Coping with loneliness | The signs, symptoms and treatments

Loneliness is an emotion that all of us will feel at some point in our lives. When we feel lonely, it’s because we aren’t getting enough social interaction. If loneliness is affecting your life, you’re not on your own. Almost 50% of UK adults report feeling lonely at some point throughout their life.

To help remove the stigma around the topic, Mental Health Prevention Lead Lisa Gunn discusses loneliness, mental health and how we can help support ourselves and each other.

Key information

What is loneliness?

Loneliness isn't just about being physically apart from others. Loneliness includes the emotional state of feeling disconnected or mentally detached. This makes sense, as now more than ever, we are shaped by our social environment and the nature of the bonds that we experience.

What can cause loneliness?

You might find you’re lonely because you aren’t seeing people regularly enough. You can also feel lonely when you’re around people. This is typically accompanied by feelings of emptiness or disconnection.

Certain life events like a breakup, bereavement, or retirement can cause you to feel lonely. The space left by someone or something can mean we suddenly become a lot less sociable. 

There are also instances where time spent with people can cause us to feel lonely. For example, having a baby or starting a new job can mean new social circles, but ones that don’t necessarily satisfy our social needs.

What does being lonely feel like?

Everyone can experience loneliness and for each of us, the experience is different. It’s important to remember that social pain like loneliness can feel as real as physical pain.

Because describing a specific feeling is hard, it’s sometimes easier to describe the feelings that accompany loneliness. These often include:

  • Sadness
  • Emptiness
  • Disconnectedness
  • Worry
  • Stress
  • Anxiety
  • A sense of longing
  • Low mood
  • Depression

The health impact of loneliness

Despite changing attitudes towards mental health, loneliness can be a difficult subject to discuss. This might be out of fear of discrimination or worry about the reaction we might receive.

Chronic loneliness can impact our physical health as well as our mental health, causing as much harm as smoking 15 cigarettes per day. It's associated with twice the risk of early death compared to obesity and is linked to high blood pressure, raised cholesterol, heart attacks and strokes.

The social impact of loneliness can also not be ignored. Feeling isolated from others can lead to an increased risk of developing mental health conditions like depression.

How to manage it

The first step when tackling loneliness is all about talking. Talking about how we’re feeling can make us feel more connected to others and more like socialising in the future. When we speak about our problems, it helps us feel less alone in them. Speaking out loud about our feelings can help us get a different perspective on our situation.

Talking about loneliness can mean having someone to help us look at why we are lonely and what we might be able to do to manage it. For example, if hobbies have fallen by the wayside over the years, it might be a good time to reengage with the things we used to enjoy doing.

Talking about how you’re feeling

Can you remember the last time you were hungry and what it felt like? You’ll probably be able to describe the feeling in detail. Do you remember the last time you felt lonely and what that felt like? Many people find this much harder to talk about.

We don't talk about loneliness because telling someone can feel like admitting weakness or failure. In the same way hunger is a signal to attend to our bodies, loneliness is a signal for us to attend to our need for connection. Seeing loneliness in this way encourages a conversation without fear of judgement.

We typically avoid unpleasant emotions and quickly try to distract ourselves from them. Added to this, there is often shame associated with loneliness which means the lonely stay silent and don’t ask for help.

Loneliness in old age

Bereavements, drifting apart from friends, and our family living on their own means we are more likely to feel alone as we age. Loneliness in elderly people is much more common than in younger people. Alarmingly, more than a million older people say that they have gone a month without speaking to a friend or family member.

Getting older typically means we are less physically active which can mean making the effort to socialise harder. Using the phone to contact friends and family is a valuable resource that can help older adults to stay connected. It’s also a good idea to speak with your GP about local support groups that are great for helping older adults reengage.

Loneliness and social media

When we feel lonely, many of us turn to social media as a destination (a place where you interact with others) rather than a way station, (a means for setting up face-to-face meetings with others).

While this can masquerade as a connection, it often leads to unrewarding and unauthentic interactions. And there’s a danger of constantly comparing your 'imperfect insides' with the 'perfect outsides’ of others, which can lead to further disconnection.

With many of us working from home, technology is replacing human interaction more and more. Although there are benefits to remote working, such as increased flexibility, it can sometimes create a feeling of isolation.

Working together and why it’s important

Combatting loneliness begins with changing our approach to the language and our perception of loneliness. Rather than seeing it as a weakness, remember that feeling lonely is a normal part of being human and is a signal we need to change something about our social world.

Talking about it can help to bring about change. Have a look at 10 ways to take action against loneliness for a helpful guide to supporting yourself and others.

In terms of workplace loneliness, our whitepaper on remote working makes several recommendations for employers. These include managers fostering social and professional interaction with the aim of promoting a sense of belonging to a larger group.

Speak out and reach out

You don't have to be alone to feel lonely. Take some time to talk with someone you trust and be ready to listen and reach out to anyone you think may benefit from support.

When to seek help

If loneliness or isolation is negatively impacting your day-to-day life, help is available. Talking about how you’re feeling with a professional can help you better understand loneliness and the ways it can be treated.

Helpful contacts

Last updated Tuesday 21 November 2023

First published on Tuesday 22 December 2020