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You’re not alone in feeling lonely.
Nearly 40% of Americans are experiencing loneliness either all or part of the time — and it’s no longer an option to ignore it at home or at work.
Let’s look at the risks of loneliness, its causes, and when to see a mental health professional for help. We’ll also share some strategies for overcoming loneliness and some tips on preventing it from happening in the first place.
It’s more important than ever to eliminate the stigma and address the epidemic of loneliness.
It’s making people sick and costing employers a ton of money, according to Gabriella Rosen Kellerman, psychiatrist and Chief Product Officer for BetterUp, a digital coaching and mental health platform.
“Loneliness is an expensive problem that will affect their bottom line, whether they realize it or not,” she says.
The definition of loneliness
Loneliness is the difference between your actual level of social connection and the level of connection you desire. Ultimately, loneliness and social isolation are different — even though they often influence one another.
Feelings of loneliness are subjective and can only truly be defined by the person feeling them. You can actually be lonely but not alone. For example, if you have a lot of social activities but they’re with people who you don’t really connect with or who you feel don’t understand you.
By contrast, social isolation means having a lack of close friends or infrequent social interactions.
Loneliness often involves feeling:
- Left out
Or a mix of all these.
Feeling this way can lead to feelings of isolation, which in turn leads to more loneliness, and the vicious cycle continues.
What is chronic loneliness?
If loneliness goes unchecked for too long, it becomes ingrained in your daily experience, and that’s when chronic loneliness sets in.
Chronic loneliness is the constant feeling of separation from other people. It manifests as the inability to connect with others in a meaningful way and feelings of deep loneliness.
Why do I feel so alone?
Feeling alone can be caused by a number of things that prevent you from feeling connected. Here are some of the top causes of loneliness:
- Increased mobility: more options for work and travel have given us the ability to live anywhere (at least pre-pandemic). This means we can move for new opportunities. Every time we move, we leave behind communities and personal face-to-face connections. We then have to build new relationships from scratch.
- Working long hours: when work spills over into our evenings, we’re missing out on quality time with our family members and friends. Instead of working so hard, we should focus our attention on finding a better work-life balance.
- Feeling misunderstood or invisible: feeling different from others, suffering from a chronic illness or invisible illness, or having trouble knowing how to interact with others can all lead to feeling lonely.
- Lack of belonging: a work or school culture that favors conformity or is naturally homogeneous can create a sense of loneliness. You might feel that the unique parts that make you "you" are not welcomed or understood. This is especially true for people who are visibly different from the norm. However, anyone who feels unable to be themselves can feel lonely.
- Communication barriers: a language barrier, a strong difference of opinion, or the inability to understand and empathize with someone else’s perspective are common communication barriers that can cause loneliness.
- Grieving an unhealed trauma: It can be grief from losing a loved one, getting divorced, or experiencing some form of abuse. Regardless of the cause, grieving an unhealed trauma for too long is a recipe for loneliness.
- Lack of connection with yourself: it’s hard to connect deeply with other people if you haven’t formed a personal connection with yourself first.
- Struggling with mental health: PTSD, anxiety, depression, and other mental health concerns create even more challenges for creating and sustaining positive relationships.
- Spending too much time on social media apps: research has found that spending more than 30 minutes a day on social networks can lead to loneliness, depression, and anxiety. Try taking a digital detox and using the time to connect with loved ones, instead.
What does the research say?
Older adults and young people are the most heavily impacted. This is probably due to a major disruption in social support during the coronavirus pandemic lockdowns that caused 36% of people to report feeling more lonely than usual.
Workers are also a cause for concern.
America’s loneliest workers are single, childless, and well-educated. They’re more likely to be government workers, non-heterosexual, and non-religious, according to the HBR study. Among them, doctors and lawyers experience the most loneliness.
What are the signs and symptoms of loneliness?
Feeling deeply disconnected and alone is the number one sign of loneliness. Other signs of loneliness and symptoms include:
- Drug and alcohol use: using drugs and alcohol to cope with loneliness.
- Trouble sleeping: dealing with insomnia or having trouble falling asleep.
- Extreme reclusiveness: going long periods of time without human interaction.
- Restlessness: feeling unable to relax.
- Body pain: feeling aches and pains on various parts of your body (inside or out).
- Decreased mental health: experiencing depression, anxiety, bipolar episodes, etc.
- Cardiovascular problems: increased heart rate and blood pressure.
Health risks related to loneliness
Several studies have shown that loneliness causes stress responses in the body. These can lead to major health issues for lonely individuals. The health risks of loneliness include:
- Dementia: loneliness points to a 40% increased risk of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.
- High inflammation: when the body senses a threat (like stress or loneliness), it can create a rise in inflammation.
- Cardiovascular diseases: such as heart disease and stroke.
- Mental health risks: including anxiety, depression, and suicide.
- Drug and alcohol addiction: coping with loneliness by using drugs or alcohol can lead to addiction and the need for health care.
- Increased stress: physical stress responses are another way the body reacts to threats like loneliness.
Now that we’ve covered the risks, let’s move on to our top tips for overcoming loneliness.
6 tips to overcome loneliness
Our top tips for overcoming loneliness include:
- Connect deeper to yourself: self-acceptance, self-esteem, and self-compassion can help you feel confident about yourself. This can make you more open to connecting with others.
Why? When you do the inner work to accept yourself and love yourself for who you are, you feel more comfortable in your own skin. Practicing daily self-care makes it easier to be more comfortable around others.
- Find an environment where deep sharing is celebrated: this could be a support group, your family, partner, or friendship circle. Whatever it is, make sure you find an environment where you feel safe, and that encourages you to be open about your feelings.
- Prioritize social connection: social connection increases:
Check in on your people — what have they been doing? What’s been on their mind lately?
- Don’t expect or focus on rejection: people who struggle with loneliness may have a fear of rejection. While you can’t control other people’s behavior, you can control giving people the benefit of the doubt.
Don’t assume you’ll be turned down when striking up a conversation or trying to start a friendship — try anyway. And if it doesn’t work out, there are plenty of other people in the world who would be delighted to connect with you.
- Focus on quality interactions: it’s not important to have a lot of friends or people in your life. What’s more important is having high-quality friendships and interactions with other people.
It’s about being part of a give-and-take relationship. Both friends understand each other, care about each other’s thoughts and feelings, and are there for each other through the good and the bad.
- Nurture your emotional intelligence: hold space for your emotions, and ask yourself: Is there a message here? What’s the root of this? How can I learn from this?
When you learn how to manage your emotions in positive ways, you communicate with empathy. This allows you to connect even deeper with other people. As a bonus, you learn how to manage your stress levels in a healthier way.
But what if you want to stop loneliness from ever creeping in?
That’s where prevention comes in.
3 tips to prevent loneliness
Our top three tips for preventing loneliness are:
- Stay engaged with your community and your family: go on family walks around your neighborhood or volunteer. You can also participate in events, schedule a night out with friends, and go on date nights.
If an in-person gathering isn’t an option (due to COVID-19 or another reason), get creative and stay in touch online. Watch movies together online or schedule a socially distanced gathering if appropriate.
- Reframe your mindset around social connection: focus on social connection as part of living a healthy lifestyle.
Make sure to weave nurturing your social connections into your healthy diet and exercise plan. For example, stay hydrated, eat a vegetable with every meal, do yoga, go to brunch with a friend, plan a date with your partner.
- Be part of a welcoming work environment: it’s important to feel a sense of belonging and inclusion with your work peers and to feel valued at work.
Whether it’s messaging each other memes on Slack (if you work remotely), cracking jokes by the water cooler, or solving a pressing issue together, it’s important to feel like you share a sense of purpose.
If you’re a solopreneur, look for in-person and virtual coworking spaces to regularly connect with others just like you.
Which age group is most vulnerable?
Although loneliness can affect anyone, senior citizens and young adults are the two most vulnerable groups.
Here’s a look at the two groups and why they’re vulnerable:
Young Adults (ages 18-25)
Spouses, friends, and family are passing away
Report having seriously considered suicide
Friends and family are moving away or can’t visit
Take on more hours and feel afraid to push back
Onset of debilitating illness
Feel a sense of alienation or detachment around peers and “friends”
These groups constantly experience major changes and losses in their lives. Therefore, it’s no wonder they’re the most vulnerable to experiencing loneliness.
Solitude vs. loneliness
Unlike loneliness, solitude is a positive and healthy way to spend time alone. Spending time alone can even be a form of self-care.
Solitude generally involves a desire to be alone to regroup, refocus, or relax. By contrast, loneliness involves feeling disconnected from others when you don’t want to be.
It’s important to note that introverts may experience solitude differently than extroverts. While introverts derive energy from being alone, extroverts derive energy from being with other people.
Everyone's a little introverted and a little extroverted. This means the line between solitude and loneliness depends on each person’s feelings and interpretations.
Can you die from loneliness?
The effects of loneliness over long periods of time are a cause for concern.
Social isolation and loneliness are both risk factors for premature mortality. According to loneliness and social isolation expert Dr. Julianne Holt-Lunstad, lacking social connections is equivalent to smoking up to 15 cigarettes a day.
Dr. Holt-Lunstad also concluded that while you may not die from loneliness immediately, loneliness has a greater impact on our health than obesity, physical inactivity, and air pollution.
Is loneliness contagious?
Because people influence one another, loneliness can be contagious. For example, when a “non-lonely” person spends time with a lonely person.
Researchers have also found 15 gene regions linked to loneliness, meaning that loneliness can also be hereditary.
When should you see a mental health professional?
If you’re having a hard time managing your loneliness, or if you’ve reached a state of chronic loneliness, it’s time to seek support and interventions that can help you overcome it.
Some red flags that point to needing a specialist include:
- Experiencing suicidal thoughts
- Feeling anxious or depressed
- Having difficulty sleeping
- Experiencing physical pain
- Feeling a lack of well-being due to loneliness or chronic loneliness.
It’s time to beat the stigma around mental health and loneliness. There’s nothing wrong with getting help — your life might depend on it.
Bottom line: don’t carry your loneliness by yourself
Loneliness is a major public health concern, but it doesn’t have to be. Understanding the causes, symptoms, and ways to deal with loneliness can help you overcome it. It can also prevent loneliness from coming back in the future.
The paradox of loneliness and social isolation is that they are usually easy to remedy. All it takes is increasing our social contacts and sense of connectedness. However, it is often the very feeling of loneliness that stops us from reaching out to others.
If you’re experiencing loneliness, it’s essential to seek help. Join a local support group, talk to a close friend or family member, start a new hobby, or try working with a professional therapist or coach.
And if you need a bit of personal support, reach out to one of our coaches.