- Do you crave human contact, but find it difficult to form connections with others?
- Do you feel unwanted, excluded or separate from others?
- Are you socially isolated?
- Do you feel withdrawn even when you are engaging with family and friends?
- Does this sense of disconnection trigger low mood and a feeling of emptiness for you?
Loneliness is the subjective experience of feeling alone and dissatisfied with one’s social relationships (Cherry). Most everyone—at various stages of their lives—have felt lonely or found themselves in situations where loneliness is temporarily unavoidable (e.g., due to the loss of a good friend or moving away from their social circle). However, some people feel persistent loneliness. If this feeling sounds familiar to you, you know loneliness can adversely affect your outlook on life.
If you have a mental health condition, you may notice a self-perpetuating cycle related to self-isolation and loneliness. Symptoms of your mental health condition (e.g., withdrawal from family and friends is a symptom of depression) may limit your social connections. This situation can lead to the loss of those social supports and increase feelings of loneliness, which may increase symptoms of your mental health condition. (Mental Health America)
In addition to pre-existing mental health conditions, poor physical health and living alone are associated with loneliness (Bell & Lawlor). Life transitions, such as going away to school, moving, becoming a parent, retiring, being diagnosed with an illness, becoming a caregiver to a family member or losing a partner, can also increase the risk of loneliness and social isolation (Holt-Lunstad & Parissimotto). (American Psychiatric Association)
Yet, you don’t need to be socially isolated to feel lonely—someone can spend time with people and still feel disconnected from them. Conversely, you can be alone without feeling lonely—for some people, being alone at least some of the time is critical to rebalancing their minds and focusing on tasks at hand.
A lonely state of mind is unique to each individual. For example (adapted in part from Cherry):
- A lonely child may struggle to make friends at school.
- An older adult may feel overwhelmingly lonely when their spouse dies.
- A teen or young adult starting a new school may feel lonely despite being surrounded by peers.
- A person who is caring for a family member with chronic illness may feel isolated from family and friends who are not caregivers.
- A person with chronic physical or mental conditions may feel their situation is so different from that of their family and friends that they withdraw from them and become lonely.
Yet, what people who are lonely have in common is they often feel stuck in their loneliness. If you feel stuck, it may feel like too much of an effort to dig your way out of it. You may not even think it is possible for you not to feel this way. The feeling of loneliness may be painful for you; trying to ignore it may be easier than facing it head-on. Your self-confidence may have taken a huge hit if you are feeling unwanted and excluded from your social circles. Even though you may logically know you are worthy of support from others and their friendship, your inner critic might tell you otherwise. You may have turned to unhealthy habits to cope with loneliness—excessive alcohol, drugs, shopping, gambling, etc.—and now have to deal with trying to break free of those habits.
It is important that you know that you can actually reduce your loneliness and that less loneliness in your life will likely improve your state of mind. Some possibilities to help feel less lonely (Fallon):
- Practice acceptance.
- Embrace alone time.
- Replace expectations with gratitude.
- Reach out to old friends.
- Get involved in your community.
- Pick a third place to hang out (beside your home and work).
- Get a pet.
- Do something nice for someone.
- Take a break from social media.
- Address the root of your loneliness.
See the referenced article for more on these possibilities. Of course, they are simply ideas—to reduce your loneliness, you need to do it in a manner that addresses your specific needs and circumstances. Notice that some of the ideas above draw upon your inner strength to cope with loneliness, while others prompt you to take action outside of yourself. Some of the tips probably apply to your situation and feel doable, while others do not. (For example, if you are allergic to cats, getting a cat might not be in the cards for you.) You don’t need to engage in multiple activities all at once. Instead, you can work towards reducing your loneliness one step at a time, so it is not too overwhelming.
Help is Available
Recognize that taking on the task of reducing your loneliness completely by yourself could inadvertently feed into your feelings of loneliness and be counterproductive. If that is the case for you, consider if there is someone you trust who could help talk you through what is going on to make you feel lonely, explore options for getting more socially connected and even aid you in sticking to a plan.
In addition to or an alternative to a trusted support person already in your life, a mental health counselor can assist you with these tasks, as well as help you tap into your inner strength to cope with loneliness and to stay resilient in the face of it. Sometimes people feel that talking about their loneliness is an intensely private issue that they don’t feel comfortable sharing with close family or friends. In that case, a counselor is probably your best bet to figure out how to get some relief from your loneliness and feel better about your situation.
If you are interested in therapeutic support, click on the “contact” button below to reach out to the Mindful Counseling Center for an appointment.
Psychiatry.org – Taking on the Public Health Threat of Loneliness and Social Isolation (American Psychiatric Association or APA)
Cited in the APA article: (1) Bell, P. & Lawlor, B. 2023. Community Based Interventions for Loneliness, chapter in Loneliness: Science and Practice, Jeste, D.V., et al, editors. American Psychiatric Association Publishing, Washington, D.C. (2) Holt-Lunstad, J. & Parissinotto, C. (2023). Social Isolation and Loneliness as Medical Issues. N Engl J Med 2023; 388:193-195, DOI: 10.1056/NEJMp2208029.