Loneliness and Social Isolation

Understanding loneliness

Loneliness is a state of mind we’re all familiar with, even if we hesitate to talk about it. It’s that sense of emptiness and longing that arises when you notice a gap between your current situation and your desired social life—and it can tie in with all sorts of negative emotions. You might feel lonely and bitter if you find out that friends are socializing without you. You may pine for people who are no longer around, rue past mistakes you’ve made in your social life, or feel disconnected, isolated, or even ashamed that you have such a hard time connecting with others and building new friendships.

The scope, duration, and intensity of loneliness can vary. You may feel detached from other people in general or your loneliness could stem from a specific reason, such as the lack of a romantic partner. Sometimes loneliness is a subtle feeling of discontent that comes and goes. In other cases, it’s a chronic problem that hounds you, bringing with it physical symptoms such as persistent brain fog, muscle tension, and body aches.

Loneliness isn’t always about your physical proximity to other people. If you’re forced to quarantine from family and friends, for example, physical isolation can contribute to loneliness. However, you can be at a party, surrounded by crowds of people and still feel lonely. On the other hand, many people live alone and still feel a strong sense of connection to others.

Loneliness is a widespread issue

Loneliness spans all age groups. You may be a college student who feels lost and ignored even among a sea of new faces on campus and in the dorms. You could be in middle adulthood, noticing that your formerly tight-knit group of friends has drifted apart. Or as an older adult, you may feel abandoned by family members as their visits become less and less frequent.

Loneliness is a potential problem no matter where you live. Some experts even point out that certain countries seem to be facing loneliness epidemics. In England, one study found that around 45 percent of adults felt lonely to some degree. Meanwhile, a national survey in the United States found that 61 percent of adults are lonely.

Rates of loneliness seem to be rising in many countries, especially as a result of the COVID pandemic. Lockdowns and social distancing exacerbate the problem, but they aren’t the only causes.

If you’re lonely, know that it’s nothing to be ashamed about—many of us are in the same boat. It’s also something that you can overcome with the right strategies. Learning about the causes and effects of loneliness can help you prepare to face the problem, find new ways to connect to others, and build a satisfying social life.

Effects of loneliness and social isolation

Loneliness and social isolation can negatively affect your mental health as well as your physical health. You might be filled with self-doubt as you wonder why you can’t seem to connect with others. Perhaps you begin to question your worth. It’s easy for these negative thought patterns to spiral into depression.

Loneliness can also activate your nervous system’s “fight-or-flight” stress response. During times of isolation, you might notice an increase in muscle tension, digestive troubles, and chest pains. Stress and anxiety, particularly in social situations, can lead you to self-isolate, deepening your loneliness and sense of isolation.

Loneliness can also reduce the quality of your sleep, leading to a cascade of other problems. Maybe you toss and turn at night then suffer daytime fatigue, irritability, and lack of focus because your body isn’t getting the rest it needs.

If you feel like you’re facing the world alone, you might start to adopt more unhealthy habits. For example, substance abuse and feelings of loneliness often go hand-in-hand, as some people use drugs or alcohol to self-medicate. When you’re socially isolated, it’s also easy to get wrapped up in your own perspective which can lead to a distorted view of the world, yourself, and others. Perhaps your self-loathing thoughts go unchallenged or you begin to see other people as threats.

Other effects of loneliness and social isolation include:

Shortened lifespan. Social isolation can increase your risk of death to a similar degree as smoking.

Cognitive decline. Loneliness can affect cognitive functioning, increasing the risk of Alzheimer’s disease and dementia.

Exacerbated mental illness. If you’re already struggling with mental illness, the lack of social support may worsen your condition.

Impaired immune system and higher inflammation. Chronic stress from loneliness can impair your immune system and lead to inflammation.

Increased risk of physical illness. A combination of high stress, inflammation, and impaired immunity can increase your risk of cardiovascular disease and autoimmune disorders.

Risk of suicide. Feelings of isolation may lead a person to contemplate or attempt suicide. Social support, on the other hand, is an important factor in reducing the risk of suicide.

Causes of loneliness

A variety of factors can cause someone to experience loneliness. In many cases, there’s no one single cause, but rather a number of factors that can overlap and intensify one another.

Some causes of loneliness are internal, so they involve the way you see yourself and the world around you. Other causes are external; they’re based on your location, physical limitations, and the actions of others.

Not all of the factors that contribute to loneliness are easy to overcome — a few might even feel completely out of your control. The factors don’t affect everyone equally, either. Some demographics are more likely to run into certain hurdles than others. For example, younger people might struggle more with shyness, LGBTQ+ individuals may experience more social exclusion, and older adults can feel more physically isolated.

External factors

Physical isolation. If you live in a rural area, you might have a harder time connecting to others simply because there’s more physical space between you and your neighbors.

Relocation. If you’ve just moved to a new area, it can be difficult to connect with new people and build a social support network. This can be especially true when paired with an internal factor, such as shyness.

Bereavement. The loss of a close friend, spouse, or family member can lead to loneliness and a sense of isolation.

Divorce. Feelings of loneliness are common as people go through a divorce. Even if you’re the one who initially brought up the idea of separating, you might feel lonely as you let go of a close partner.

Mobility problems. A physical disability, such as a broken leg, arthritis, or spinal injury, can make it harder to meet face-to-face with loved ones.

Over-reliance on social media. Although it provides a convenient way to communicate with others, too much time on social media can also increase loneliness. Seeing pictures of loved ones enjoying social outings can make you feel left out or make you more aware of your own physical isolation.

Social exclusion. At work or in your social life, you might be excluded by a group because of your race, gender, sexual orientation, or disability. For example, coworkers might exclude you from after-work drinks.

Internal factors

Shyness. If you’re shy, discomfort or nervousness might discourage you from approaching other people or attending social events. This can lead to self-isolation, even when you really want to engage with others.

Introversion. If you’re an introvert, you might want to skip social events in order to relax, recharge, and avoid feeling overwhelmed. However, if you don’t balance your desire for solitude with your need for social interaction, you might experience isolation and loneliness.

Low self-esteem. People who are lonely are more likely to be critical of themselves and anticipate rejection. Low self-esteem might discourage you from reaching out to others.

Lack of communication skills. If you have a hard time initiating or holding a conversation, you might also struggle to make new friends and form close connections.

Socially withdrawing. Certain conditions, such as depression, anxiety, hearing loss, or an eating disorder, might lead you to withdraw from social situations. Perhaps you feel a sense of shame about your condition or maybe it leaves you feeling fatigued, overwhelmed, and unmotivated to reach out to others.

Because there are so many different causes, there’s no quick fix for loneliness. And what works for someone else might not work for you. However, by putting in time and effort and trying out the following coping strategies, you can find ways to stay connected.

Overcoming loneliness and isolation tip 1: Expand your social network

Whether you just relocated or simply feel a lack of social support, forming new connections might help you overcome feelings of loneliness. Here are some ways to find new friends and acquaintances.

Join clubs that match your interests. If you love the outdoors, look for local hiking or birdwatching groups. Prefer being indoors? Look for book clubs, video gaming groups, or crafting communities. You’re likely to meet people who share your passions.

Take a course at a community college. Classes allow you to learn new skills while also making new friends. Consider classes that encourage social interaction, such as foreign language, acting, or dance lessons.

Go to local events. You might find like-minded friends at concerts, art exhibits, or sports events. This is a good option if you aren’t able to commit to scheduled classes or group meetings.

[Read: Making Good Friends]

Volunteer. Volunteering gives you a chance to support a cause you care about while also meeting new people. Volunteering can also boost your confidence. As your self-image improves, you might be more likely to initiate conversation with other people.

Turning acquaintances into friends

Perhaps you already know lots of people but don’t feel particularly close to any of them. There are steps you can take to turn acquaintances into friends.

Extend an invitation. Suggest a walk in the park or a quick lunch with a coworker. A low-pressure outing gives you a chance to get to know each other better.

Focus on common interests. You might have an easier time connecting with acquaintances if you have similar hobbies or interests. You can even encourage them to join local groups or attend events with you.

Offer your time or ask for help. If an acquaintance needs help moving into a new home or painting a room, consider lending a hand. Likewise, if you need help with something, you can casually mention that you’re looking for an extra pair of hands.

Get in contact with old friends. Are there any people from your past that you wish you could spend more time with? Use social media to reach out to high school or college acquaintances. Reminisce about old memories and chat about how your lives have changed.

Don’t rush the process. Whether you’re trying to make new friends or get to know an acquaintance, allow the relationship to develop naturally. Being clingy might push people away.

Tip for young adults: Quality over quantity

Avoid conflating quantity of relationships with quality of relationships. Having hundreds of friends on Facebook isn’t going to alleviate your loneliness. You can get better social support from a small circle of in-person friends. A lot of older people tend to recognize this fact. While they have smaller social networks, their relationships are often more satisfying and less stressful than those of young adults.

Tip 2: Overcome social insecurities and fears

How you feel about yourself can make a big difference in how you communicate and relate to others. If you believe that you’re boring, weird, or burdensome, you might feel less inclined to reach out. Shyness and social anxiety can lead to a sense of isolation that only reinforces your insecurities. Here are a few points to keep in mind:

Other people feel nervous and awkward in social situations. Even if someone seems confident and extroverted, there’s a good chance that they have their own self-doubts. Remember that some people are simply better at hiding their insecurities.

You don’t need to be perfect. Maybe you get tongue-tied on occasion, or perhaps you’re a little absent-minded. Everyone has quirks. Some people might find yours endearing. Also realize that people are often far more tolerant than you think. You might spend a lot of time dwelling on your own mistakes, but other people probably aren’t judging you.

Your inner monologue doesn’t always reflect reality. Maybe you label yourself “worthless” or “stupid.” Perhaps you think people don’t want to hang out with you due to your depression, ADHD, or other condition. Take time to challenge those assumptions and counter them with positive self-talk.

Challenging social fears with self-compassion
Negative self-talk Neutral or positive self-talk
“My friends think I’m boring because I have low energy.” “I offer a calm, grounded presence.”
“I’m a nervous talker, so people think I’m too chatty and overshare.” “My friends probably see me as open and easy to talk to.”
“People don’t invite me to hang out because they don’t like me.” “People may not know I’m willing to be social. I can be proactive and invite them to do something.”
“I’m not an eloquent speaker, and people judge me for it.” “The people who care about me won’t look down on me for how I talk.”

Managing social anxiety

When it comes to social anxiety, you might feel as though your panic is simply uncontrollable. Social situations seem to race by as you feel paralyzed by fear, unable to participate in the conversation. Try these steps:

Slow down. Start with your breathing. Take a slow inhale, and then a longer exhale. This kind of breathing exercise can calm your nervous system’s “flight-or-fight” response. You should notice that other signs of anxiety, such as a racing heartbeat, also subside. You can slow down your pace of speaking as well. Use pauses to collect your thoughts. Doing so can give you a sense of control, and other people will see you as a thoughtful speaker.

[Read: Social Anxiety Disorder]

Shift your focus to other people. It’s hard to engage in conversation when you’re overly focused on your own performance. Imagine that you’re casting a spotlight on the other person. Be curious about what they’re saying and how they’re saying it. This could help ease your own self-consciousness.

Practice. Rather than avoid social interactions, see them as challenges that are worth embracing. Start small by saying “hello” to strangers or asking an acquaintance how their day is going. Be patient with yourself, and you’ll likely see improvement over time.

Tip 3: Improve your conversation skills

You probably know someone who’s a social butterfly. They show no sign of hesitation or awkwardness when chatting with complete strangers. Effortless social interactions seem to come naturally for these people, but you can build your own conversation skills as well. By doing so, you’ll feel more confident and increase the chances of making new friends in unlikely situations.

Make observations. Don’t put pressure on yourself to say something profound or witty. Just take in your surroundings and look for small conversation starters. If you’re at a festival, you can comment on the food, décor, music, or occasion. Try to make positive comments, rather than complain.

Look for reasons to compliment the other person. Do you like their shoes? Do they seem skilled at a game? A compliment can start things off on a positive note and give you a chance to ask a follow-up question. For example, “I love your earrings! Where did you get them from?”

Ask open-ended questions to move the conversation forward. These types of questions encourage the other person to elaborate and give you more information than a simple “yes” or “no.” When thinking of questions, turn to the 5 W’s (and 1 H): who, where, when, what, why, and how. Some examples:

  • “Why did you decide to move to the city?”
  • “How did you meet your partner?”
  • “What kind of hobbies do you enjoy?”

Use follow-up questions if necessary. You’ll quickly discover that many people enjoy talking about themselves. Of course, you should be willing to respond to questions they ask as well.

[Read: Effective Communication]

Practice active listening. Focus on the other person’s words and nonverbal cues. Try to understand their message as well as their emotions. If you’re not sure you understand what they’re saying, ask for clarification. Avoid interrupting or forcibly redirecting the conversation to a topic that you’re interested in.

Tip 4: Manage your energy in social situations

Some people feel stuck between two dissatisfying choices: socializing leaves them feeling drained, but not socializing increases their loneliness. This might be the case if you’re an introvert or if you have a disorder that affects your energy levels, such as depression. The following tips might prove useful.

Think before you commit. Be mindful of your energy levels and don’t feel the need to overexert yourself by filling your calendar with social engagements. If you decline an invitation from a friend, follow up with a counteroffer to meet on a different day.

Schedule in time to relax before and after interactions. Before you meet up with friends, reserve some time to enjoy a solo activity, like reading or listening to music. After socializing, have another short period of relaxation to wind down.

Take short breaks when in social situations. If you’re at a party and start to feel fatigued by all of the chatter, excuse yourself and go for a short walk. If that’s not an option, take a moment to relax in a quiet corner. A little time alone might be all you need to feel refreshed.

Be upfront with friends. Let your friends know that socializing can tire you out. You’ll likely find that they’re willing to accommodate your needs and might even relate to your situation. This also prevents them from taking things personally if you decline an invitation.

Tip 5: Address mental health issues

Mental health conditions and social stigmas can lead people to self-isolate, perpetuating feelings of loneliness. There’s no one-size-fits-all solution to the many cognitive, mood, and psychiatric disorders out there. It’s best to learn as much as you can about your condition and potential treatment options. However, there are a few steps that can improve your overall mental health.

Be active. At any age, physical activity can help you manage conditions like anxiety and depression. It can also improve your self-esteem and reduce stress. You don’t necessarily have to go to the gym. Just do whatever forms of exercise are most appealing to you. If you want company, there are plenty of activities, including team sports, biking, and jogging, that offer opportunities for social interaction as well.

Get enough rest. Some research indicates that sleep deprivation may contribute to social withdrawal and loneliness. For instance, you might choose to avoid others when you’re experiencing the moodiness and fatigue that often comes with sleep deprivation. Make it your goal to get seven to nine hours of sleep each night.

Practice mindfulness. Mindfulness involves focusing your attention on the present while withholding judgment. This can be accomplished through a variety of exercises and techniques. Mindfulness can be helpful in treating some mental health issues, including depression, social anxiety, and low self-esteem. There’s also some evidence that it might even alleviate loneliness.

Tip 6: Use technology to overcome isolation

Face-to-face interactions are important to your mental well-being. When you engage with others in person, your body releases hormones that promote positive feelings and counter stress. However, not everyone is able to enjoy these types of interactions on a daily basis.

If you live in a rural area or you have limited mobility, loneliness might stem from an inability to meet face-to-face with friends and family members. Texting, calling, or video calling your loved ones can help you stay in touch from a distance.

Find what works for you. From large social media platforms to apps that focus on one-on-one interactions, the tech world offers plenty of communication tools. Spend a little time experimenting with different options. Don’t expect to fall in love with every app. Some of them may seem too confusing or too limited.

Ask yourself which app or social media features are important to you. Do you want to use live video chat? Or do you prefer text? How many people do you want to share in a conversation at one time? Also consider which apps your friends are comfortable with.

Get creative. Interactions through social media and apps don’t have to be limited to sharing details about your day. Get in the habit of sending your friends interesting videos. Use apps that allow for multiplayer gaming. Host digital book clubs or writing groups with your closest friends.

Log off. Social media is a great communication tool, but too much of it can increase your loneliness. For example, seeing pictures of family members spending time together at a reunion can make you feel left out or forgotten. In some cases, social media can also be used as a tool to spread outrage and hatred. As a general rule, if your mood consistently worsens after being online, spend a little less time on the Internet.

Using assistive devices

Certain disabilities, such as hearing loss, are associated with loneliness and isolation. The use of assistive tools can make socializing easier. Some examples include:

  • Text-to-speech systems for nonspeaking people.
  • Hearing aids and cochlear implants for people with hearing loss.
  • Electronic fluency devices for people who stutter.
  • Communication boards for people with limited language skills.

There’s no shame in using any of these devices in daily interactions. If you feel self-conscious, try to focus on the benefits that the device offers. Also remember that good friends won’t judge you for using a device to meet your communication needs.

Tip for older adults: Don’t feel intimidated

You’re never too old to learn how to use any of these tools. Whether you’re experiencing hearing loss or have limited mobility, technology is out there to help you connect with others. Get to know your options, and don’t feel ashamed to ask for guidance.

As you start to incorporate the strategies listed above, keep this important point in mind: You’re not the only person yearning for stronger social connections. Many people are in the same boat, including acquaintances, old friends, and even strangers you pass on the street every day. The more you take the initiative to reach out, the better your chances of overcoming loneliness.

Last updated or reviewed on June 6, 2023


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