Loneliness: How it impacts our mental health and steps we can take to combat it

Posted on 02/13/24 07:26:am Lonliness infographic


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By Amy Blount, LCSW, therapist, Depression Recovery, Nashville

Amy (1).jpgAs human beings, we are hard-wired for connection and interaction. When we perceive an absence of that we can feel lonely. The news of the World Health Organization (WHO) prioritizing loneliness on a global scale resonates deeply with me as a mental health therapist. In my daily work, I witness the tangible impact of loneliness. Loneliness is not just an abstract concept. It has real and lasting effects on an individual’s mental well-being. This initiative recognizes the emotional complexities of the human experience, acknowledging that mental health is closely tied to our connections with others. As a therapist, I've seen the struggles of those grappling with isolation, and this global commitment offers hope. It's a call for collective action to address the challenges of loneliness, fostering a world where emotional connections are valued alongside physical health, and mental well-being is not just acknowledged, but actively pursued,  creating a more comprehensive and compassionate approach to well-being.

What does loneliness feel like?

The experience of loneliness is subjective. It varies greatly from person to person and encompasses a range of emotions. It may feel like disconnection, a sense of uneasiness, or discomfort arising from actual solitude, or the perception of being alone. Some common aspects of the experience include:

  • Emotional emptiness or numbness, often accompanied by a yearning for connection.
  • Isolation or a sense of detachment from others, which can be both physical and emotional.
  • A deep longing for meaningful connections, reflecting the innate human desire for community and shared experiences.
  • Social anxiety, creating hurdles in reaching out and engaging with others, thereby deepening the sense of loneliness.
  • Feelings of depression, characterized by sadness, low energy, and hopelessness. Loneliness can both contribute to, and result from, these depressive feelings.
  • Negative self-perception, fostering beliefs that one is unlikeable or incapable of forming meaningful connections.

What causes loneliness?

It’s common to confuse feeling lonely and being alone. The absence of social contact is not an exclusive reason for feeling lonely. We can have friends, family, and other connections around us and still experience the feeling of loneliness.

It’s important to recognize that loneliness is a common human experience, and a variety of things can contribute to feeling lonely. We can experience both internal and external causes of loneliness, including not having our needs met in a relationship, not feeling heard or understood, not feeling cared for, lack of social skills, technology and social media, life transitions, etc.

What’s the difference between spending time alone and being lonely? Is time alone unhealthy?

Loneliness is not the same as spending time alone. Everyone’s experience of loneliness is personal, so the experience of spending time alone and the emotional response to that will also be different.

Spending time alone simply involves being by oneself without the presence of others, which can be positive, neutral, or negative based on individual preferences and the context. Many people find solace and enjoyment in solitude and see it as a healthy and necessary part of self-care, using it for self-reflection, relaxation, and pursuing personal interests.

On the other hand, loneliness is an emotional state characterized by a perceived lack of meaningful connections or understanding. It is not solely determined by physical isolation, but rather by the absence of satisfying social interactions. Loneliness often comes with negative emotions like sadness, emptiness, or a yearning for connection, and it can occur even in the presence of others if the connections are not fulfilling.

As for whether it’s healthy to spend time alone, it depends on the person and specific circumstances. Excessive and prolonged isolation, especially leading to loneliness, can have negative effects on mental and physical well-being. Balancing alone time with meaningful social connections is important for overall well-being.

Can loneliness cause mental health challenges like anxiety or depression?

 Loneliness can contribute to and intensify mental health challenges, particularly anxiety and depression. Oftentimes there’s a self-reinforcing cycle between loneliness and mental health issues. Loneliness can heighten mental health challenges, and in turn, mental health challenges can lead to increased feelings of loneliness.

Loneliness can also contribute to depressive symptoms, and depression can impede the ability to form connections. Negative thought patterns associated with loneliness, such as feelings of worthlessness, are often experienced by people with depression.

Additionally, loneliness may be intertwined with social anxiety, creating difficulties in social interactions due to a fear of rejection or judgment. Individuals experiencing loneliness may also be prone to rumination, excessively dwelling on negative thoughts and worries, thereby contributing to heightened anxiety.

Extended periods of loneliness can trigger the body's stress response, resulting in elevated stress hormone levels. This chronic stress is linked to the development and worsening of mental health disorders.

What can a person do to combat loneliness?

 Remember that as we all feel loneliness in different ways and for different reasons, the things that can help us combat loneliness can also differ for each of us. Here are some steps each of us can take to combat loneliness:

  • Connect with others and reach out to friends, family, or acquaintances. Reconnect with the people we know!
  • Find groups in our communities that share common interests.
  • Volunteer in the community and meet new people.
  • Enroll in classes or workshops to learn and socialize.
  • Use technology to engage in online communities or virtual activities.
  • Be kind to ourselves. Engage in self-compassion and remember loneliness is common.
  • Consider talking to a mental health professional.
  • Be patient. Building connections takes time, remember to set realistic expectations.

Rogers provides treatment for mental health challenges

 Rogers provides compassionate care for eating disorders, OCD and anxiety, depression and other mood disorders, and trauma (PTSD). We also offer outpatient psychiatric care by appointment both virtually and in-person in West Allis, Wisconsin. Our Primary Behavioral Health program helps adults who are struggling with repetitive negative thoughts, managing emotions, avoiding activities they once enjoyed, or are experiencing another challenging mental health symptoms. Call 800-767-4411 for a free confidential screening.

Call 800-767-4411 or go to rogersbh.org to request a free screening.