Receiving less affection than usual during lockdown may have exacerbated loneliness and depression among US citizens, according to findings published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships. Compared to men, women who felt deprived of affection were especially likely to experience depressive symptoms.

Therapists and mental health scholars have expressed concern over how the COVID-19 may have negatively impacted mental health. But researchers Colin Hesse of Oregon State University and his team noted a gap in this discussion. Humans have a deeply-ingrained need for social connection, yet few studies have explored how lockdown I may have impacted relational outcomes, such as communication within personal relationships.

“I study affectionate communication in general, and thought that the steps of isolation, especially in the initial periods of 2020, would be an interesting context in which to study both the need for affection and the general links between affection deprivation and mental health.

According to affection exchange theory (AET), humans have an inherent need for affectionate communication — behaviors that impart love and fondness for another person. Affectionate communication offers evolutionary benefits. For example, affection promotes survival by facilitating close relationships and access to resources.

The theory presumes that when a person does not receive an optimal level of affection, well-being suffers. In support of this position, past studies have revealed that when a person experiences affection deprivation — when they receive less affection than they desire — they are at increased risk of negative outcomes like loneliness and depression.

To explore how affection deprivation during the pandemic may have impacted mental health over time, Hesse and colleagues obtained three waves of data from US residents (aged between 20 and 78). The first wave took place on May 4, 2020, when 94% of the respondents were under stay-at-home orders. The second wave took place on May 18, 2020, when 71% of respondents were under stay-at-home orders. The final wave took place on June 1, 2020, when roughly half (49%) of respondents were under stay-at-home orders.

At each survey, the participants completed measures of loneliness, depressive symptoms, perceived stress, happiness, and life satisfaction. They also completed a scale that measured affection deprivation with items like, “I don’t get enough affection in my life.”

Using growth modeling, the researchers observed how these variables changed over time. It was found that participants who reported greater affection deprivation also reported greater stress, loneliness, and depression over time. These relationships were also significant at each wave of the study, suggesting both short-term and long-term effects of affection deprivation. Feeling deprived of affection was not, however, associated with life satisfaction or happiness.

Notably, gender differences emerged. At both high and low levels of affection deprivation, women reported more depressive symptoms than men. The researchers say this may reflect the fact that women tend to communicate affection more than men, and may have felt the loss of affectionate communication during lockdown more strongly than men did.

The findings are noteworthy in that they reveal a longitudinal relationship between feeling deprived of affection and experiencing loneliness and depression. These results are in line with the theory that a certain amount of affection is necessary for well-being.

“Affectionate communication is actually a necessary component of general wellness – we need close, intimate relationships in our lives to feel satisfied and less stress overall. Affection deprivation, over time, can lead to worsening mental health outcomes, and this was apparent in the initial lockdown context,” Hesse told PsyPost.

With that said, the study authors note that the participants’ reported levels of affection deprivation were not alarmingly high, nor were participants’ reported levels of depression or loneliness. Since the researchers did not collect data prior to lockdown, they were unable to assess whether respondents’ mental health had changed with the start of the pandemic.

“It is still an empirical question as to whether these findings, writ large, are more of a discussion of the general outcomes of affection deprivation (that would be found in any context), or of more specific outcomes that were context-specific (within the COVID-19 lockdowns),” Hesse and colleagues reported.The researchers added that their findings shouldn’t be interpreted as a condemnation of lockdown measures.

“As we write in the paper, we did not conduct this study with any political purpose in mind, and certainly there is a of heat surrounding some of issues regarding COVID policy,” Hesse said. “We were interested in possible communication effects of the actions taken in Spring 2020, and believe that we can discuss this as part of the overarching goal of attending to human wellness.”The study, “Affection deprivation during the COVID-19 pandemic: A panel study”, was authored by Colin Hesse, Alan Mikkelson, and Xi Tian.