As social beings, most of us feel the need for rewarding social contact and relationships. One common definition of loneliness is that it is the feeling we get when our need for this type of contact is not met.
However, loneliness is not the same as being alone. You might choose to be alone and live happily without much contact with other people. Or you may have lots of social contact, or be in a relationship or part of a family and still feel lonely.
Loneliness is not feeling part of the world. You might be surrounded by loads of people but... you are still lonely. Loneliness can have a significant impact on your mental health. It can contribute to mental health problems, such as anxiety and depression. Having a mental health problem can also make you feel lonely. For example, your condition may mean that you find social contact difficult or that you find it hard to maintain friendships, or you may feel isolated because of stigma and discrimination.
Loneliness has many different causes and affects people differently. Often people feel lonely because of their personal circumstances. But sometimes loneliness is a deeper, more constant feeling that comes from within. For example, if you:
• lose a partner or someone close to you
• go through a relationship break-up
• are a single parent or caring for someone else you may find it hard to maintain a social life
• retire and lose the social contact you had at work
• are older and find it difficult to go out alone
• move to a new area without family, friends or community networks
• belong to a minority ethnic group and live in an area without others from a similar background
• are excluded from social activities – for example, because of mobility problems or a shortage of money
• experience discrimination and stigma for example, because of a disability or long-term health condition, or your gender, race or sexuality
• have experienced sexual or physical abuse you may find it hard to form close relationships with other people
Loneliness has many different causes and affects people differently. Often people feel lonely because of their personal circumstances. But sometimes loneliness is a deeper, more constant feeling that comes from within.
If you experience this deeper type of loneliness, you may try to avoid being on your own and spend a lot of time socialising. Or you may react in the opposite way, hiding away on your own so you don't have to face a world of people you feel unconnected to. You may also develop unhelpful habits, such as using alcohol or drugs, to escape your feelings of loneliness or to face social situations that you can’t avoid.
Loneliness and social isolation can have a significant impact on your mental health. Studies have shown that people who are socially isolated experience more stress, have lower self-esteem and are more likely to have sleep problems than people who have strong social support. All of these things can have a negative effect on your general well-being.
Being lonely can also contribute to mental health problems, such as anxiety and depression. Social isolation has also been linked to rarer mental health conditions like schizophrenia. If you are concerned that your feelings of loneliness are developing into a mental health problem, you may find it helpful to talk to your GP.
Sometimes feeling lonely can feel so overwhelming that you have suicidal thoughts. If this happens, remember that you can pick up the phone at any time of night or day and talk to the Samaritans.
Mental health problems can often lead to low self-esteem and a poor self-image. This may be part of your mental health problem, or it may result from stigma or discrimination you have experienced because of your mental health. You may not feel confident that people want to have socia contact with you, or you may feel that people don’t understand you or see you as different or strange. This could lead you to avoid social contact and isolate yourself, making you increasingly lonely. If you have a condition such as anxiety or a phobia, you may find social contact or leaving the house difficult. As a result, you may become socially isolated, leading to feelings of loneliness.
Medication that you take for your condition can affect the way you see yourself. It may have changed your appearance or the way you communicate. You may have lost or put on weight, or your medication may make you feel drowsy. Some medication can cause shaking or slurred speech and you may worry that other people will make incorrect judgements about you. Or you may have to avoid drinking alcohol and find it difficult to admit this to your friends. All of this can have an impact on how confident you feel about meeting people socially, and cause you to withdraw from social contact.
Mental health problems or that the way they reacted made you question your friendships. This may mean you become less willing to trust other people, and you may start to avoid social contact with others.
Once I was told people don’t want to be around me as I depress them, so I became somewhat of a recluse. You may also find that people don’t know how to react to you or what to say when you are unwell, perhaps because they don’t understand your condition or because they are worried that they might make you feel worse. For example, if you were feeling suicidal, your friends may have been afraid that anything they said might have encouraged you to attempt suicide. This can make you feel that nobody understands you, and make you feel isolated and lonely.
Sometimes your mental health problems can affect the way you interact with people or cause you to behave in a way that other people find difficult. For example, your condition may mean that at times you lack inhibitions or you may find it hard to care for your appearance. You may have behaved angrily or aggressively during a period of mental ill-health, or falsely accused a friend of something, causing them distress. This could mean that it is sometimes difficult to make friends or maintain existing relationships. In these situations, it may be worth trying to have an open conversation with your friends so that they understand more about your condition and the way it can affect you.
For many people, overcoming loneliness is about increasing the level of social contact that they have with other people and there are different ways to do this. However, if you experience feelings of loneliness that are unrelated to social contact, you may need to develop different strategies to help you overcome this. We discuss both types of strategy here.
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