What is Loneliness?
Loneliness can be defined as experiencing sadness, distress, emptiness, or other associated negative feelings while being alone. About 20% of Americans report feeling lonely, according to Psychology Today.
What is the Difference between Loneliness and Aloneness?
There are notable differences between loneliness and aloneness. The feelings and actions you experience when alone characterize both loneliness and aloneness. Loneliness must involve negative emotions or discomfort when alone.
In addition, loneliness is related to our sense of self. Those who have a less stable sense of self will experience more anxiety and discomfort when alone. In contrast, aloneness is not associated with negative feelings pertaining to being alone. Rather it can be defined as a state of being alone.
Aloneness does not mean someone is lonely. In fact, being alone can be used productively for some individuals who may have a stronger sense of self. Therefore, these individuals can experience happiness and joy when alone.
Signs of Loneliness
According to Dr. Jacqueline Olds, MD, a psychiatry consultant at Massachusetts General Hospital and coauthor of The Lonely American and Overcoming Loneliness in Everyday Life, signs of loneliness often include the following:
- Feeling sad, empty, discomfort, or disconnected
- Feeling isolated or excluded
- Feeling of anxiety
- Desire for close social relationships or companionship
- Feeling lonely even in the presence of others
- Exhausted after social interactions
- Decreased energy
- Withdrawal from social events
- Feelings of paranoia
- Changes in appetite (loss/rise, binging)
Do you recognize yourself or someone close to you experiencing three or more of these signs? If yes, it is an indication that it’s important to seek out social support or address a lack of social connection, says Richard Weissbourd, EdD, faculty director of human development and psychology at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. (See below for how to cope with loneliness).
Gender Differences in Loneliness
A large body of research has found that women are lonelier than men. One study conducted by Shelley Borys at the University of Waterloo demonstrated that women may be lonelier than men. That they tend to be more willing to report loneliness, since the consequences of acknowledging loneliness are less for women. Some gender differences in loneliness are as follows:
- Women report higher levels of loneliness than men at all ages
- Married women report experiencing more loneliness than married men report
- Single men report higher levels of loneliness than single women do
- Women are more likely to acknowledge their loneliness in comparison to men; this may be related to perceptions of masculinity.
- Men often combat loneliness through connecting with a group of acquaintances, whereas women focus on fewer but more intimate relationships
- Men feel less lonely with larger social groups, whereas women seek quality in one-on-one settings
What Causes Loneliness?
Julianne Holt-Lunstad, PhD, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Brigham Young University who studies the relationship between social relationships and long-term health, states that there is no specific cause of loneliness. Instead, the experience of loneliness occurs after significant life changes associated with changes in levels of social interactions. Some examples can be:
- Moving out or living alone
- A change in living situation, such as switching roommates or changing locations
- A lack of close friends or relatives to confide in
- Death of a loved one
- Financial problems, job loss, or unemployment
- Poor physical and mental health
The Impact of Loneliness on Health and Mental Health
Holt-Lunstad has studied loneliness and its health impacts for more than two decades. According to him, loneliness can lead to various adverse mental health and health outcomes, including but not limited to:
- Suicidal thought
- Substance abuse
- Insomnia or sleep disturbances
- Cardiovascular disease
- Autoimmune diseases
- Alzheimer’s disease
- Early aging
Loneliness, if unaddressed, can wreak havoc on your health and well-being. Finding ways to prevent and cope with it is important.
How to Cope with Loneliness
If you recognize some of the signs of loneliness in yourself, there are several things that you can do to improve social connectedness and reduce loneliness. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to address isolation. However, the following strategies could be a way to get started.
- Increase social connections and visitations, even if at a safe distance or outside
- Share good times with friends and family
- Acknowledge your feelings, don’t ignore them
- Educate yourself on loneliness and its effects
- Reduce time spent on social media
- Look into getting a pet
- Volunteer or join an organization to increase connectedness
- Reframe your time alone as an opportunity for reflection and productivity
Remember this: You are not alone. Many people talk to a therapist who provides them with emotional support. They also help develop skills to build relationship and cope with loneliness. We’re here to help. Connect with a therapist at www.heroutcome.com.
Frequently Ask Questions
Current research shows that immigrant, lesbian, gay, and bisexual populations report loneliness at a greater rate than other groups. For example, Latino immigrants have fewer social connections than US-born Latinos due to language and cultural barriers. Similarly, gay, lesbian, and bisexual groups experience more loneliness due to stigma and prejudice.
Everyone occasionally experiences loneliness. But if you experience loneliness for two weeks or more, you may want to seek professional help. Loneliness causes you to feel depressed and hopeless. It impacts your daily functioning at work or at school.
Chronic loneliness refers to feeling lonely for a long period of time. It’s characterized by a constant sense of being alone and separated and disconnected from other people. Often, it leads to feeling inadequate and insecure about one’s ability to socialize with others.
The information on this page, or elsewhere on this site, is not intended to take the place of diagnosis, treatment or informed advice from a qualified mental health professional. You should not take or avoid any action without consultation with the latter.
If you would like to talk to a counselor, please click here.
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