All of us get lonely at one time or another. In fact, loneliness is a normal reaction to feeling disconnected from others either physically, emotionally, or both. But that doesn’t mean that it is an easy emotion to live with. And loneliness can sometimes be a trigger for other mental health issues like depression.
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.
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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.
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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).
Reach Out To A Professional To Discuss Your Feelings of Loneliness
It goes without saying that if you are dealing with loneliness that is part of general depression, anxiety, or any other mental health issue, you should seek treatment from a licensed psychologist.
But loneliness itself is a good enough reason to seek help. Loneliness is a feeling that can bring you down, and make life difficult to navigate. Talking through your loneliness, and having someone help you come up with an action plan for dealing with it, are great steps toward your overall happiness and a greater sense of well-being.
We all feel lonely at times, and there is no shame in that. But we all deserve to feel better — to feel connected, cared for, purposeful, and loved.
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