“Nobody wants to be lonely,” may be a line from a pop song, but it’s also a fairly universal truth.
Chronic loneliness is a term to describe loneliness that’s experienced over a long period of time. While loneliness, and chronic loneliness, aren’t specific mental health conditions, they can still affect your mental and general health.
Loneliness describes the negative feelings that can occur when your needs for social connection aren’t met. It’s normal to enjoy spending time alone on occasion. In fact, alone time might help you relax and recharge. People have different needs for alone time, so you might need more than someone else to feel your best.
Still, aloneness and loneliness aren’t quite the same. When you’re enjoying your solitude, you most likely don’t feel isolated in a negative way or crave contact with others. Isolation and loneliness often go hand in hand, and both can affect not only emotional health but also overall well-being.
Read on to learn more about chronic loneliness, including how to recognize it, possible complications, and some potential ways to increase your social connections and ease feelings of loneliness.
Why are people lonely?
Loneliness can happen for a number of reasons. For example, you might feel lonely if you:
- change schools or jobs
- work from home
- move to a new city
- end a relationship
- are living alone for the first time
As you adjust to these new circumstances, feelings of loneliness may pass, but sometimes they persist. It’s not always easy to talk about feeling lonely, and if you have a hard time reaching out to others, you might feel even more alone.
A lack of meaningful connections also contributes to loneliness, which is why you can feel lonely even if you have a wide social network.
Maybe you have a lot of casual friends and fill your time with social activities but don’t feel too close to anyone. Spending a lot of time with couples and families can also lead to feelings of loneliness if you’re single and don’t want to be. This could happen even when you’re happily single.
Living with mental or physical health issues can also increase risk for loneliness. Health concerns can be isolating, since it can be difficult to explain how you feel. Sometimes social activities demand too much emotional or physical energy, and you might end up canceling more plans than you keep.
Eventually, a continued lack of social connection might make you feel even worse.
Health Risks of Loneliness
Although it’s hard to measure social isolation and loneliness precisely, there is strong evidence that many adults aged 50 and older are socially isolated or lonely in ways that put their health at risk. Recent studies found that:
- Social isolation significantly increased a person’s risk of premature death from all causes, a risk that may rival those of smoking, obesity, and physical inactivity.
- Social isolation was associated with about a 50% percent increased risk of dementia.
- Poor social relationships (characterized by social isolation or loneliness) was associated with a 29% increased risk of heart disease and a 32% increased risk of stroke.
- Loneliness was associated with higher rates of depression, anxiety, and suicide.
- Loneliness among heart failure patients was associated with a nearly 4 times increased risk of death, 68% increased risk of hospitalization, and 57% increased risk of emergency department visits.
If you’re lonely, you may feel sad, empty, or as if you’re lacking something important when you spend time by yourself. Chronic loneliness can also involve the following symptoms:
- decreased energy
- feeling foggy or unable to focus
- insomnia, interrupted sleep, or other sleep issues
- decreased appetite
- feelings of self-doubt, hopelessness, or worthlessness
- a tendency to get sick frequently
- body aches and pains
- feelings of anxiousness or restlessness
- increased shopping
- substance misuse
- increased desire to binge-watch shows or movies
- cravings for physical warmth, such as hot drinks, baths, or cozy clothes and blankets
Loneliness, even chronic loneliness, isn’t a specific mental health condition. However, experts increasingly recognize the ways loneliness can affect your physical and emotional health.
If you’ve been feeling lonely and experience unexplained symptoms such as the above signs of loneliness, talking to a mental health professional could help.
A therapist can help you uncover any possible mental health causes of your symptoms. Even though there’s no diagnosis for loneliness, therapy can help you access support and potentially helpful resources.
A therapist can also teach you tips to cope with the effects of loneliness and help you explore ways to make positive changes.
Experts increasingly suggest loneliness and isolation can have far-reaching effects on health, whether they occur together or independently of each other. Here’s a look at what some recent research says.
A 2017 reviewTrusted Source of 40 studies on social isolation and loneliness found evidence to link these states to a higher risk of early death, cardiovascular issues, and worsened mental health.
Another 2017 studyTrusted Source looked at results from the 2012 Swiss Health Survey, and found evidence to link loneliness to increased risk for:
- chronic illness
- high cholesterol
- emotional distress
Results of a 2017 studyTrusted Source looking at more than 2,000 twins suggest that young adults who felt lonely tended to have a lower quality of sleep. The study also found evidence to suggest that experiencing violence could worsen feelings of loneliness.
A 2010 studyTrusted Source looking at 215 adults supports the link between loneliness and poor sleep quality, going on to suggest that lower sleep quality can cause difficulty functioning during the day.
According to a 2018 studyTrusted Source of 639 older adults, both loneliness and social isolation can affect sleep quality.
A 2016 studyTrusted Source looking at the link between loneliness and social isolation in 1,116 twin pairs found evidence to suggest lonely people often had depression.
According to a 2018 reviewTrusted Source of 88 studies looking at loneliness and depression, loneliness had a “moderately significant” impact on depression risk.
Results of a 2017 studyTrusted Source looking at 8,382 adults age 65 and older suggest both loneliness and depression increase risk of cognitive decline.
While loneliness may not be a diagnosable condition, you can still get help dealing with feelings of loneliness.
Finding the best way to address loneliness often depends on what’s causing it. For example:
- You might have trouble getting to know people, whether they’re new friends or potential romantic partners.
- You may have just moved to a new city and miss your old haunts.
- You may have a lot of casual relationships but none that seem meaningful.
- You might have feelings of self-doubt, low self-esteem, or social anxiety that get in the way of building connections with others.
In all cases, talking to a therapist can help you find ways to make changes. If you’re dealing with mental or physical health issues that isolate you or worsen feelings of loneliness, getting help for these issues can help by making it easier for you to reach out to others.
If you feel lonely without really knowing why, you may find therapy helps narrow down possible causes. It can be hard to deal with feelings of loneliness if you aren’t sure what’s happening. A professional can help you examine any situations in your life that might be creating these feelings.
It’s possible a few lifestyle changes could help you feel less lonely. These may not completely address any underlying causes of loneliness, such as mental health issues or relationship concerns, but they can help you get started.
These tips can help you feel more engaged with others:
- Stay in touch with loved ones. If you’ve just moved, try to talk to friends and family weekly. Apps like Skype, Snapchat, and Facebook Messenger let you send video clips or communicate through video. It may not feel the same as in-person contact, but it can help you remember the people you love are still there for you.
- Volunteer or participate in community events. Find a few areas you’re interested in and try to get involved. Consider helping at library book sales, donating a weekend a month to your local animal shelter, helping out with trash cleanup, or spending a few hours working at your local food bank. Libraries are also a good place to find out about community events.
- Try a new hobby. If you feel lonely but have a good amount of free time, think about things you’ve always wanted to try. Dance? Woodworking? Art? Guitar? Your library, a local community college, or other community organizations will have information about local hobbies and events. Apps like Facebook and Meetup can also help you find events in your community and meet people who have the same interests.
- Get out of the house. Technology can have a lot of benefits. You might enjoy the convenience of having meals delivered to your door or movies through a Wi-Fi connection. But technology can also make it easier to miss out. Try an evening out at your local theater or take a walk to your neighborhood farmer’s market to get ingredients for your next meal. Make a goal of greeting and talking to a few new people each time you go out, even if it’s as simple as a smile and “hello.”
- Adopt a pet. Having another living creature to come home to could help your life feel fuller, and increase your feelings of connection to the world in general. Research consistently suggests pets can have a number of mental health benefits, including decreasing loneliness. What’s more, walking a dog (or cat, in some cases!) can also help increase your chances of meeting new people.
The following tips can often help keep you from feeling lonely in the first place:
- Get comfortable with spending time alone. This doesn’t mean you have to be alone all the time. It’s generally considered important for people to have at least some contact with others. But if you enjoy the time you spend on your own, you’re more likely to feel positive about it, even when being alone may not be your first choice.
- Choose fulfilling and rewarding activities. Relaxing on the sofa in front of your favorite TV show can feel comforting, and humorous content in particular, may have a positive impact on your mood. But make sure to include a range of activities in your life, including creative or physical pursuits. Even listening to music or reading a book could have more of a positive impact on loneliness.
- Make time for exercise. Exercise is known to have a positive impact on mental health. While exercise may not relieve loneliness on its own, it can help improve your mood overall and increase your feelings of wellness, which may offer some protection against loneliness.
- Enjoy the outdoors. Sunlight can help increase serotonin in your body, which can help improve your mood. Research suggests spending time in nature can help relieve feelings of depression, anxiety, and stress. Joining a group walk or team sport can also help you connect with others at the same time.
When to see a doctor
If feelings of loneliness linger, it may be a good idea to reach out to your healthcare provider or a mental health professional.
Also consider getting help if:
- feelings of loneliness negatively affect your daily life or make it hard to do the things you want to do
- you have a low mood or feelings of depression
- you have symptoms of another mental health concern, such as anxiety or depression
- physical health symptoms don’t go away after a few weeks, get worse, or affect your daily life
The bottom line
It isn’t a bad thing to be alone, or enjoy being alone. But being alone when you’d rather spend time with other people can lead to feelings of loneliness and have other effects on your mood, sleep, and overall well-being.
Some people experience loneliness in passing, but other people may feel lonely for months or even years with no improvement.
Loneliness isn’t a mental health condition with a clear recommended treatment, so you might wonder how to deal with it. Overcoming loneliness can seem like a real challenge, especially if you’re shy, introverted, or find it difficult to meet new people. It may take some time, but it’s very possible to build new relationships or deepen existing connections in your life.
If you aren’t sure what you can do to feel less lonely, consider reaching out to a therapist who can offer help and support.
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