All About Loneliness: What Causes It, How to Cope With It, and When to Get Help

Medically Reviewed
During an ongoing global pandemic that’s kept loved ones apart and made it potentially unsafe to socialize in many of the ways we’re accustomed to doing, loneliness is becoming salient. Thirty-six percent of Americans felt “serious loneliness” in 2020 (or felt lonely “frequently” or “almost all the time or all the time” in the previous month), according to Harvard research.

A large-scale Cigna survey that same year pegged loneliness in the United States as being as high as 61 percent.

U.S. surgeon general Vivek Murthy warned of a “loneliness epidemic” sweeping the country back in 2017, in an?article he authored on the subject — and that was before “social distancing” became part of our daily lexicon.

Loneliness is a universal emotion that many of us experience at times, whether you lack companionship in your daily life, feel left out and without a connection to those around you, or you’ve moved across the country away from family and friends.

“You feel alone, even empty, and you want to connect with others, but your feelings of loneliness make it harder to do so,” says Jacqueline Olds, MD, a psychiatry consultant at Massachusetts General Hospital and coauthor The Lonely American and Overcoming Loneliness in Everyday Life.

Even the Stars Get Lonely and Anxious

Are they just like us? Inde Navarette crochets when she gets lonely, Siedah Garrett calls her friends, Taryn Manning works on self-love, and David Faustino works out and meditates to deal with anxiety.
Even the Stars Get Lonely and Anxious

How Do Psychologists Define Loneliness?

Loneliness is cognitive discomfort or uneasiness from being or perceiving oneself to be alone, according to the American Psychological Association (APA).

The APA defines it as the emotional distress we feel when our inherent needs for intimacy and companionship are not met.

It can be either an objective or subjective state, Dr. Olds explains. You could, for example, live alone and crave companionship. But loneliness also describes what you feel when you’re in a crowded room and aren’t connecting with the people around you as much as you’d like to be, she says.

Richard Weissbourd, EdD, faculty director of human development and psychology at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, says it’s important to point out that the academic definition of loneliness is a general one, and it doesn’t describe all of the various ways people experience loneliness. “It doesn’t describe the fine-grain emotional states people feel when they’re lonely,” he explains.

A new parent who is tending to their baby all day and is seeking adult connection may feel a kind of loneliness that’s completely different than the experience a college freshman may be grappling with after leaving their hometown and moving into a dorm room with strangers, says Weissbourd, whose research focuses on human relationships and connection.

The Difference Between Loneliness and Being Alone

Being alone is not the same as feeling lonely. Being alone means an absence of others around you, whereas the APA definition of loneliness emphasizes that feeling lonely refers to the discrepancy you feel between desired and actual social relationships (in terms of either quantity or quality).

Loneliness is a feeling of unwanted isolation or lack of connection, whether you are alone or surrounded by others. Solitude, on the other hand, is a choice. People may choose to be alone for hours or days and not feel lonely at all, Olds says.

“Solitude can be a wonderful thing, until it goes on too long and drifts into loneliness,” she adds.

Studies, including one published in 2017, have suggested that living alone is a risk factor for loneliness and social isolation.

But, research also suggests that time spent alone can help with feelings of autonomy, self-discovery, and fostering a “peaceful mood,” especially in seniors, according to a 2021 study.

In other words, being alone can — but doesn’t necessarily — cause loneliness.

What Causes Loneliness?

There is no one single cause of loneliness, according to Julianne Holt-Lunstad, PhD, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Brigham Young University who studies the effects of social relationships on long-term health.

Loneliness is often the result of life changes or circumstances that put someone at greater risk of feeling that way. Some include:

  • Living Alone In July 2021, Dr. Holt-Lunstad coauthored research that?suggested that people who lived alone by choice during the first five and a half months of the COVID-19 pandemic were 66 percent more likely to report severe loneliness, compared with those living with others. And people who preferred not to live alone, but did live alone, were 270 percent more likely to report severe loneliness.

    Previous research done prior to the pandemic also found that people living alone are a “high-risk” group for loneliness.

  • A Change in Living Situation Whether you’re rebuilding your social network in a new workplace, city, state, or country, a change of environment can spark feelings of loneliness. Holt-Lunstad’s 2021 research suggests that relocating and living in a new neighborhood for less than four years also increases the odds of loneliness. This link existed before and during the COVID-19 pandemic, she notes.
  • A Lack of Close Confidants Fifty-one percent of Americans who feel lonely have just a few or no relatives nearby whom they can rely on for support, according to a 2018?Kaiser Family Foundation (KFF) report.

    A 2020 report found that, compared with nonimmigrants, newcomers to the United States are more likely to experience loneliness, because they have fewer social ties.

    Whether it’s family or friends, people need social support — someone to confide in, joke around with, and spend time with, says Adam Borland, PsyD, a clinical psychologist who treats anxiety and mood-related issues at the Cleveland Clinic.
  • Poor Physical or Mental Health The 2018 KFF report found that people reporting loneliness are at least two times more likely than others to have a debilitating disability or chronic disease.
  • Death of a Loved One Fifty-nine percent of Americans who reported feeling lonely in the KFF research had experienced the death of a family member or friend in the past two years. Divorce, or marking the end of a romantic relationship, also made people more susceptible to loneliness.
  • Having Financial Problems Whether due to job loss, unemployment, working multiple jobs, or living in a low-income household, a poor financial situation can contribute to loneliness too. Borland says that financial struggles can lead to shame, loss of identity, and stress, which can cause people to withdraw. People in this group may be working two jobs or managing irregular work schedules that make it that much harder to connect with the people around them.

Signs and Symptoms: What Does Loneliness Feel Like?

Symptoms of loneliness vary depending on what’s causing it and the person’s individual circumstances. But loneliness often involves the following, according to Olds:

  • Feelings of sadness, emptiness, discomfort, or disconnectedness
  • Feeling left out or isolated from others
  • A longing for companionship
  • Feeling like you’re misunderstood or not heard
  • Feeling isolated even when you're surrounded by others
  • Feeling exhausted or burnt out by social interactions
  • Feeling insecure
  • Ruminating and reminiscing on the past

More severe symptoms of loneliness can include:

  • Decreased energy
  • Insomnia, trouble falling asleep, or sleeping more than usual
  • Feelings of worthlessness
  • Withdrawal from social events
Weissbourd says that the symptoms of loneliness tend to cause a downward spiral. “When you’re lonely, you feel rejected, so you withdraw and become more critical of yourself and the people around you,” he says. This, however, isolates you further, often fueling greater loneliness, he adds. Research suggests that this pattern rings true: A 2017 study involving 417 women found that feelings of loneliness caused people to withdraw and scrutinize their relationships.

The researchers called this a “self-reinforcing loop” of people feeling lonely, criticizing their friendships, and isolating themselves from others. Ultimately, having feelings of loneliness predicted a risk of depression during the study’s 20 months of follow-up.

Olds recommends paying attention to some unusual red flags that are also an indicator of loneliness, such as:

  • Unusual Spending Habits?Buying unnecessary items out of boredom or to fill a void can be a sign of loneliness.
  • Loss of Appetite or a Rise in Binge Eating?Not eating or self-soothing with food can both be red flags.
  • Paranoia?(or Feeling Like Others Are Criticizing You) Research published in 2017?found that feelings of loneliness could cause paranoia.

If you notice yourself or a loved one experiencing three or more of the above symptoms, Weissbourd says it’s a sign to make an extra effort to put yourself out there socially, find ways to address your lack of connection, and ask for support. (See more below on coping with loneliness and when to get help.)

Loneliness in the Time of COVID-19

New research is quickly unearthing the impact that nearly two years of COVID-19 lockdowns, social distancing, and remote work and school have had on society.

During April 2020, at the height of COVID-19 restrictions, 32 percent of Americans reported depressive symptoms and loneliness, according to a study published in January 2021.

The aforementioned Harvard report on loneliness during COVID-19 (Weissbourd was a coauthor), found that 36 percent of Americans reported feeling lonely “almost all of the time” in October 2020 or the month prior.

Researchers suggested that COVID-19 ushered in a “second pandemic” of mental health crises, with loneliness, isolation, anxiety, and stress as top concerns.

“We were cut off from each other, with no person-to-person contact during a very anxious, destabilizing time,” Weissbourd says about the data showing that loneliness increased during the pandemic. People were cut off from the usual social supports — family, friends, and coworkers — who make us feel connected and less alone.

But the silver lining is that the pandemic has helped normalize conversations about mental health issues, Holt-Lunstad says.

“People are much more open to talking about loneliness because every single one of us has experienced it to some degree now. We’ve all had a taste of it,” she says.

How Does Loneliness Affect Your Health?

Chronic loneliness can wreak havoc on a person’s physical and mental health, according to Holt-Lunstad, who has studied the effects of loneliness on long-term health for the last two decades.

“Our social connections — or lack of them — can influence not just our mental health but our risk of heart disease, diabetes, dementia, Alzheimer’s disease, and even our susceptibility to viruses,” she says.

Here’s a closer look at the effects chronic loneliness can have on our minds and bodies:

  • Premature Death Living alone and feeling subjective loneliness increase the risk of premature death by 29 percent and 26 percent, respectively, according to a 2015 meta-analysis coauthored by Holt-Lunstad.

    On the flip side, another meta-analysis conducted by Holt-Lunstad in 2010 found that strong social connections are linked to a 50 percent reduced risk of early death.

    In that case, researchers followed the health trajectories of more than 308,000 people over the course of seven and a half years. They found that scoring low on indicators of social connection was a greater risk to health than air pollution, obesity, smoking, and excessive drinking.
  • Cardiovascular Health Loneliness is linked to a 29 percent increased risk of heart attack and a 32 percent increased risk of having a stroke, compared with people who reported having healthy social relationships, according to a 2015 meta-analysis.

    The review, which followed 181,000 people for up to 21 years, found that loneliness had a similar effect on heart health as both anxiety and job stress. Previous research had suggested that severe loneliness is tied to an increased risk of heart disease for women, but not necessarily for men.

    Previous research has also suggested that loneliness increases blood pressure.

  • Dementia and Cognitive Health Adults who report more loneliness were found to have a 40 percent increased risk of developing dementia and other cognitive impairments over a 10-year follow-up period, according to research published in October 2018.

    The association was similar regardless of gender, race, ethnicity, socioeconomic class, and genetic risk. The study builds on previous research that has suggested the same — that feeling lonely is more likely than social isolation to predict who develops dementia later in life.

  • Susceptibility to Colds For a study published in 2017, Texas researchers exposed 159 study participants to a common cold virus and quarantined them in hotel rooms.

    The data showed that lonelier people felt the severity of their cold symptoms more than those who weren’t lonely. Another study previously reported that people with diverse social networks were less vulnerable to the common cold, had fewer runny noses, and shed less virus particles when they were sick.

  • Mood and Mental Health?Loneliness is a major risk factor for developing depression. Feeling pain and helplessness are two shared characteristics of both loneliness and depression.

    In a 2021 study, researchers concluded that loneliness increases the risk of depression, not the other way around.

    In this case, researchers had more than 4,200 study participants in England answer questions about their experiences of loneliness, social support, and symptoms of depression, in order to calculate their overall loneliness score. Each one-point increase on the loneliness scale was linked to a 16 percent increase in depressive symptoms. Depression also increased over time among the participants with greater loneliness scores, hinting at present day loneliness being a marker of future depression. “Loneliness and depression can really compound each other in damaging ways,” Weissbourd says. “They feed into each other and deepen the experience.”

How to Prevent and Cope With Loneliness

“There’s no one-size-fits-all solution to help people manage feelings of loneliness, but it’s worth experimenting to see what makes you feel better connected to the people around you,” Borland says.

These tactics can help you prevent loneliness or overcome feelings of loneliness:

  • Acknowledge How You’re Feeling While feelings of loneliness may be alarming, they’re a signal for you to take action, says Jeremy Nobel, MD, a lecturer on global health and social medicine at Harvard Medical School. “Just like thirst is a signal that you need more hydration, loneliness can be viewed as a signal that you need more human connection,” he explains.
  • Practice Gratitude Borland often advises his patients to take a moment each day to think of three things they’re thankful for in their lives, however big or small. This daily habit can help to undo some of the pessimism and negativity that can be linked to feeling lonely, he says.
  • Make Time for Family and Friends Take time to foster your existing relationships, and be proactive about it, Olds suggests. Don’t shy away from picking up the phone to catch up with an old friend or asking your family to get together on the weekend.
  • Get Creative Whether you like drawing, listening to music, dancing, or anything else creative, turning to the arts can reduce feelings of loneliness, Dr. Nobel says. He’s president of the Foundation for Art & Healing, a Brookline, Massachusetts–based nonprofit that promotes art as a vehicle for health and happiness. He says that turning to the arts can be cathartic, helping us to express how we’re feeling inside. Research published in 2015 found that art therapy can help with mood, combating stress, and bolstering self-esteem.

  • Embrace Hobbies You Enjoy During the pandemic, both Olds and Borland saw their patients reunite with their hobbies, whether tuning old instruments, getting back into the kitchen to cook, or signing up for an online course about their favorite topic. Borland says that making time for activities you love is a great form of self-care. It reignites your passions, taps into your creativity, and gives you something to look forward to. Hobbies can also help us reinforce connections with our social network, whether you’re testing out a recipe an old friend shared on Facebook or joining a neighbor’s virtual book club. Check online for meetup groups with people in your area with your shared interests too.
  • Get Outdoors Get moving, whether you’re going for a walk around the neighborhood or taking a hike on a nearby trail, Borland says. Getting outside and doing physical activity are both mood boosters, so heading outdoors can help with banishing some of the negative feelings associated with loneliness (or at least blunt them). “I will always promote exercise — it’s so high up on the list of coping tools,” he says.
  • Try Volunteering or Helping Your Community Acts of kindness go a long way in reducing loneliness and fostering social connection, according to Holt-Lunstad. In a clinical trial held in Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States, the team randomly assigned study participants with tasks like calling to check in on an elderly neighbor or offering to walk their dog or shovel their driveway. The results suggested that these small acts of kindness significantly reduced loneliness.

    “What’s particularly remarkable about these findings is that this was done during the pandemic. It didn’t require special training, professional therapy, special resources, or staff. It’s something anyone can do,” she says.
  • Seek Help Whether you choose to confide in a loved one or prefer to sign up for group therapy or individual counseling sessions (more on when to get professional help below), there are resources available to you, Borland says. Nobel says that people who have used his organization’s intensive programs that provide support groups reported feeling better about their confidence and managing their loneliness within just a few sessions.

When to Get Help With Managing Loneliness

Everyone encounters loneliness at some point in their lives, but you should consider getting professional help if:

  • Feelings of loneliness extend beyond occasional moments and linger for two weeks to as long as two months
  • Feelings wade into depression, hopelessness, or despair
  • Feelings of loneliness affect your daily life, such as productivity at work or at school

If you don’t have a regular therapist or mental health professional to turn to, start by asking your primary care doctor for a referral. You can also check websites, such as Better Help and the American Psychological Association’s Psychologist Locator, to connect with mental health professionals in your community.

Resources We Love

Check out these resources to learn more about loneliness symptoms to be on the lookout for — and find resources near you for help:

The National Alliance on Mental Health (NAMI)

NAMI is the nation’s largest grassroots mental health organization dedicated to helping Americans affected by mental illness. Plug in your ZIP code to find a support group near you. There are also online discussion groups and a one-on-one helpline (1-800-950-NAMI).

Mental Health America

Mental Health America is a national nonprofit that provides prevention services, interventions for those at risk, and services and support for those who need them. The organization runs a nationwide Peer Partners Program, which connects people grappling with isolation and social exclusion, to help them build networks of friends and close relationships. There are also webinars on topics such as loneliness, depression, and resilience.

Commit to Connect

This website connects Americans with resources that help fight social isolation and loneliness. It was launched by the Administration for Community Living, and it partners with several other organizations, including AARP Foundation, Meals on Wheels America, the Consumer Technology Association Foundation, the National Council on Aging, and others. You’re able to take a science-based assessment to find out if you — or a loved one — is at risk of social isolation. Also access tools, programs, and technologies for coping with isolation that are available in your area.

Mental Health Is Health

This initiative aims to normalize conversations about mental health, and it helps people learn more about feelings and experiences such as loneliness, hopelessness, and stress. It was launched by MTV Entertainment Group in partnership with the Trevor Project, the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, NAMI, the National Council for Mental Wellbeing, and others.

The Foundation for Art & Healing

This nonprofit promotes art and creativity as a tool for therapy, self-expression, and healing. In 2016, it launched Project UnLonely, a national campaign to raise awareness of the loneliness epidemic and empower communities to connect with each other. It has various subgroups, including Aging UnLonely (for seniors), Campus UnLonely (for students), and Workplace UnLonely (for Americans in the workforce).

Good Therapy?

It can be hard to know where to start when looking for a therapist. Good Therapy is an online directory that helps you find the right mental health professional in your ZIP code.

Connect2Affect

Spearheaded by the AARP and the Gerontological Society of America, Connect2Affect’s aim is to help older adults who are isolated or lonely, using online tools and community-based programs in their neighborhood.

The National Resource Center for Engaging Older Adults

This national effort is focused on increasing social engagement for seniors, people with disabilities, and caregivers. It is administered by USAging and funded by the U.S. Administration on Aging.

If you are actively in crisis and need immediate support, call 911. You can also call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255, or text 741-741 to reach a trainer counselor with Crisis Text Line.

Editorial Sources and Fact-Checking

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