Loneliness is a universal human emotion that is both complex and unique to each individual. All of us get lonely at one time or another. In fact, loneliness is a normal reaction to feeling disconnected from others either physically, emotionally, or both. But that doesn’t mean that it is an easy emotion to live with.
Feelings of loneliness are personal, so everyone’s experience of loneliness will be different.
Loneliness is actually a state of mind. It causes people to feel empty, alone, and unwanted. People who are lonely often crave human contact, but their state of mind makes it more difficult to form connections with other people.
Loneliness, according to many experts, is not necessarily about being alone. Instead, if you feel alone and isolated, then that is how loneliness plays into your state of mind. For example, a new staff might feel lonely despite being surrounded by other staff. You may choose to be alone and live happily without much contact with other people, while others may find this a lonely experience. Or you may have lots of social contact, or be in a relationship or part of a family, and still feel lonely – especially if you don’t feel understood or cared for by the people around you.
Causes of Loneliness
Loneliness has many different causes, which vary from person to person. We don’t always understand what it is about an experience that makes us feel lonely. Certain life events may mean they feel lonely, such as:
- experiencing a bereavement
- relationship break-up
- retiring and losing the social contact you had at work
- changing jobs and feeling isolated from your co-workers
- starting at university
- Moving to a new area or country without family, friends or community networks
People who live in certain circumstances, or belong to particular groups, are more vulnerable to loneliness. For example, if you:
- have no friends or family
- are estranged from your family
- are a single parent or care for someone else – you may find it hard to maintain a social life
- belong to minority groups and live in an area without others from a similar background
- are excluded from social activities due to mobility problems or a shortage of money
- experience discrimination and stigma because of a disability or long-term health problem, including mental health problems
- experience discrimination and stigma because of your gender, race or sexual orientation
- Have experienced sexual or physical abuse – you may find it harder to form close relationships with other people.
What are the main signs and symptoms of chronic loneliness?
Chronic loneliness symptoms and signs can differ depending on who you are and your situation. If you consistently feel some or all of the following, you may be dealing with chronic loneliness:
- Inability to connect with others on a deeper, more intimate level. Maybe you have friends and family in your life, but engagement with them is at a very surface level. Your interaction doesn’t feel connected in a way that is fulfilling and this disconnection seems never ending.
- No close or “best” friends. You have friends, but they are casual friends or acquaintances and you feel you can find no one who truly “gets” you.
- Overwhelming feeling of isolation regardless of where you are and who’s around. You can be at a party surrounded by dozens of people and, yet, you feel isolated, separate, and disengaged. At work, you may feel alienated and alone. Same on a bus, train, or walking down a busy street. It’s as if you’re in your own unbreakable bubble.
- Negative feelings of self-doubt and self-worth. Does it feel like you are always less than enough? These feelings–long-term–are another possible symptom of chronic loneliness.
- When you try to connect or reach out, it’s not reciprocated, and you’re not seen or heard.
- Exhaustion and burn out when trying to engage socially. If you’re dealing with chronic loneliness, trying to engage and be social with others can leave you feeling exhausted. Continued feelings of being drained can lead to other issues like sleep problems, a weakened immune system, poor diet, and more.
If you think you are suffering with long-term feelings of loneliness, talk to your doctor or a therapist.
Health Risks Associated With Loneliness
Loneliness has a wide range of negative effects on both physical and mental health, if left unchecked, these chronic loneliness symptoms can put you at greater risk for more serious medical and emotional problems, including:
- Depression and suicide
- Cardiovascular disease and stroke
- Increased stress levels
- Decreased memory and learning
- Antisocial behavior
- Poor decision-making
- Alcoholism and drug abuse
- The progression of Alzheimer’s disease
- Altered brain function
- Sleep disorders
- Type 2 diabetes
- Heart disease
- High blood pressure
- Mental health and emotional problems
Tips to Prevent and Overcome Loneliness
You can overcome loneliness but it does require a conscious effort on your part to make a change. Making a change, in the long run, can make you happier, healthier, and enable you to impact others around you in a positive way.
Here are some ways to prevent loneliness:
- Recognize that loneliness is a sign that something needs to change.
- Understand the effects that loneliness has on your life, both physically and mentally.
- Consider doing community service or another activity that you enjoy. These situations present great opportunities to meet people and cultivate new friendships and social interactions.
- Focus on developing quality relationships with people who share similar attitudes, interests, and values with you.
- Expect the best. Lonely people often expect rejection, so instead focus on positive thoughts and attitudes in your social relationships.
Dealing with chronic loneliness?
If you are dealing with feelings of loneliness that just don’t go away, consider these tips:
- Talk to your doctor, a therapist, or another health care professional. Chronic loneliness isn’t limited to feelings of social isolation and alienation from others. It is often tied to ongoing and deeply rooted negative beliefs about yourself that can eventually lead to other medical and emotional problems. Let someone know what’s going on.
- Engage with other people in a positive, healthy way. Even though it may be difficult, try making the effort to connect with others. Volunteering, hobby clubs, workout groups, and other opportunities, can help boost self-esteem and provide a safe and satisfying way to connect with others.
- Get some exercise and sunlight. Getting active and out in the sunshine can help elevate endorphins and serotonin. These “brain hormones” can boost mood, help improve sleep, and make people feel happier.
- Find a support group, especially if chronic loneliness is a side effect of some other issue you might be dealing with. Receiving support and encouragement from others who may share similar feelings, could help ease symptoms of chronic loneliness.
If you are dealing with long term loneliness, the kind that doesn’t go away, talk to your doctor or another health care provider so they can help. Chronic loneliness is not just about feeling alone; if left unchecked it can put you at risk for serious physical and emotional issues.