The low-down on loneliness

I have been thinking of writing a blog on dealing with loneliness and what loneliness really is for some time now as it pops up in at least one therapy session a day, causing a diverse range of clients a lot of distress and interacting with other mental health difficulties. The very likeable people I see often feel as if they are the only one grappling with this difficult emotion, and attribute its presence to a deficit within themselves or their lives.

 Loneliness is certainly a hot topic right now, with authors across the board discussing its epidemic like rise and shouting about the serious harm it has on our physical and mental health. While it is an important discussion, these articles can lead readers to feel more anxious about their loneliness, and leave them with little idea about what to do next. A focus on dealing with loneliness is more helpful.

 So what is loneliness, and why does it hurt so much?

We know loneliness is painful and difficult to tolerate, but what is it? Loneliness, broadly, is defined as the discrepancy between ones desired social connection, and their actual social connection. Researchers Hawkley and Cacioppo (2010) described loneliness as “…a distressing feeling that accompanies the perception that one’s social needs are not being met by the quantity, or especially the quality of one’s social relationships”. We now know that loneliness is experienced across the lifespan, and can occur in different areas in life. For example one may not feel lonely romantically, but may feel very lonely socially. Someone else might have many satisfactory friendships, but feel lonely when they are in need of practical advice regarding their professional life.

And why does loneliness hurt so much? Historically, social connection was key to our survival. If we drifted too far from the group, or were rejected by them, our chances of living through an encounter with a predator such as a wild animal were slim. It makes sense then that when we feel disconnected from others our threat system switches on. Hawkley and colleagues state that loneliness is the social equivalent of physical pain. In fact, many papers recently have discussed that feelings of loneliness activate the same part of our brain that is activated when we are physically hurt or are in danger. As with our other emotions, loneliness is there to motivate us to act, in this case to seek connection or reconnection with others. It has to be strong enough for us to notice.

Why are some people more prone to feeling lonely? 

Loneliness was once seen as the affliction of the elderly and the single. While of course there is some relationship between life circumstances and loneliness, we now understand that loneliness exists within a broad range of people in many different situations. Researchers Bernadon et al (2011) looked at the relationship between attachment styles and loneliness. Working with a group of university students they found that people who had low self-worth, or believed they weren’t competent at relationships were more likely to feel lonely and unable to do anything about it. Further, if individuals believed that others were generally unsupportive they tended to experience higher levels of loneliness and despair, regardless of their social network.

Dealing with loneliness – what can we do when loneliness becomes a dominant part of life?

If you’re reading this we assume you’re human, and therefore would have experienced moments of loneliness at some stage. This is a normal part of life, and nothing to worry about. However if loneliness seems to be hanging around all the time for you, or if you feel like being lonely is contributing to feeling depressed, anxious, or stressed, it is worth trying to make some changes. Below are five tips which might help you manage your feelings of loneliness, a possible guide to dealing with loneliness:

  • Remember you are not alone in feeling lonely.

    • That might sound a little absurd, but loneliness is at an all time high for a range of reasons (technology, long working hours, more people living alone, wide geographical spreads of family and friends). Therefore your loneliness does not indicate that there is something wrong with you, and also means there’s likely to be many other people in your community looking to connect.

  • Try not to see loneliness as a sign there is something terribly wrong with your life.

    • We can add to the pain of loneliness by pining for a different life, or blaming aspects of our own life for this difficult emotion. When we step back and recognise that there are good and bad parts to every life we can focus on how to maximise the good in our current circumstances.

  • Know who to go to for what.

    • When we expect one person to meet all of our needs we often feel let down and alone. Research shows that when we are aware of what specific people in our lives can offer us, and go to them appropriately, we feel more connected. Think about who you can turn to with good news, who offers support in difficult times, and who is a great option for getting out and having fun.

  • Face to face contact is best.

    • Where possible see people face to face. All sorts of good things happen chemically within our body when we are face to face with others. If we can’t be face to face, then research suggests that facetime, or talking has a better impact than typed messages.

  • Find people with similar interests then allow connections to grow.

    • If you are in a position where you need to grow your social circle, find ways of connecting with people with a similar interest to you. This takes the pressure off, you get to do something you enjoy, and meet people along the way. Websites such as provide lots of options. If you can’t find a group that works for you, perhaps now is the moment to be brave and start your own.

Tom Morley