Loneliness is something we all may experience at some point in our lives. For many, it’s a feeling that only lasts a moment, appearing in certain situations. But others may feel lonely all or most of the time.
Here, we'll look closer at what it means to experience loneliness, who it affects, and what support is available for those wanting to escape this feeling.
What is loneliness?
Loneliness can be defined as a "subjective, unwelcome feeling of lack of companionship". It's the feeling we get when our want and need to have social connections and relationships is not met. There is no one set idea of what it means to be lonely, as the experience is different for everybody. What may feel like loneliness to one person may not be the same for another.
Solution-focused practitioner and CBT counsellor, Blou Hyland (Dip CBT Count, RMBACP), explains more about loneliness and how therapy can help.
What's the difference between loneliness and being alone?
Loneliness is not the same as being alone. Some people can experience feelings of loneliness even if they're surrounded by close friends and family, or are in a relationship. This is especially common in people who don't feel listened to or understood by those around them.
It’s common to mistake being alone as feeling lonely. But choosing to be alone can be a positive thing. It’s a conscious decision that can be restorative, re-energising, and calming. The feeling of loneliness isn’t a choice. It comes from a feeling of being disconnected from others.
Isolation is an objective state, where the number of contacts you have can be counted. One way of describing this distinction is that you can be lonely in a crowded room, but you will not be socially isolated.
Types of loneliness
There are two types of loneliness; emotional and social.
This is when we miss the company of one particular person, such as a spouse, sibling, or best friend.
This is when we're lacking a wider social network (a group of friends or colleagues, for example). Loneliness can come and go in waves. It can be situational, meaning it's only experienced at certain times, like at Christmas or bank holidays. Or it can be chronic, meaning someone feels lonely all or most of the time.
Social interaction is a part of life and it’s in our human nature to crave companionship and compassion. When this is taken away, you can feel very lonely indeed.
What causes loneliness?
There are several reasons why someone may feel lonely. Sometimes, this might not be obvious, but some of the most common causes are:
- losing a loved one
- moving away from friends and family
- loss of contentment or enjoyment in your work
- having health problems that limit your ability to socialise/leave the house
Counselling for loneliness
If you’re feeling lonely, speaking to a counsellor or therapist can help. It can help you feel connected with someone and supported. By talking to a professional, you can experience validation - it’s OK to feel this way, it’s not your fault and support is available.
Long-term loneliness can lead to mental health problems - such as anxiety and depression - and increase the risk of developing certain health conditions. Experiencing a mental health problem isn’t easy, and it’s even harder going through it alone. If you're lonely or feel like you have nobody to talk to, reach out to a qualified professional.
Who is affected?
Loneliness can affect anyone. Experiences of loneliness can vary, but its effects can be profound and wide-ranging. Here we’ll explore how it can affect different groups in society.
In the UK, over two million people aged 75 and over live alone. And more than half a million older people will spend a week or more without seeing another person. So, it's no surprise that loneliness is extremely common in older people. This is typically due to becoming weaker and less able to get out to see people, as well as losing partners in older age.
Widowed and divorced people are also at risk of loneliness. Their companion, which they believed to be lifelong, has gone. For whatever reason, they're alone and this isn’t something you expect to feel, especially if you're a younger adult.
If you've moved away from your friends and family, perhaps for a new job, you're thrust into the unknown, knowing nobody. These days, making friends can be tough. You may spend weeks meeting new people, but they're not the companions you want.
Loneliness affects us all differently and you may be able to manage feelings easier than others, or at least for a longer period of time. Most of us need some form of social contact to maintain good mental health, but we're all different. You may need a large group of friends to feel satisfied, or you may be content with a smaller circle.
Young person’s loneliness
Loneliness is often considered a taboo, particularly amongst young people. Perhaps because it's generally associated with the elderly, young people experiencing loneliness often suffer in silence.
Self-harm is the leading cause of death in the UK and much of that is down to the stigma of mental health and people not knowing where to turn. Instead of talking about their troubles, some young people turn to self-harm as a way of releasing their emotional pain.
When the realities of student life set in (lack of contact time, deadlines, workload, difficult housemates and fending for yourself), university can be a lonely time. A study conducted by Sodexo found that almost half of UK students (46%) admit to loneliness during their time at university - compared to 32% globally - with UK students most likely to consider dropping out compared to their worldwide counterparts.
How does it affect mental health?
While feeling lonely isn’t itself a mental health problem, chronic loneliness is closely linked with mental ill-health and unhappiness. It’s often associated with depression, sleep problems and stress.
It can be a vicious cycle. If you’re experiencing mental health problems, it can be a very isolating time. You may feel like there’s nowhere to turn or, as a result of stigma, feel too scared to talk or seek help.
We aren’t always aware of the impacts of loneliness because we don’t expect it to affect us. Usually, feelings ease after a while and we get on with our lives. Many of us fear being alone but, the reality is, you don’t expect how much it can change your life until it does.
Advice for staying connected
Whether your feelings of loneliness are fleeting or have been with you for a long time, it can be deeply emotional and overwhelming. Doing anything can seem hopeless, but trying to think positively, and taking the steps to help yourself out of loneliness can be useful. Remember, it’s not your fault you feel this way, and there is a way out.
Think about what's making you lonely
If you’ve been feeling lonely for a while, the first step is to recognise it and try to understand what has caused it. The reason may be more clear, for example, if you’ve lost a lifelong partner, being without them will obviously have an impact.
In older age, friends and partners grow old and pass away, and your family are living their own lives - you can’t bother them with your problems. 'You’ll be fine', you think, but actually, you haven’t spoken to anyone in weeks and it’s starting to affect your well-being.
Think about what you would like more of - maybe you miss your family. If so, invite them to visit or call them for a conversation. When feeling lonely, it’s easy to believe people don’t want to see you, as they’re too busy. This is understandable but, often, people will accept an invitation to spend time with you.
Look after yourself
If you're able to, go for walks and move your body regularly. Eating well and keeping active can help maintain good well-being and can help you to relax more in your own company.
Loneliness can be all-consuming and your days can blend into a never-ending, painful experience. Try to establish a routine: get up in the morning and have breakfast, spend time outside and speak to people where you can.
Make new connections
The simplest way to ease feelings of loneliness is to socialise more. This may sound obvious, but trying to reach out and meet new people can really change a life. Is there anything you’re particularly interested in? Maybe there’s an activity group or class in your area that could help you meet new, like-minded people.
Take a look at local volunteering opportunities. Volunteering is a great way to meet people and socialise, and helping others can make you feel good. Do It is a great place to start.
Take it slow
Reaching out isn’t easy and taking things into your own hands can be daunting. If you’re not ready to jump straight in, take it a little slower. Start by going to the cinema or a cafe with a book; somewhere you can be around people, but not be expected to talk to them.
If you’re interested in joining a class or a group, there’s no harm in calling whoever runs it and asking questions. Or, consider joining a class that doesn’t necessarily run on conversation - a creative event, where people are focused on what they’re doing, rather than those around them.
Do people know how you feel? You may have plenty of friends and family but, if they don’t know how you’re feeling, they may not realise how much you need them. It’s not easy, but opening up to loved ones can really help. Remember, there is no shame in feeling lonely.
If you’re not comfortable opening up to family, consider speaking to someone less involved. Perhaps a friend, through an online community or even a professional.
Get some help if needed
If it’s affecting your mental and physical health, it might be time to consider professional support. You don’t have to go through this alone. As lonely as you feel, there will always be someone to talk to.
See some tips to combat loneliness from Mind.
What support is available?
When experiencing loneliness, the idea of reaching out and asking for help can seem pointless. Who can support you if there’s no one around? But the thing to remember is that there is help available.
There are charities and resources dedicated to helping those who feel lonely. They may organise events, activity groups and coffee meetings; bringing people together.
Support for the elderly
Elderly people may benefit from the Age UK befriending service. Volunteers sign up to this service as ‘befrienders’ and either carryout face-to-face visits or schedule a weekly telephone call. This provides regular, friendly conversation and companionship over a long period of time.
Befriending provides those who feel lonely with a link to the outside world and a source of regular communication. Often, befriending acts as valuable support and can even be a gateway for other services the person may be missing.
Older people can be more reluctant to seek help for mental health problems that may arise if they're experiencing loneliness. However, it's important to remember that you're never 'too old' to seek support and, if you feel you need further help, you may benefit from counselling or therapy.
In her article, Benefits in counselling for the elderly, Helen Smith explains how "skilled listeners" can be transformative in helping older people alleviate mental health issues and feel they have someone who can validate their feelings. For more information on counselling, read our fact sheet.
Charities such as The Silver Line, and Co-op Foundation work to combat loneliness and support those in need. They have befriending services and volunteer opportunities, connecting people who feel lonely with a conversation and companion.
Students may also benefit from reaching out to Student Minds, a mental health charity there to support students in higher education.
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