Whether you are experiencing chronic loneliness, infrequent bouts of loneliness, or your first encounter with it, loneliness can bring even the strongest people down to their emotional knees.
Loneliness can strike anyone at any time, and it is so much more than just a negative emotion to be pushed away. Dealing with loneliness can be a lifelong struggle.
So how do you deal with loneliness?
The first step is through understanding loneliness: what it is, its symptoms, why it happens, and who it affects.
Through understanding comes clarity, and only with clarity can you begin to actively deal with your own loneliness or the loneliness of loved ones around you.
Understanding Loneliness: What is Loneliness?
Loneliness is the prolonged feeling of social or emotional isolation, in which a person feels that they are divided or separated from those around them.
They feel that they have immense difficulty connecting with their peers on anything beyond a surface level, and become exhausted from the effort of trying.
These feelings are usually accompanied with self-loathing, low self-esteem and self-confidence, and general inadequacy.
Ongoing or chronic loneliness can affect any kind of person, even those who are most outgoing and extroverted.
Loneliness is a deeply internal conflict that can last for years in a person without anyone around them noticing.
A person suffering from extreme or chronic loneliness will be negatively affected across all areas of their life.
If you believe that you or someone close to you might be dealing with loneliness or extreme loneliness, look out for the following symptoms.
Remember: loneliness affects us all differently, and some people may exhibit different variations of similar symptoms.
- Weak Connections: An individual experiencing loneliness has an inability to bond with other people beyond the surface level. In many cases, lonely people have friends or family, making it seem like they have a normal social life and emotional well-being, however their interactions with the people in their life do not feel fulfilling or meaningful.
- No Best Friends: All the friends of a lonely person are casual or just passing by. They have no long-term close friends that they can really connect with. For a lonely person, it feels like there is no one in their life who “gets” them.
- Social Exhaustion: Any type of social engagement physically and mentally exhausts someone who is lonely. Even when they genuinely try to take part in social activities – even those as simple as just going out for a drink or lunch with friends – they have difficulty enjoying the socializing because they feel so tired.
- Overwhelming Isolation: No matter how many people are physically around a lonely person, they feel an overwhelming sense of isolation. It is as if they are trapped in a bubble, and interact with the world through a filter that makes everything feel heavier and slower.
- Physical Effects: Due to all the other symptoms of loneliness, a lonely person will generally feel physical side effects such as insomnia, poor diet, weight gain, a weakened immune system, and general sickness.
How Loneliness Affects the Mind and Body
There are some who believe that loneliness is purely an emotional reaction, however, chronic loneliness can deeply affect a person’s mental and physical health.
The increased anxiety and stress caused by loneliness forces the body to raise its cortisol levels, which leads to a myriad of physical and mental issues.
Some of these issues include:
|Increased risk for dementia and Alzheimer’s||Sleep disorders|
|Reduced ability to concentrate||Type 2 diabetes|
|Reduced decision-making and problem-solving||Heart disease|
|Depression||High blood pressure|
|Obsessive-compulsive disorder||Substance use|
|Social anxiety||Shortened lifespan|
|Mental fatigue||Increased inflammation|
What Makes a Person Lonely? The Three Factors of Loneliness
In one study of loneliness, researchers wanted to isolate the biological and mental factors that predispose a person towards experiencing greater feelings of loneliness.
In the 2008 study, it was found that lonely people generally experience a combination of three “loneliness factors”. These factors include:
- Level of vulnerability to social disconnection: We each have a need for social inclusion, and the intensity of this need depends on our genetics. The more intense an individual’s need for social inclusion, the more vulnerable they are to feeling lonely.
- The ability to self-regulate the emotions associated with feeling isolated: We all have our own mental capacity to “wash” our emotions and state of mind, which is why some of us can process negative emotions more effectively than others. If you have a weak ability to self-regulate loneliness emotions, this can lead to chronic loneliness over time.
- Mental representations and expectations of as well as reasoning about others: Some people have more difficulty understanding the reactions and expectations of others. For lonely people, they have difficulty believing that they are fitting in with the group, leading them to perceive their social skills as lacking.
Social Loneliness and Emotional Loneliness
A recent 2018 study from Social Psychiatry and Psychiatric Epidemiology looked into the way we understand loneliness.
The paper sought to challenge the idea that loneliness is a feeling; rather, it states, loneliness is an umbrella of a variety of feelings and can be graphed along two axes: emotional loneliness and social loneliness.
- Social loneliness: When a person is unhappy with their number of social relationships, they are experiencing social loneliness. A person with high social loneliness believes they have very few friends, and thus very few people who actually care about them.
- Emotional loneliness: When a person is unhappy with the state of their social relationships, they are experiencing emotional loneliness. A person with high emotional loneliness believes they are disconnected from their social networks. They feel isolated even while crowded.
When graphed onto two axes of social loneliness and emotional loneliness, researchers believe that a lonely person can fall into one of four different quadrants of loneliness: low loneliness (low feelings on both social and emotional); social loneliness, emotional loneliness, and social and emotional loneliness (high feelings on both social and emotional).
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Are You Lonely?
Communication and social interaction seem to be easier than ever – with just a few taps on a smartphone, you can connect with any friend, family, or other loved one in moments.
But recent years have seen a huge spike in loneliness, to the point that many psychologists refer to it as a modern-day loneliness epidemic.
In the last few decades, loneliness in the United States has doubled.
Almost half of all people feel alone or isolated, and around one in four survey respondents feel like there is no one in their life who understands them.
People Most at Risk of Loneliness
So who are the people most at risk of loneliness?
Loneliness can be experienced by anyone, but there are certain common situations that can trigger the beginning (or recurrence) of loneliness. These include:
- Finding yourself in a new situation, such as a new city, job, or school, surrounded by unfamiliar faces.
- Losing the “quiet presence” of another person, in which you no longer have a person you can hang out with passively and quietly.
- Finding yourself different from those around you in an important way, such as religion, sexual orientation, or political beliefs.
- Losing trust in those closest to you, leaving you feeling hopeless and isolated with no one to turn to
- Realizing you have a lack of an intimate partner to share your most personal moments with, or your current partner no longer fulfills that need
- Believing that none of your “friends” really want to become closer to you, as they often have no time to invest in further activities to bond with you
Unexpected Causes of Loneliness
Loneliness is not always what people think it to be. There is a reason why most people with loneliness live with it for years without their closest friends or family realizing it.
Loneliness can exist in the most surprising people due to unexpected causes. Some counterintuitive causes of loneliness include:
1) Being an Extrovert: There are many extroverts who are lonely, and these are the types who feel isolated in a crowded room. They yearn for deeper connections, but find themselves failing and falling back to their shallow and short-term relationships.
2) Male and Single: One study found that women are less likely to be lonely as they have stronger and wider networks to rely on. In contrast, single men are those most vulnerable to loneliness, and they generally have few or no close friends to turn to.
3) Type-A Personality: Type A personalities are those who are more impatient, competitive, ambitious and short-tempered, and their response to stress is generally more neurotic and frantic. One study found that Type-A personalities have more difficulty relating and bonding with others, making them more prone to loneliness.
4) Social Media Addiction: One of the biggest causes for loneliness these days is social media overuse. Social media can make people feel like everyone around them is living a perfect life full of social activities, leading to feelings of self-doubt, inadequacy, and of course, loneliness.
5) Chronic Illness: Being chronically sick can hurt more than your physical health – it also increases your chance of feeling long-term loneliness. Researchers found that people have more difficulty staying positive with chronic illness, especially as older adults, and end up falling into a spiral of loneliness as they age.
Dealing With Loneliness
While understanding the causes and types of loneliness is half the battle, the other half is knowing how to actively deal with it.
But before actively dealing with your loneliness (or the loneliness of someone close to you), there are three crucial points you must remember:
- Most of Us Have Periods of Loneliness: Loneliness can make you feel like your situation is unique and no one out there can understand what you are feeling. But the truth is quite the opposite – loneliness is an overwhelmingly communal feeling. In one study, it was found that only 22% of respondents had never felt lonely. That means nearly 80% of people (or 4 out of 5) have experienced a feeling similar to your loneliness.
- We Each Deal with Loneliness Differently: It can be easy to get discouraged when you read tips on how to deal with loneliness that don’t actually work on yourself or those around you. You might give up, believing that no solution can help you out. But we each deal with loneliness differently; a solution that works for one person might not work for you. Try your best to understand your mind and your needs, and work towards fulfilling those needs.
- Loneliness is a Long-Term Battle: Some of us are simply naturally predisposed towards feelings of loneliness more than others. This means that for some people, loneliness will be an issue they naturally experience all their lives. Don’t get discouraged if loneliness comes back – accept it and embrace it as part of who you are, and learn how to overcome it every time.
Now that you understand loneliness, here are ways you can help yourself and help others with loneliness:
5 Ways To Help Yourself with Loneliness
1) Keep a Journal of Your Thoughts
The Problem: One of the most common ways that loneliness attacks us is by overwhelming us with emotion. It doesn’t matter how happy you might have been over the last week or month; the moment that loneliness is triggered and released from its cage, it will feel like you’ve been stuck in a rut for weeks and the entire world is out to get you.
Loneliness blinds you to the truth. The truth is that it’s not as bad as it feels in the present moment. No matter what other people may tell you or try to show you, you are absolutely convinced that you are stuck and alone.
The Answer: So keep a journal of your thoughts and emotions. Write down everything you feel every day. From the small blips of happiness because you messaged an old friend or you received a compliment at work, to the huge moments of joy that can make your entire day great.
With this journal, you will have evidence made by your own two hands that yesterday and the day before weren’t as horrible as your loneliness wants you to believe. The first step to fighting loneliness is knowing how to snap out of it.
2) Separate the Feelings from the Facts
The Problem: Loneliness convinces you that everything in your life is shallow and a waste of time. When the loneliness cloud comes over you, you have difficulty remembering why you try at work, with your hobbies, or with your social life at all. It feels impossible to do anything as simple as even interact with those around you.
Loneliness is often triggered by a current memory or thought. It’s not often the case that you feel most lonely when you are physically alone, because it’s not the physical aloneness that makes one feel the onset of loneliness. It’s the development of the emotion in the thoughts, and our feeling of loneliness growing out of itself.
The Answer: Remember that loneliness is a feeling (or a set of feelings), not a fact. When you find yourself trapped in a cycle of thoughts consisting of your brain asking itself, “Why am I so lonely and why does everyone dislike me?”, just take a step back from the inner turmoil, take a deep breath, and relax.
Now ask yourself: “What is making me feeling lonely? What are my worst thoughts, and are they actually true?” Often, you will find that your worst thoughts aren’t true at all.
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3) Find Your Tribe, (But Don’t Cut Everyone Else Off)
The Problem: Loneliness is, simply put, being lonely. There are times when you might feel lost and isolated in a crowd, in which case you might believe that no amount of social connection can help you crawl out of your pit of loneliness. You might start to think that you are absolutely incapable of establishing meaningful social and physical connections with other people. The problem is that many people decide to give up once they reach this point.
The Answer: Find your tribe. What does this mean? It means finding people who share your interests and are willing to include you in their social gatherings. Too often, lonely people will try to find other lonely people, but this just makes the act of establishing strong connections even more difficult, as both parties are incapable of doing it on their own.
But this also means keeping your original social networks and social bonds. Don’t isolate yourself from your current friends and relatives because you have found a new network or tribe. Once you manage to crawl out of your loneliness, those original social ties will feel a lot better than before.
4) Get Out of Your Head
The Problem: Loneliness has a peculiar way of trapping you in your own head. A person with extreme loneliness can live their entire day without thinking of anyone but themselves. While walking down the sidewalk, riding the bus, working at the office, eating meals – your only thoughts are about your loneliness, your sadness, and your hopelessness.
The Answer: Just stop it. Get out of your head. This doesn’t mean you have to stop feeling lonely. It just means you have to stop hyperfocusing on the reality of it. Try to appreciate the world around you – the little interactions between other people, the smiles and the greetings, the handshakes and the hugs. The more of an effort you make to understand and enjoy social interactions, the more natural it will start to feel to you.
5) Be Persistent, Be Curious, and Don’t Expect Perfection
The Problem: Loneliness makes people give up too easily. When a lonely person tries to reach out to an old friend or participate in a new group or do anything outside of their comfort zone, they believe that every attempt is “all or nothing”, or “do or die”.
The loneliness convinces them that if anything goes wrong – if the interaction is unsuccessful, if the friend or group seems disinterested, or if there aren’t fireworks every time they try something new – then the problem lies solely inside of them, and they need to give up and retreat back into their shell to spare themselves anymore feelings of disappointment.
The Answer: Don’t give up. Socializing is hard for everyone, not just you. Loneliness may make you think that you are unique and special (in a bad way), but you aren’t. Everyone has trouble joining new groups and making new friends, even those people who seem to be filled with all the confidence in the world.
Just because you failed once or twice doesn’t mean you were destined to be without friends for the rest of your life. It just means you failed once or twice, and now it’s time to try again. If you ask a friend out to coffee and they say they’re busy, then try again next week, or ask another friend. Where’s the harm in trying? Rejection is a part of life, and so are persistence and curiosity. Embrace it.
How to Help Others with Loneliness
If you have a friend or relative that you believe is suffering from loneliness, here are a few ways you can actively try to help:
- Engage in their interests and hobbies. Ask them to do something they want to do
- Ask and listen, and truly hear them out. Don’t interrupt: let them really talk
- Help in even the smallest ways, such as a daily “Hey!” or “Hope you’re feeling good!”
- Ask questions and get to know them beyond the surface level. Understand what makes them “tick”
- Be optimistic with them, be strong. While it’s okay to listen to their loneliness, encourage them and inspire them
- Involve animals! Countless studies have found that animals can boost our emotions, making us more relaxed and joyful
- Help them establish a ladder of goals. Don’t just give them hope – show them a way out towards a more fulfilling life, even if it’s as simple as going to the gym everyday
- Let them know you are available. Not all lonely people are willing to try and do new things with you, even just talking. But even the small act of saying “I’m here if you need me” can truly help
Loneliness – Another Part of You to Be Loved
The human experience is a complex and limitless thing, and loneliness is just one facet of it. For those of you experiencing loneliness, loneliness is a part of who you are, whether you like it or not. And only by truly accepting it and embracing it as another curiosity that exists within you can you fully act towards overcoming it.
So embrace your loneliness, and accept that you are lonely or prone to loneliness. Give up the self-judgment, the self-loathing, the self-pity.
Loneliness is just further proof that you are a complete mind and soul, yearning for the social connection of others.
And isn’t that a good thing? Let yourself understand your heart’s needs, and find ways to fulfill those needs in the most positive ways possible.
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I’m Lachlan Brown, the founder, and editor of Hack Spirit. I love writing practical articles that help others live a mindful and better life. I have a graduate degree in Psychology and I’ve spent the last 6 years reading and studying all I can about human psychology and practical ways to hack our mindsets. If you want to get in touch with me, hit me up on Twitter or Facebook.