Loneliness affects people of any age group, background, economic status, educational, or social status. It’s a feeling that many people experience at least once or even on a more regular basis. Loneliness can be caused by painful past experiences and can have serious mental health consequences. Treatment can come in the form of various types of therapy and connecting with others.
Causes of Loneliness
Loneliness can be a feeling as well as a state of mind. Even though it’s something that has been experienced by many, people may still be unclear of some of the root causes or triggers of loneliness. Loneliness is something that goes beyond just being sad, as experiencing sadness can just be based on temporary or isolated events. Loneliness can be a condition that’s more long-term and severe.
Loneliness is a condition that can be deeply rooted in someone’s painful past or previous experiences. Loneliness is when individuals feel like they are by themselves or abandoned, even if there are others around them to interact with.1 Loneliness is not always about other people being present, but more so about people being able to connect with others, identify with others and feel a closeness to them.
People who experience more frequent episodes of loneliness often have a history of poor support, trauma, abuse, loss, and many negative life experiences involving close relatives or loved ones.2 Many of these people may have faced abandonment or other rejection issues early on in life and may have developed feelings of pessimism, resentment, or even depression.2
For example, someone who may have been abused and felt abandoned at a young age could develop feelings of loneliness in their childhood, which could continue into their adulthood. These feelings of loneliness could also negatively impact relationships with others. Lonely people can often feel rejected, may emotionally disconnect from others, and may also lack empathy with other people.2
Some of the direct causes of loneliness can be due to social factors such as grief or loss, growing old alone, feeling socially awkward, having limited support, feeling alone in a relationship, and going through a breakup.3 These causes can have a severe impact on individuals because they all involve someone having to adjust to or endure life independently. It can be a great adjustment to be alone when you are used to having others present to experience life with.
Other factors contributing to loneliness could include experiencing hardships alone with no one to relate to; such hardships could include abuse, discrimination, and self-identity struggles.3 These factors could be even more difficult to cope with because of the level of rejection, exclusion, and hardship individuals could face due to these struggles.
There have also been studies on the correlation between age and increased loneliness. A report by the CDC stated there is a higher risk of loneliness in adults aged 65 and older.1 And while young adults can also experience loneliness, adults aged 65 years and older tend to be more socially isolated and lonely due to independent living, death of spouse/loved ones, chronic illness, and other medical issues, according to the research.1
Experiencing loneliness is a higher risk factor for women who live alone, who are widowed, who have health issues, and who have limited resources and social support.4 The CDC also reported that other groups of people who may be at higher risk of experiencing loneliness are immigrants, minorities, and those with chronic illnesses.1
As it relates to loneliness, there are some factors that can trigger this feeling. Some triggers can be days/events that are usually celebrated, like feeling lonely during the holidays or on a birthday. If individuals are unable to celebrate special days with loved ones, they may find themselves dreading or not looking forward to these days and thus feeling alone.
Another trigger could be having to do activities alone that you once had others to engage with. Some examples could be taking trips, working with partners, being on a team, or just living with someone else. Doing things by yourself for the first time can feel very daunting if you once had other people to enjoy these things with.
Signs of Loneliness
There are apparent signs of loneliness, such as when people are not physically, socially, or emotionally connected with others in fruitful relationships. Those who experience loneliness have no close relationships and often feel isolated no matter who is around.6 People who experience loneliness may often attempt to reach out to others but don’t feel the effort is reciprocated and they may feel invisible to others.6
Here are some signs of loneliness in individuals:7
- Being shy, timid, or introverted when it comes to socially interacting
- Consistently struggling in social settings and not connecting easily with others
- Crying often and presenting with a sad countenance
- Being isolated more and not putting in effort to reach out to others
- Eating more unhealthy foods
- Sleeping poorly and not feeling rested
- Becoming ill more often and having increased doctor visits
There can be external as well as internal indicators of loneliness. Internal indicators are usually emotions experienced by the individual and external signs observed by others. Some internal signs of loneliness are feeling that no one understands you, feelings that people are avoiding you, and feeling empty.7
Other internal signs could be more geared towards how an individual may feel about themselves. These signs could be feeling bad about yourself, having feelings of low self-esteem, feelings of inadequacy, and comparing yourself to others.7 Internal signs could also include feelings of resentment towards people and or not being able to forgive others which could lead to social isolation.7
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Loneliness & Mental Health
Mental health concerns are related to feelings of loneliness. Mental health can be defined as our psychological, emotional, and social well-being.8 Stable or positive mental health indicates that people can appropriately handle their stress, emotions, and mindset.8
Signs of mental health concerns include:
- Negative thoughts
- Unstable moods
Loneliness can negatively impact one’s mental health. Loneliness has been linked with poor sleep, depression, and even suicidal thoughts.9 People experiencing loneliness report lower satisfaction with their lives and increased stress 9. Researchers found that 40% of participants who reported loneliness also reported feelings of anxiety and suicidal ideation within the past month.9
There is also evidence to support that frequent and intense loneliness is connected to anxiety and depression.10 When people are alone and feel disconnected from others, they can begin to take on more burdens without enough help to carry the weight.
People may feel like no one can help them, thus becoming more stressed by feeling that they must conquer the world alone. People who have a low support system to begin with are less likely to manage depression and anxiety symptoms well.10 When people have support, they are better able to manage their mental health.
Health Risks of Loneliness
Not only can loneliness impact mental health but it can also affect physical health. To begin with, loneliness can lead to individuals feeling so low that they begin to neglect themselves. Loneliness can lead to unhealthy and risky behaviors due to lack of will power and low motivation.2
When people are alone, they usually don’t have anyone to hold them accountable for making wise health decisions. There is also much research on how people who suffer from loneliness and depression tend to eat more junk food because it fills a void and gives temporary satisfaction. Eating junk food can lead to an unhealthy diet, which can eventually lead to medical concerns such as obesity and diabetes.
Another way that loneliness can impact someone’s health involves alcohol and drug misuse. People can develop “self-destructive habits” during periods of loneliness which can include drinking and experimenting with drugs.2 People can experience increased stress during periods of loneliness and can find themselves not only overeating but using substances to either cope with or numb their pain.2 During these episodes, people may binge, overuse, or in some extreme cases, overdose on substances. When people experience loneliness, they are more likely to lack close relationships in which they can be transparent about their unhealthy habits.
Another health risk of loneliness is that it can negatively impact the body’s immune system or cardiovascular systems.2 These systems are affected by diet, sleep, and stress levels. The immune system helps us to ward off illnesses and diseases, and if emotional distress is present, the immune system may not be working at full capacity. Our cardiovascular system helps blood, oxygen, and other nutrients flow through our body. If the cardiovascular system isn’t functioning properly, it could impact survival.2
Sleep has a major effect on our body. People who experience loneliness can suffer from poor sleep or insomnia. Sleeping can strengthen the immune system.2 Poor sleeping habits can impact the neural, hormonal, and metabolic regulation of our body systems.2
In sum, the ways in which loneliness impacts medical/physical health include:6
- Substance misuse
- Heart disease
- Type 2 diabetes
- Insomnia/Sleep disorders
- Bipolar disorder
- Other psychiatric disease
6 Ways to Cope With Loneliness
Since loneliness can be damaging both physically and emotionally, it would be best for individuals to learn how to cope with the situational, developmental, or internal type of loneliness they feel. If individuals want to overcome their loneliness they have to get out of their slump and take some initiative towards bettering their feelings, their mental health, and their interactions with others.
For people to effectively cope, some of the things they could partake in are doing kind things for others, taking a mental break, and being aware of what’s going on with them so that they can seek help.
Here are six ways to cope with feelings of loneliness:11
1. Do Kind Things for Others
One way of managing loneliness is to do something kind for others. Sowing seeds of kindness is rewarding. Some examples could be volunteering, helping elderly or sick people out, or visiting with people in nursing homes or hospitals who are alone themselves.
2. Be Aware of Your True Feelings
People will normally experience occasional bouts of loneliness. However, if you feel that you’re having more and more episodes of loneliness, it may be time to take some initiative and talk to someone and get some help
3. Connect With People Face to Face
We are living in an age where many people often communicate virtually or via social media. However, you miss a great deal of real connections when communication occurs only through technology. Try planning to meet up with a friend or coworker for lunch, or do more things face to face versus virtually or by telephone.
4. Join a Social Group
There are many ways to connect with people who may share the same interests or even the same struggles as you do. There are ways to initially connect with people online through social groups (meetup.com, facebook, or online life groups). These groups can start off virtually, but many of them lead to support groups, face-to-face group events and activities.
5. Maintain Good Health
Make sure that you are monitoring your physical health by eating properly and exercising. Also care for your mental health by managing negative feelings and taking note of any distress.
6. Seek Professional Help
Loneliness can become a serious condition that could lead to depression or other serious mental health conditions. It would be beneficial to seek professional help from a therapist. Types of therapy could be individual, family, or group therapy settings.
When to Get Professional Help for Loneliness
When individuals get to the point where they are continuing to decompensate or not have the support needed to manage their loneliness, they may need to reach out to a professional for help. If the symptoms and signs continue to worsen, this could lead to a mental health crisis or an emergency. Individuals should reach out for help when they feel like they cannot manage on their own and they don’t feel motivated to do their daily routine.
Other indicators of the need for professional help include uncontrollable crying, apathy for favorite activities, and self-isolation. Isolation could be potentially dangerous as it can lead to thoughts of suicide or self-harm.
Another reason to reach out for professional help could be that despite being around other people, you always feel lonely and can never find a true connection. Such sentiments may be indicators that you could benefit from learning skills and techniques that would allow you to connect and socially interact with others on a deeper level. By working with a professional counselor or therapist, individuals would be able to dig deeper to identify root causes of the issues that have led to their state of loneliness. They could work with their counselor or therapist towards better managing and coping with their feelings.
Lastly, it may be time to seek professional help when physical health begins to decline. When individuals notice their sleep patterns are off, they are not eating as healthy, schedule more frequent doctor visits, experience more stress, and feel poorly overall, it may be time to contact a therapist.
If people continue a downward spiral as it relates to these concerns, they could develop more serious health and medical conditions. Working with a mental health professional could help identify root causes of these issues, work on motivation, and also learn about the importance of healthy lifestyles.
Who Should I Consult for Help in Overcoming Loneliness?
In regard to professional help, find a therapist who can help manage unstable moods and negative emotions. With therapy, individuals are able to sort through their feelings, uncover reasons for having negative thoughts and feelings. Clients can then work with therapists to overcome any negative thoughts patterns or emotions. Therapists can help internally with issues causing loneliness and things that may have led to it (trauma, bad experiences, or poor relationships).
During therapy, you can work with a therapist individually or as part of a group. During group therapy, you work with people with similar issues who can provide support during recovery. In addition to therapists, life coaches and health coaches are helpful when individuals want to change the way they eat, live, interact with others, and thrive. These coaches can often assess issues with their clients and work with clients to increase their motivation. Coaches help clients develop plans and goals to achieve and help them get to a better state of well-being.
Personally, having a close friend to have regular contact with will allow individuals to be able to share their day-to-day issues as well as providing them an opportunity to spend quality time with someone. Another person to consult for help could be a close family member that you trust. Many people feel that their family members will be there for them no matter what, so if individuals have family that they are close to, this could also help them in overcoming loneliness.
Other people to consult for guidance on personal relationships could be a mentor or clergy/pastor. Pastors and clergy could give spiritual and emotional guidance. Clergymen can be additional support when you may want someone with experience to talk to and who may have more knowledge about certain topics than a close friend or family member would. Individuals can also have personal relationships with clergy that they would not be able to have with a professional.
Likewise, a mentor could also be a support as being someone the individual could lean on and receive mentoring when it came to certain events in the individual’s life. The mentor could also guide, teach, and counsel.
Helping Loved Ones Dealing With Loneliness
Many people may have loved ones who may be suffering from loneliness, grief, or some kind of emotional distress. It’s important to be present for them and to help them to better manage their feelings without causing even more distress. Something that could make matters worse is minimizing the pain others feel as if their feelings don’t matter.
It would also be damaging to tell those suffering from loneliness to “suck it up” or to mock them in their pain. These reactions would cause them to feel even lonelier and would be counterproductive. It would also be harmful to just ignore their concerns. Ignoring concerns may cause those who are lonely to isolate even more.
Here are five tips on helping a loved one dealing with loneliness:12
1. Listen Without Judgment
Sometimes all people need is to just have someone to hear them out while they express how they feel. Just listening could be very comforting to someone in need.
2. Spend Time With Them
It would be a good idea to just spend some of your time with a loved one to show them that you care. During this time, you could talk or make plans. Remember that it’s the effort and thought that count.
3. Help Them Engage in Enjoyable Activities
Helping a loved one partake in activities they enjoy doing could be a big help to them. Also volunteering to assist them with tasks they may have could also lessen their burdens or feelings of loneliness.
4. Provide Support & Encouragement
Be present, look for resources to help them, and try to lift their spirits with encouraging words or notes whenever possible.
5. Do Something Kind
Find out things that a person who is lonely may like and do random acts of kindness for them just to show that you care and support them.
Loneliness can impact a person’s self-concept, social life, mental health and even physical health. Many people will experience loneliness at some point in their lives, but it is best to seek help when you can no longer manage these feelings. If untreated, loneliness can have a detrimental impact on the mind and/or the physical body. If you or someone you know is suffering from loneliness, do know there is help available. The sooner that you receive help, the sooner you can begin living a better life.
For Further Reading
The following are helpful additional resources for anyone impacted by loneliness: