggesting that interpersonal interactions among lonely individuals are less positive.

Those who find it difficult to connect with others could experience more loneliness as a result.

Possible gut-brain connection?

“Lonely individuals may distrust strangers because their processing of gut feelings about the trustworthiness of other people is impaired,” she said. The anterior insula cortex processes body signals such as heartbeat and gut feelings, which may also play a role in trust, Liebez explained.

Note that the researchers didn’t explicitly study the gut-brain connection, so further research is needed.

“Lonely people appear to have difficulties perceiving the trustworthiness of others,” said Jessica Andrews-Hanna, PhD, an assistant professor at the College of Psychology at the University of Arizona.

“This effect might be rooted in a reduced oxytocin response during positive social interactions and reductions in the activity and connectivity of social and emotional brain regions during an interpersonal trust task,” she explained.

Your attachment style is usually developed in childhood with your primary caregivers, where you experienced many of your earliest teachings about trust.

Research from 2003 suggests that people with insecure attachment styles are more likely to experience poor mental health and social well-being.

“Some people with insecure attachment may be fearful of relationships and display socially avoidant behaviors, despite longing for social connection,” Andrews-Hanna explained. “Other people may be preoccupied with others in an anxious and overly dependent way.”

While Lieberz and her team didn’t assess the attachment styles of their participants, she said they may play a possible role.

“Anxious and avoidant attachment styles are related to increased feelings of loneliness, whereas individuals with secure attachment styles report lower levels of loneliness,” Lieberz said.

People with anxious attachment styles may be more susceptible to loneliness, as they’re often more sensitive to what others think about them and have difficulty trusting others as a result.

“Such behaviors might exacerbate loneliness, especially considering the low self-esteem that characterizes anxious-preoccupied attachment,” Andrews-Hanna said.

Dave Sbarra, PhD, a professor of psychology at the University of Arizona, described anxious attachment as insecurity associated with repeated attempts to reconnect to an attachment figure upon real or perceived threats to a relationship.

“Loneliness is essentially a monitoring of our social standing and an emotional readout of this monitoring process,” Sbarra said.

According to a July 2021 study, interpersonal trust is fundamental to positive social relationships.

Having more security in your relationships, such as a secure partnership, can lead to healthier attachments.

According to Sbarra, mentorship can also be beneficial, especially for young people.

“Regular meetings with secure mentors who focus on learning about and experiencing your emotions — rather than suppressing them or getting over-involved with them — is associated with decreased attachment insecurity over time,” he said.

In addition, Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), which focuses on improving social well-being, can cultivate healthy attachment. ACT incorporates mindfulness techniques to teach acceptance and help you practice self-compassion and guide you on engaging with others not from a place of fear but your values.

If you’re experiencing persistent loneliness, particularly if you’ve spent time in isolation during the pandemic, remember that help is available.

Working with a mental health professional can help you figure out if your loneliness may be tied to trust issues and whether your attachment style may be involved.

Trust is crucial for forming social bonds. While there’s evidence to show that those who have a hard time trusting others could be more likely to experience loneliness, more research is still needed to determine the relationship between loneliness and interpersonal trust and any causal effect of attachment styles.