Understanding Loneliness

Loneliness is a feeling of sadness due to perceived lack of companionship, friendship, or any social bond or relationship. Sometimes people have friends, but still feel lonely — most often because they don’t feel fully seen or understood. Some people like to be alone, and can tolerate being alone more often and for longer stretches than others. But if you’re alone and don’t want to be, and feel like being alone is affecting your happiness and self-image, you’re experiencing loneliness. Read on to learn more about loneliness, how to recognize it and what you can do about it.

How to recognize loneliness

One way to recognize loneliness in yourself is to use the UCLA Loneliness Scale. This scale asks if you identify with the following statements, often, sometimes or never:

  • I have no one to talk to.
  • I do so many things alone and it makes me sad.
  • No one understands me.
  • I feel left out, shut out, or excluded.
  • No one is interested in what I’m interested in.
  • I don’t feel close to anyone, or like anyone really knows me.
  • I can’t reach out to others.
  • I feel starved for companionship or company.
  • It’s hard for me to make friends and I’m unhappy because of it.

What can trigger feelings of loneliness?

There are common events that we all experience that can trigger natural feelings of loneliness. This period of adjusting to changes that decrease your contact with familiar people, or cease contact altogether, can naturally be a lonely time. Even if you move to a new city or job with a wide variety of people, the lack of deep connection with those people can contribute to loneliness, but those feelings can alleviate over time as you create new bonds. Some other events that might make you feel lonely include:

  • Changing a job, school, living situation, etc.
  • Moving away or further from your support system
  • Moving from in-person work or school to remote work/learn
  • Ending a relationship or friendship
  • Living alone for the first time (or after a long time of living with others)
  • Losing a close loved one or life partner
  • Being diagnosed with a chronic or terminal illness

Depending on the root cause of loneliness, the adjustment period will vary. If you’ve begun a new job, it may only take a few weeks before you find a friend and start feeling less alone. However, if you’ve lost a partner, it’s understandable for that loneliness to persist for a longer period of time. If you’ve had a life change or loss and you feel as though your loneliness isn’t going away, grief counseling or support groups may help you to heal and adjust.

Mental health conditions associated with loneliness

Persistent loneliness can contribute to several mental health conditions. Here’s a breakdown of some of the most common:

Depressive disorders

Depression and loneliness are highly associated and can contribute to one another. The difference is that persistent feelings of loneliness due to depression can lead to feeling hopeless, or the feeling that no matter what you do, nothing changes how you feel. People experiencing the more transitory experience of loneliness can help themselves by taking action to make or improve their social connections and/or support.

Symptoms of depression like lethargy and anhedonia (an inability to feel pleasure) can emerge when we feel socially disconnected or isolated for significant periods of time or when we try unsuccessfully to change them. This can deepen our sense of isolation and can reduce self-esteem and increase self-judgement — all of which exacerbates depression.

Alcoholism/addiction/substance abuse

A lack of social support and perceptions of loneliness is also a contributor to development and maintenance of substance misuse. Loneliness also doesn’t help recovery, with high levels of loneliness being an obstacle to addiction recovery.

Suicidal ideation

Loneliness and social isolation is a well documented risk factor to suicidal ideation, suicidal gestures, and completed suicide. Loneliness typically peaks in the same seasons that suicidal gestures and suicide peak (winter/spring). Because loneliness can contribute to feelings of isolation, burdensomeness, and other emotional experiences, it takes an extra toll on someone who’s suicidal and might feel that they wouldn’t be missed by those around them.

If you or someone you know is experiencing loneliness and have been having thoughts of self harm, suicide, or making or acting on plans to do so, call the suicide prevention hotline 800-273-8255, or tell a loved one, counselor, or doctor immediately.

Poor sleep quality

Lastly, feelings of loneliness can also contribute to daytime dysfunction like lethargy, fatigue, and low motivation, which in turn contribute to overall poor sleep quality.

Why do I feel alone?

Even people with many family and friends feel lonely sometimes. This is because loneliness is not a reflection of how big our social circle is or how many friends we text a day, it’s a reflection of how connected to and supported we feel by others. In other words, feelings of loneliness come from how we perceive our social environment and may not have much to do with how many people we interact with or have available for support.

If you spend a lot of time around people, or have friends and family that you love, and still struggle with feeling lonely, some reasons could be:

  • You’re surrounded by people, but you don’t share many interests or identities, or feel truly “close” to any of them.
  • You have a circle of family and friends, but no romantic partner.
  • You have a family and romantic partner, but no close friends.
  • You have a romantic partner and a friend circle, but no close family.
  • You’re friendly with people at work or school, but have few peers you see outside.

All of this means that your social needs aren’t being met. And loneliness can stem from that. Different relationships fulfill different purposes. For example, we turn to family for different reasons that we turn to friendships or romantic relationships. It’s also possible for loneliness to stem from discrepancies between what we want those relationships to look like and what they actually are.

In other words, if we expect a certain level of intimacy (platonic or not) from a person or group of people, and they return with something different  than what we expect, that can make us feel ignored, excluded, and affect our self-esteem.

When to get help

We have a list of ways to help you cope, but there are several instances in which tips aren’t enough and you should get help for your loneliness. These include:

  • If feelings of loneliness are accompanied by persistent or worsening depression, fatigue, and other mood-related symptoms that prevent you from functioning in your everyday life
  • If you begin having negative thoughts about yourself that are self-hating or self-punishing
  • If you’re feeling lonely due to an abusive partner that has forbidden you from talking to friends, family, or has otherwise minimized your contact with people outside of the relationship, consider seeking help through https://www.thehotline.org/ or other local advocacy groups
    • This link will trigger a pop-up with this phone number: 800.799.SAFE (7233). If you’re afraid your partner could monitor your internet usage, this number may be a safer option.
  • If you’re experiencing loneliness related to grief, bereavement, chronic or terminal illness, consider a support group or counseling specifically for your circumstance
  • If at any point you’re having suicidal thoughts or urges

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If you or someone you know needs to talk to someone right now, text START to 741-741 or call 1-800-273-TALK (8255) for a free, confidential conversation with a trained counselor 24/7.

Find more ways to get help & feel better in our RESOURCE CENTER.

If this is an emergency, please call 911 immediately.

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