Over the last year, many people have been feeling more alone than ever before. To slow the spread of COVID-19, we’ve stayed home and avoided spending time with loved ones, which has led to more loneliness.
While feeling lonely is a normal part of the human experience ― and some of us prefer much more solitude than others ― dealing with intense or chronic periods of loneliness can contribute to a bigger mental health issue.
“Loneliness does not only occur in the state of being alone but may also be a feeling that people have even when they are in social settings. Loneliness is more about lack of connection than lack of people,” said Lin Sternlicht, a therapist and co-founder of Family Addiction Specialist based in New York City. “We all have an innate need and desire to connect with others, and when that goes unmet, we can feel alone.”
Sternlicht added that extroverts are more susceptible than introverts to the negative effects of loneliness because they are at greater risk of low moods when they are alone.
What’s the difference between healthy solitude and chronic loneliness?
We’ve all had those moments of wanting to be alone to recharge, reflect or simply do something just for us. When we briefly shut out the world and create a bubble for ourselves, that can be a form of self-care. But at what point does it become unhealthy?
Yasmine Saad, a licensed clinical psychologist and CEO of Madison Park Psychological Services in New York City, said that “when we go from healthy solitude or alone time to chronic loneliness, we enter a negative space in our head.”
This typically happens when we start focusing on our feeling of disconnection from others or loss of relationships. Saad said some people may not be consciously aware of this shift, but their bodies and minds will still show the negative effects of being alone.
“Feelings of loneliness can only happen when our lens is focused on what is missing. That lens further disconnects us from life and others. Our life becomes heavy and our body and mind will show symptoms reflecting that heaviness,” she said.
“Feelings of loneliness can only happen when our lens is focused on what is missing. That lens further disconnects us from life and others.”
Red flags that your loneliness could lead to a bigger issue.
The isolation of the last year has hit us all, so much so that we may not even notice the toll it’s taken on our mental health. Here are a few indicators that loneliness is becoming a larger problem:
1. You’re feeling lonely around others.
Sternlicht said that if you struggle with feeling lonely even though you’re around other people or in relationships, then those feelings might be pointing to “a bigger underlying mental health issue or lack of connection.”
“Look within and ask yourself what might be contributing to these feelings,” she said. “A lack of connection with others might mean that you need to expose yourself to other individuals who you have more in common with, who you find more interesting, or who align more with your morals, values and personality.”
2. You’re feeling tired more frequently.
Kruti Quazi, clinical director of virtual group therapy app Sesh, said people dealing with chronic loneliness may feel fatigued more than usual.
“If they are experiencing chronic loneliness, trying to engage and be social with others can leave them feeling completely exhausted,” she said. “When feeling constantly drained, this may lead to sleep problems, a weakened immune system, poor diet, and so much more, affecting their emotional, mental and physical well-being.”
3. You struggle to connect in ways that once came easily.
If you feel incapable of connecting to others on a deeper level ― something that once wasn’t so difficult ― this may be a sign of a bigger problem, Quazi said.
This can also be true if the connections you are making “feel very surface-level” and “not fulfilling,” Quazi added. “This disconnection may feel as though it is never-ending.” She said you may feel misunderstood as well.
4. You’ve started exhibiting symptoms of depression.
According to Susan Harrington, a licensed marriage and family therapist in Louisiana, “extended loneliness often goes hand in hand with depression and, when it is part of a bigger issue, it has some common presentations.”
Keep an eye out for signs such as “a sense of numbness, continued isolation, negative thinking, and/or an unexplainable change in sleeping and eating habits,” Harrington said. “Other less-thought-of signs are irritability, guilt, talking or moving slower, and/or restlessness.”
5. You’ve picked up negative coping habits.
When we’re experiencing something we don’t know how to manage or make go away, we may find ourselves leaning into unhealthy habits to cope. Sternlicht said she often sees loneliness manifest itself in behaviors such as overeating, smoking, drug misuse or excessive alcohol consumption.
“These behaviors serve as a coping mechanism for individuals who feel alone to numb their emotions and connect with a substance rather than with another individual,” she said. “Research has shown that feelings of loneliness may be a key factor in one developing an addiction. If you are turning to drugs, alcohol, binge eating or other unhealthy and potentially addictive behaviors to cope with loneliness, this may be a sign of a bigger problem.”
These coping mechanisms can also lead to “increased isolation, thereby turning into a vicious cycle of loneliness and self-sabotage,” Sternlicht said.
6. You’re dealing with suicidal ideation.
According to Mary Joye, a licensed mental health counselor and certified trauma professional in Florida, chronic loneliness can lead to a lack of purpose. She said some people may begin to ask, “Why am I here?” or think, “I don’t want to be a burden to anyone.”
“This last statement is very important to pay attention to as people often say it when they feel suicidal,” she said.
If your thinking starts to turn in that direction, please reach out to a mental health professional or a mental health support line. They can help.
Small ways to reduce your feelings of loneliness right now.
Seeking help from a mental health professional or support space is one of the best and most urgent ways to address what’s going on. But there are a few other things you can do to decrease feelings of isolation.
1. Practice direct communication.
Judy Ho, a triple-board-certified clinical and forensic neuropsychologist and professor at Pepperdine University, said sometimes we find it hard to voice our needs to the people in our lives.
But making that effort to practice direct communication can go a long way, she said, since humans are a “social species and we all need one another to survive and thrive.”
“Communicate your needs directly to those who are in your inner circle, and do the same in return. Ask them what they need or want most, and try to help them with attaining that if you can,” she said. “Research shows that even when we feel sad and down, helping others can help boost our mood and increase meaningfulness in our lives, and also make us feel better about ourselves.”
2. Curb your social media consumption if it’s making you feel worse.
Michelle English, a licensed clinical social worker and executive clinical manager at San Diego-based Healthy Life Recovery, noted that “loneliness is an epidemic, and yet we are the most socially connected we’ve ever been.”
“With social media and all of our hyper-connectivity, it’s inevitable that people will feel like they’re not good enough, that they don’t have enough, that they’re not doing enough,” she said. “How can we not feel this way when we’re constantly being exposed to what everyone else is doing or, more accurately, carefully choosing to showcase? This type of constant comparison can actually fuel feelings of loneliness and isolation, which is why it can be important to step away and take a break from time to time to recalibrate.”
3. Finally, keep in mind that you are not alone.
When we’re struggling, it’s easy to convince ourselves that our situation is unique and the people around us wouldn’t understand. But that usually isn’t the case.
“If we are constantly thinking that others may not relate to our personality or our situation, we begin to excessively focus our mind deeply within ourselves and feel even more isolated,” Quazi said. “However, when we recognize that there are actually other people who are feeling equally isolated, it becomes much easier to try changing our focus from ourselves to others and reaching out to those who may benefit from your support.”
If you or someone you know needs help, call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. You can also text HOME to 741-741 for free, 24-hour support from the Crisis Text Line. Outside the U.S., please visit the International Association for Suicide Prevention for a database of resources.