Loneliness is when you have less connection with others than you would like. Being lonely can affect your mental and physical health.
Key points about loneliness
- We all have times when we feel lonely, but if you develop chronic loneliness, it affects your mental wellbeing, putting you at greater risk of depression, substance abuse and suicide.
- It also increases your risk of physical health conditions such as heart disease, type 2 diabetes, arthritis and Alzheimer’s disease.
- Anyone can be lonely, but adults aged over 65 and young people aged 15–24 are most at risk.
- The good news is that there is a way out of loneliness through steps you can take yourself and support to help you.
- If your loneliness is due to the restrictions under COVID-19, you can read more about that here.
Source: Very Well Mind 2020
What is loneliness?
Loneliness is when you have less connection with others than you would like. It’s different to solitude, which is being alone but feeling content with that. Solitude is a positive state, and you can feel its positive benefit. Loneliness is an unhappy state and it has negative effects.
Sometimes you can feel lonely even when there are other people around. This happens when you aren’t getting your need for connection met from those people.
How do I know if I am lonely?
Some signs of being lonely can include:
- feeling uncomfortable on your own
- generally feeling unwell
- sadness and crying
- constantly talking or seeking attention
- only having necessary communication, not social communication
- withdrawing from others.
Older adults may:
- withdraw from previous activities you enjoyed because you can’t hear or see so well anymore
- focus almost solely on your health issues and increase your medical visits
- go without a few meals because feels too hard to go outdoors and nothing seems safe anymore
- become intolerant with people as you feel they are patronising you
- be tearful when your family visits, being overwhelmed with joy at them being there and sadness it’s such a short time
- avoid telling your family about the time you fell and left the stove on all night as you don’t want to be moved into an old age home.
Young people may show different signs of loneliness to older adults. Signs might include:
- reckless driving
- rising anger towards your boss
- shutting yourself in your room
- distancing yourself from friends
- rebelling against your parents.
What are the causes of loneliness?
Loneliness has many different causes. It's often linked with things that could prevent you spending time with other people, such as:
- living or working alone without other ways of connecting with people
- retirement or major change in life role (eg, children leaving home)
- illness or disability
- losing someone, such as from a relationship beak up, separation or death
- moving to a new area, job, school or university
- social anxiety (social phobia).
Loneliness can also be a symptom of mental health issues such as depression, and social isolation and withdrawal can be an early warning sign of deteriorating mental health.
What are the types of loneliness?
Three types of isolation can contribute to loneliness: physical, emotional and social.
- Emotional isolation is missing having someone really close to you, such as a partner, or when a partner is away or after a break-up.
- Social isolation is wanting but not having connection or belonging with a social network.
- Physical isolation is living or in some other way mainly being on your own when that's not what you want.
What does loneliness do to you?
Feeling lonely affects your overall wellbeing and your self-esteem. This is because you may feel unwanted, unliked or unloved, undesirable, insignificant, despairing, insecure or abandoned. If you feel like this, you might withdraw even further from those family/whānau members and friends who would make you feel less lonely.
This can become a cycle, because as you become more lonely, people around you might reach out to you less for meaningful connections, creating a situation of further social isolation. This can lead to chronic loneliness, which can put you at risk of poor mental and physical health.
What are the risks of loneliness?
Chronic loneliness is associated with low levels of physical activity. It can also increase the production of stress hormones and affect your sleep, which leads to weakened immunity. These factors then contribute to poorer physical health, increasing your risk of conditions such as high blood pressure, heart disease, type 2 diabetes, arthritis, Alzheimer’s disease and stroke.
Loneliness can be a by-product of the symptoms of mental illness, where you may feel stigmatised or cut off from others. In turn, it also can lead to and worsen many mental health concerns, including anxiety, substance abuse problems, depression and others.
For some, loneliness can be an early warning sign that your mental health may be deteriorating. Withdrawal that comes from feelings of loneliness may also have a negative impact on your health, or undermine your resilience to existing health conditions.
What is the outlook for someone with loneliness?
The good news is there are things you can do to overcome your loneliness. It does require a conscious effort on your part to make a change. But it’s worth it – making a change can make you happier and healthier. It can even mean you can have a positive effect on others who may need you to reach out to them.
Often the best place to start is by taking steps towards wellbeing that make a difference in how you think and feel.
What can I do to overcome loneliness?
Recognise that loneliness is a sign that something needs to change. Like grief, remorse, anxiety and all other negative emotions, with loneliness there is no way out, only a way through.
Just as you can start an exercise programme to gain strength and improve your health, you can overcome loneliness through small steps that build your emotional strength and resilience. Don’t try to change too many things at once – just take it a little at a time.
Find the first small step to take in these areas:
- taking care of your physical health
- looking after your mental wellbeing
- reaching out to others
- getting help if you need it.
Take care of your physical health
Even if you don’t feel like it, taking care of your physical wellbeing gives you more energy to address your loneliness.
Make it a priority to go for a walk or do some kind of exercise each day, get plenty of sleep and eat a balanced diet that gives you the nutrients you need. Pick one thing you would like to improve and set yourself a small goal to start. It might be to go for a 20 minute walk each day, go to bed a half hour earlier or add an extra vegetable to your dinner each day. You can get some ideas to help you, with these sleep tips, information on being active and healthy eating basics.
If you are using alcohol or recreational drugs to numb your feelings of loneliness, changing this might be a good place to start. If you need some support with this, phone the Alcohol Drug HelpLine on 0800 787 797. Read more about harmful drinking, addiction and methamphetamine addiction.
Look after your mental wellbeing
Take some time each day to meditate or go for a walk. Learning mindfulness techniques, practising gratitude and knowing how to manage stress or anxiety can all help with boosting your wellbeing. Finding something that matters to you, such as an issue, a hobby or a community group or action can also give your wellbeing a boost. See the Mental Health Foundations five ways to wellbeing for more ideas.
Reach out to others
Sometimes there are opportunities for social contact that when you feel lonely you may not respond to. But these opportunities are part of the way out.
- Respond to every outreach from someone else by replying to the email, answering the phone or front door, accepting an invitation to do something.
- Take it up a step by upscaling the contact: if someone emails, reply with a phone call. If someone phones from time to time, suggest that next time you video call. If someone calls, suggest a catch-up in person. If you catch-up with someone once, make it a regular thing.
- Create opportunities. If others aren’t reaching out to you, you will need to look for ways yourself. Start small by just getting used to being around other people. Walk around your local town centre and nod and smile to people as you walk past them.
- Sit in a cafe and people watch. Go the local library and browse. Look for opportunities to make small talk with the people you encounter in those places. Do the same when you do your shopping or any other regular activity. Start with a nod and a smile, then the next time you see the same person, greet them. The next time you might be able to make small talk about the weather. See who is responsive and build on that.
- Join a group, go to a course, volunteer to help someone else. These may feel like bigger steps, but it can be easier to reconnect with others in a structured environment rather than the free-for-all of social events. Start with a one-off event that only lasts for a short time, eg, a talk or short workshop on something that interests you, or help out for a couple of hours at a local event (behind the scenes can work well).
- Try to expect the best rather than focus on negative experiences you may have had. And as you try these approaches, look out for people who share similar attitudes, interests and values with you. These are your potential good friends.
Get help if you need it
If forming long-lasting friendships or relationships has been an going issue for you, getting help from a professional can really make a difference. Talking therapy with a psychologist, counsellor or psychotherapist can help you address what is getting in your way and develop new skills.
If your loneliness has happened as the result of a life event, again psychological help can be really useful so you can work through what has happened and then start to reconnect with people in your life.
If there is an underlying issue, such as a mental health condition or an addiction, get help to address this issue and the loneliness is likely to be resolved as part of the process.
Talk to your doctor. They can recommend someone for you to talk to or you can find a counsellor or psychotherapist yourself. You can also free call or text 1737 any time to talk to a trained counsellor.
There are different types of talking therapy that can help. For example, cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) is a talking therapy that aims to help you change your thinking in order to change your behaviour.
How can I prevent loneliness?
If you are not lonely, make sure you keep up with the things that protect you from loneliness: taking care of your physical and mental wellbeing, and valuing your social connections.
If any issues arise that can contribute to loneliness, deal with them when they happen or get help if you need to. Take care in particular if you live or work alone, retire, develop an illness or disability, lose someone or something, move to a new area, job, school or university or notice signs you are developing social anxiety. It’s always easier to prevent loneliness in these situations than it is to find your way back to social connection.
If you’re not lonely you can help prevent other people from loneliness by reaching out to others wherever possible. In particular, take care to stay in touch with older relatives, friends and neighbours.
What support is available with loneliness?
Age Concern has an accredited visiting service. Talk to your doctor about other support that may be available in your area.
The following links provide further information about loneliness. Be aware that websites from other countries may have information that differs from New Zealand recommendations.
Loneliness NZ Research and resources
Let's end loneliness NZ Information, including on where to get support
What to do if you feel lonely PatientInfo, UK
Loneliness Mind, UK
Savour solitude – it is not the same as loneliness The Guardian, UK, 17 May 2020
Alone together The Helen Clark Foundation, NZ, 2020
- Loneliness Psychology Today, US
- Loneliness Loneliness NZ
- Feeling lonely NHS, UK, 2019
- Neto F. Psychometric analysis of the short-form UCLA Loneliness Scale (ULS-6) in older adults Eur J Ageing. 2014 Dec; 11(4): 313–319.
- Transforming loneliness Psychology Today, US, 2020
|Emma Sutich is a clinical psychologist with 20 years’ clinical experience. She has have worked with people in a range of settings, including ACC sensitive claims, prisons, community mental health, an eating disorder service and private practice. Her clients have had a wide range of backgrounds and difficulties, including personality disorders.|