We all feel lonely from time to time. Feelings of loneliness are personal, so everyone’s experience of loneliness will be different.
One common description of loneliness is the feeling we get when our need for rewarding social contacts and relationships are not met. But loneliness is not always the same as being alone.
You may choose to be alone and live happily without much contact with other people, while others may find this a lonely experience.
Or you may have lots of social contact, or be in a relationship or part of a family, and still feel lonely – especially if you don’t feel understood or cared for by the people around you (see our information on the causes of loneliness).
“One thing I’ve learned is the difference between feeling alone and feeling lonely – and how you can feel lonely in a crowd full of people, but quite peaceful and content when alone”.
Is loneliness a mental health problem?
Feeling lonely isn’t in itself a mental health problem, but the two are strongly linked. Having a mental health problem can increase your chances of feeling lonely.
For example, some people may have misconceptions about what certain mental health problems mean, so you may find it difficult to speak to them about your problems.
Or you may experience social phobia – also known as social anxiety – and find it difficult to engage in everyday activities involving other people, which could lead to a lack of meaningful social contact and cause feelings of loneliness.
“I want to be able to interact with people and make new connections but my anxiety feels like an invisible barrier that I can’t break through”
Feeling lonely can also have a negative impact on your mental health, especially if these feelings have lasted a long time. Some research suggests that loneliness is associated with an increased risk of certain mental health problems, including depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, sleep problems and increased stress.
“My anxiety and depression isolates me from people, stops me from being able to do the things I’d like to do so socially it cuts me off”
What causes loneliness?
Loneliness has many different causes, which vary from person to person. We don’t always understand what it is about an experience that makes us feel lonely.
For some people, certain life events may mean they feel lonely, such as:
- experiencing a bereavement
- going through a relationship break-up
- retiring and losing the social contact you had at work
- changing jobs and feeling isolated from your co-workers
- starting at university
- moving to a new area or country without family, friends or community networks.
Other people find they feel lonely at certain times of the year, such as around Christmas.
Some research suggests that people who live in certain circumstances, or belong to particular groups, are more vulnerable to loneliness. For example, if you:
- have no friends or family
- are estranged from your family
- are a single parent or care for someone else – you may find it hard to maintain a social life
- belong to minority groups and live in an area without others from a similar background
- are excluded from social activities due to mobility problems or financial difficulties
- experience discrimination and stigma because of a disability or long-term health problem, including mental health problems
- experience discrimination and stigma because of your gender, race or sexual orientation
- have experienced sexual or physical abuse – you may find it harder to form close relationships with other people.
“When I suffered from anorexia it fed into so many areas of life. It was all consuming. One of those areas was loneliness. It was something that I felt for such a long time”
Some people experience deep and constant feelings of loneliness that come from within and do not disappear, regardless of their social situation or how many friends they have.
There are many reasons people experience this kind of loneliness. You might feel unable to like yourself or to be liked by others, or you may lack self-confidence.
Thinking about what is making you feel lonely may help you find a way of feeling better. See our page of tips to manage loneliness for more information.