Dealing with loneliness as an emerging adult can be painful, and it’s hard to develop coping skills for it. Meeting new friends and developing deep friendships can take time and feel overwhelming. Sometimes, in addition to changing thoughts and behavior, seeing a therapist is the next best thing you can do to feel better again.
Statistics on Loneliness in Young Adults
In 2018, BBC Radio 4 in London announced the results of The Loneliness Experiment, a survey conducted by the BBC in which 55,000 people from all around the world, ages 16 onwards, took part in the largest-ever study into the issue of loneliness. The results were eye-opening: 40% of responders from the ages of 16-24 reported feeling lonely “often or very often,” while only 29% of people aged 65-74 and 27% of people aged over 75 said the same.1
Similarly, in the US, health insurance giant Cigna conducted a 2020 Loneliness Survey of over 10,000 U.S. adults which found that young adults also have higher rates of loneliness than older adults. This survey also showed that more than half of those in Generation Z (adults ages 18-22) identify with many of the feelings associated with loneliness: “Feeling like people around them are not really with them (69%), feeling shy (69%), and feeling like no one really knows them well (68%) are among the most common feelings experienced by those in the Generation Z (adults ages 18-22).”2 Similar results were found among Millenials (adults ages 23-37), but to a slightly lesser extent.2
Signs of Loneliness in Young Adults
Signs of loneliness can range from feeling like you are on the outside looking in, to feeling that the entire world around you is doing better than you (at pretty much everything).
Signs of loneliness in young adults include:
- Loss of interest in activities you once enjoyed
- Little to no connection with others, especially in-person
- Decrease in motivation for self-improvement
- Increase in self-criticism and ridicule
- Feeling socially awkward or insecure
- Increase in anxiety during social situations
- Lacking a sense of belonging to a group
- Feeling like you’re a burden or that no one understands you
The Health Risks of Feeling Lonely and Depressed
Most mental health experts agree that chronic loneliness and isolation leads to an eventual and increased risk of depression and also poorer health outcomes like sleep disorders, Type 2 diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, and substance abuse.3 Chronic loneliness drives up cortisol levels in the body—a hormone your body creates when under stress—which then leads to weight gain, insulation resistance, and problems concentrating.
Loneliness also puts us at a greater risk for developing anxiety, increased substance abuse and other more serious mental health issues.4
Causes of Chronic Loneliness in Generation Z & Millennials
Young adults are at increased risk of developing chronic loneliness because there are so many transitions to face in this time:
- Moving away from home
- Starting college (and dealing with college burnout)
- Beginning a new job
- Moving in with someone or getting married
- Potentially starting a family
Any of these big life changes can sometimes trigger a quarter life crisis for some, especially if they don’t have a healthy support system.5
With all of these changes, and because for some young adults it’s the first time they’ve ever experienced feelings of loneliness, there’s very little coping skills in place to deal with these feelings. Often, this is because young adults have not had the life experience to help them remember that their loneliness will almost always be temporary, which means that sometimes, more chronic loneliness can set in.
This also supports the belief by some researchers that being young itself, as opposed to the factors associated with modern life, also leads to an increase in loneliness in young adulthood.6
The Impact of Social Media on Modern Loneliness
Social media can impact and lead to loneliness because most people only post the “good” stuff they have happening in their lives. As the consumer of social media, you are bombarded with all of the things that are going well in other people’s lives. You choose what you share on social media, and chances are you aren’t going to share your vulnerabilities and insecurities while you are in the thick of it (which might help you actually feel less lonely).
Research finds that limiting social media to 30 minutes a day could lead to significant improvement in an individual’s overall well-being. The study also found a significant decrease in feelings of loneliness, depression and anxiety over a three week timespan when limiting to this amount.9
Can Loneliness Change Your Personality?
Of the 55,000 people from around the world who participated in the BBC Loneliness Experiment, 41% reported that loneliness can sometimes be a positive experience.1 The study also reported that loneliness can sometimes lead people to experience more anxiety and to trust others less. Examples of what participants reported demonstrated that some lonely people are more sensitive to what they perceive to be repeated rejection by others or that other people are only being nice to them because they pity them.6
It’s also important to note that a common misconception about people who experience loneliness is that their personality type is more introverted so they can’t make friends easily, or that they need to improve their social skills. In reality, however, researchers have found that lonely people have social skills equal to their non-lonely counterparts and really just need more skills and strategies to help them cope with the anxiety of meeting new people.6
How to Deal With Loneliness as a Young Adult
Perhaps you want to try and tackle the feelings of loneliness on your own, and although seeking out professional help for the myriad of symptoms that loneliness brings can be important, the good news is that there are many ways you can support yourself through loneliness and reduce the negative thoughts and feelings associated with this issue.
Here are 10 ways you can overcome loneliness:
1. Practice the “Three As”
If you are familiar with any kind of 12 step recovery models, there is a belief that practicing the “Three As” of awareness, acceptance and action can improve your chances of achieving abstinence from a substance. These very same ideas can also be applied to overcoming chronic loneliness:
- Become aware of the fact that loneliness is deeply affecting your life
- Practice acceptance around the loneliness (which can feel counterintuitive but can actually help you to feel less shameful or judgmental towards yourself for being lonely)
- Take action towards overcoming your loneliness.
2. Develop & Practice Deep Compassion for Yourself
Loneliness is, quite literally, an ache. Everything from your mental cognition and sleep patterns to your thoughts, feelings, and relationships are affected, so it’s crucial to think about ways that you can extend compassion to yourself.
You can start by making up mantras to say to yourself in the mirror, or even just internally. Statements like “I am worthy of good relationships” or “I will give myself the compassion I need” can feel awkward at first, but by practicing deeper care and concern for yourself you can then profoundly work to shift the deep isolation and loneliness that you feel and crucially, begin to connect with others.
3. Look for & Connect to the Good, Both in Others & Yourself
When we are lonely, we trust other people less, so intentionally looking for the best in other people is key.6 To implement this skill practically, start by making a list of five to ten things you like about yourself or of your accomplishments. Though simplistic, you can really change the way you see yourself when you connect with what’s good about yourself, or the things you’ve done. You can then begin to identify the good in other people as well.
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4. Expect Some Rejection & Decide to Embrace & Learn From It
Experiencing intense and chronic loneliness leaves people more sensitive to rejection, so it’s important to decide that even if you experience some rejection when you begin to connect with others (either virtually or in person), that you’re not going to stop trying.
Keep extending invitations and offers to other people to connect with you, even if it doesn’t initially work out. Someone will say yes, and that’s all you need to start connecting to someone else and decrease the loneliness.
5. Volunteer, Either Virtually or In-Person
Taking a break from your thoughts and feelings of loneliness and focusing on being of service to others, even for just a few hours, is a life-changing way towards breaking the cycle of isolation and chronic loneliness. And it doesn’t even have to be with another human being! Plenty of animal shelters need your help, especially during the pandemic, to foster a cat, dog or other animal, or to help them feed the animals in their shelter if you can’t foster or even adopt a pet.
If you’re interested in connecting with a younger person, apply to become a Big Sister or Big brother through the Big Brothers Big Sisters of America. Alternatively, if you prefer relating to older people, there are many social service organizations where you can become a companion to the aged, either short- or long-term. You can also ask your place of employment if they have any up-and-coming volunteer events, either virtually or socially distanced, and if they do, sign up for one.
What’s most important about volunteering is that it creates a sense of belonging within ourselves to other people, which directly counteracts and eliminates the negative thoughts and feelings of loneliness.
6. Converse With Anyone
Although this sounds simplistic and straight forward, the goal in this approach is to feel connected.8 Loneliness is rooted in isolation, and to counteract that feeling, we need to seek out connection. The best way to do this is to, quite literally, start talking: To the person who delivers your mail, the barista at your local coffee place, the cashier at the grocery store, or your next-door neighbor.
It doesn’t matter who and it doesn’t have to develop into an intense or amazing friendship, it’s more about the fact that conversing with another human being will help you feel that you can relate to others, are inter-dependent and connected to them and are not “a one man band.”8
7. Tell Your Family or Friends About How You’re Feeling
Along with the idea of conversing with complete strangers to increase a feeling of connectivity and belonging, and although it seems like an obvious thing to do, telling your family or friends (even if you’re not that close to either of them), about what you’re feeling can go a long way towards combating loneliness.
Sometimes just “putting it out there” is the first crucial step towards tackling the problem. You also may discover that other people close to you feel the same way you do! If you don’t feel comfortable doing this, or don’t feel you have anyone you can tell your feelings to, it may be time to get professional help in the form of a psychotherapist so that you have a safe place to share your thoughts and feelings and break out of the isolation.
8. Go Outside & Exercise
Force yourself to go outside, even if it’s just for ten minutes to grab a cup of coffee or to walk around the block. If you can, exercise in the fresh air either by fast walking, jogging, or even by simply strolling. When you move your body and create more physical mobility, you have a chance to also create mental flexibility in the form of thinking and feeling different things other than how lonely you feel.
Also, and if you can, join an exercise class, even if it’s virtual. You’ll not only meet other people, you’ll improve your mood and behavior and not feel as alone or isolated.
9. Limit Social Media Use
Social media can feel like the only way that you can keep in touch with friends and family, or meet new people—that’s exactly what social media was designed for you to think. However, there are plenty of other ways to connect with others and meet new people. You could use social media to initially connect with someone and then go “elsewhere” – whether it is on a video conferencing platform or meeting up in person.
Get a sense of how much time you spend on social media by using your phone’s reports, usually found in the settings of your phone and other devices. Then, determine what will be a reasonable amount of time for you and set limits on your devices so you stick to what you know is appropriate.
10. Be the Friend You Want to Be
Like attracts like, so if you spend time doing activities you enjoy, then chances are you will meet people who share the same values and interests as you. This is a win-win because you are already living an ideal life for yourself without the influence of others around you.
Additionally, by being the friend you want to be you don’t have to miss out on life experiences. Treat not only others how you want to be treated, but treat yourself the same way. Wanna go to the movies? Do it! Want to have a picnic in the park? Do it! Want to have a colorful photoshoot of yourself? Do it! Be your own best friend, and in doing so, others will want to join in and be your friend too.
How Can I Tell if I’m Experiencing Chronic Loneliness or Depression?
Chronic loneliness and depression often mimic each other and have a tremendous overlap in emotional and physical symptoms.7 First, it’s important to note that depression is a mental health condition, whereas chronic loneliness, though painful and similar to depression in many ways, is a feeling that usually passes once social interaction and/or a sense of belonging have been met.7
Furthermore, when a person is depressed, most social interactions are usually draining and cause fatigue or exhaustion, leaving a depressed person feeling even worse than before.7
When to Get Professional Help for Feelings of Loneliness
If you are consistently feeling disinterested in socializing or connecting to other people, and this lasts for several weeks or longer, you may want to reach out to a mental health professional. In addition, if you are feeling worthless, guilty, or believing that other people don’t want to spend time with you, and these thoughts and feelings persist for several weeks or longer, depression may be in the mix and you may want to seek out professional help.
Other warning signs from the symptoms just listed are also persistent worry, sleeping too much or too little, inability to concentrate, or recurring hopeless/worthless or suicidal thoughts. If these thoughts and feelings persist for several weeks and or longer, go to your doctor or seek out the assistance of a mental health professional so that an assessment for possible clinical depression can be conducted.
Who Should I Consult for Help in Overcoming Loneliness?
Clinical depression is a serious mental health condition that requires professional treatment from any one of the following licensed mental health providers: Clinical psychologist, psychiatrist, licensed clinical or master social worker, licensed mental health counselor, or, in some cases, a licensed marriage or family therapist.
How to Find a Therapist
Finding a therapist as a young adult may seem daunting, but getting the mental healthcare you need is crucial. You can ask friends, consult with the EAP at your job, or call your insurance company for a list of referrals that are within your zip code. Your doctor, a religious figure in your life, a teacher/professor, or work colleague may also know of someone that they can refer you to, as well.
There are also mental health directories where psychiatrists, clinical psychologists, licensed clinical and master social workers, licensed mental health counselors and licensed marriage and family therapists have profiles of themselves that you can view.
If you like what you read about any one or several mental health providers, reach out to them to set up an initial consultation. When you first speak with them, pay attention to how you feel and how the care provider responds. If the conversation feels collaborative, respectful, and supportive, go ahead and set up a first appointment.
In addition to seeking out individual psychotherapy for clinical depression, anxiety or any other serious mental health issue that stems from chronic loneliness or is in addition to it, it’s also perfectly legitimate, acceptable, and hugely important to seek out psychotherapy for chronic loneliness. There may be under-lying psychological or developmental issues like inter-personal familial relationships, social anxiety, or a core lack of trust in others that may be reinforcing the loneliness and keeping you stuck within its hold.
For Further Reading
If you or a loved one are dealing with loneliness, the following resources may be helpful: