Loneliness, a complicated emotion that typically occurs when one’s needs for social contact are not met, may be described as a feeling of emptiness that results from isolation. A person may be lonely when alone, but the state of being alone does not necessarily indicate loneliness.
What Is Loneliness?
Loneliness can mean different things, depending on one’s situation and individual needs, but it is generally considered to be a negative or undesirable state. Feelings of loneliness may develop when one lacks fulfillment in one’s social relationships, but just as a person who is alone is not necessarily lonely, a person can be lonely without being alone.
A person in a romantic relationship who has few friends may feel lonely in the partner’s absence or find the relationship to be somehow lacking in other ways, and a person who has many strong friendships might still feel lonely at times. An individual who is not in a relationship and desires romantic companionship might also experience loneliness.
Experiences that might also contribute to feelings of loneliness include:
- The loss of a loved one
- A sudden breakup
- Single parenthood
- Moving to a new area or going away for college
- Surviving abuse
A person who feels lonely may often be physically alone, but many individuals choose to remain alone, maintaining few social connections. This state of being alone is not the same as loneliness: In most cases, a person who is alone by choice enjoys and welcomes solitude.
Loneliness and Mental Health
A sense of loneliness is often accompanied by the belief that one has no choice in the matter. For many people, loneliness is a transient state that passes eventually. But when one’s social needs and desires go consistently unfulfilled, feelings of loneliness may become chronic and debilitating and lead to a decline in mental health.
Loneliness has been linked to a variety of mental health conditions, such as depression, anxiety, low self-esteem and substance dependency. It may also contribute to disruptions in eating and sleeping patterns. Feelings of loneliness may sometimes develop to such an extent that they lead an individual to engage in acts of self-harm or have thoughts of suicide.
Several studies show that adolescents who are lonely may be more likely to use drugs or alcohol and become sexually active at an earlier age than peers who are not lonely. Teens experiencing loneliness have also been shown to be more likely to engage in risky and unsafe sex or exhibit aggressive behavior.
Coping with Loneliness
The distress associated with loneliness can be significant and may lead to feelings of helplessness and hopelessness. Pursuing a new hobby, taking up a sport, volunteering in the community, or attending social events can help reduce distress by increasing one’s opportunities to form friendships. Engaging and meaningful activities can also help a person cope with loneliness by making time spent alone more meaningful.
Those wishing to expand or rebuild their social connections may find social networking or dating sites to be useful, as these sites can help one locate people with common interests, reestablish contact with old friends, or form romantic attachments.
Individuals who are shy, experience social anxiety, or are reluctant to take social risks may be more likely to describe themselves as lonely and may have difficulty forming lasting and satisfying relationships. When a person finds it challenging to reach out to others or self-disclose in order to form closeness and trust—both of which are generally necessary for a strong relationship to develop—therapy can often help.
Therapy for Loneliness
An individual who seeks therapy to address feelings of loneliness may find it helpful to explore potential factors that may contribute to these feelings. Often, these factors can be discussed and resolved in therapy. For example, a person who feels lonely after the death of a close family member may be able to work through these feelings in therapy, addressing grief and loneliness together. A person in therapy can also challenge and modify any thought patterns or perceptions that are associated with or contribute to loneliness, such as a perceived lack of control over life or social situations.
When a person experiences loneliness due to a difficulty making and maintaining friendships, social skills training might be used in combination with other forms of therapy in order to further develop social strengths and communication skills. As part of such training, individuals may practice beginning and ending conversations, giving and receiving compliments, and using or making sense of nonverbal forms of communication. This kind of training can often encourage people to feel more confident about making social connections, which may help them become better able to do so.
- Killeen, C. (1998). Loneliness: An epidemic in modern society. Journal of Advanced Nursing, 28(4), 762-770.
- McWhirter, B. (1990). Loneliness: A review of current literature, with implications for counselling and research. Journal of Counseling and Development, 68, 417-422.
- Rokach, A. (2001). Strategies of coping with loneliness throughout the lifespan. Current Psychology: Developmental, Learning, Personality, Social, 20(1), 3-18.
- Stickley, A., Koyanagi, A., Koposov, R., Schwab-Stone, M., & Ruchkin, V. (2014). Loneliness and health risk behaviours among Russian and U.S. adolescents: A cross-sectional study. BMC Public Health, 14, 366. Retrieved from http://www.biomedcentral.com/1471-2458/14/366
Last Updated: 08-11-2015
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