Taish Malone, Ph.D., helps explain what causes the feeling and share tips for how to deal with loneliness.
In a recent national survey of American adults, 36 percent of participants, including 61 percent of young adults and 51 percent of mothers with young children, reported feeling “serious loneliness,” according to Harvard’s Making Caring Common Project. And while the coronavirus pandemic may have exacerbated matters, the sentiment is nothing new. Surveys prior to March 2020 found that loneliness impacts a wide variety of demographics, including adults over the age of 45 down to the Gen Z.
Point being: Seemingly everyone will experience loneliness at least some point in their life. So knowing how to deal with loneliness and what causes it in the first place is especially important. Keep reading to find out.
What Is Loneliness?
Despite what the name suggests, spending a great deal of time alone isn’t a prerequisite for loneliness. “Loneliness is the feeling of being disconnected or misunderstood by others,” explains Taish Malone, Ph.D., a licensed professional counselor with Mindpath Health. “A person who experiences loneliness is not always physically alone yet feels distant and isolated emotionally.”
Solitude, a term that’s often confused with loneliness, refers to being physically alone. “It’s the experience of being in one’s own company or in the absence of others’ presence,” says Therese Mascardo, Psy.D., a licensed clinical psychologist and founder of Exploring Therapy. Solitude is a state of being that can contribute to loneliness, but it doesn’t always present an issue. “[Solitude] is seen as healthy and sometimes necessary to self-regulate [or to center oneself],” says Malone. “Long periods of solitude, however, can be unhealthy and could even possibly lead to loneliness in some.”
In other words, solitude is a state of being (think: spending time physically alone) while loneliness is a more a state of mind (e.g. feeling alone despite wanting social connections).
While solitude isn’t necessarily a cause for concern, prolonged feelings of loneliness have been linked to health issues. “Loneliness is associated with heart disease, a weakened immune system, poor sleep, anxiety, depression, and even suicidal thoughts,” explains Mascardo. “Research suggests that loneliness is associated with premature mortality, aka an earlier age of death.”
What Causes Feelings of Loneliness?
Type of Personality
It’s tough to pinpoint the causes of loneliness, but there are certain factors that can make you more likely to experience the feeling, according to Malone. For example, one attribute associated with feeling lonely is an introverted personality (i.e. being more reserved and focused on your internal world than the outer world), according to Joanne Frederick, L.P.C., a licensed mental health counselor based in Washington, D.C. “If you are an introvert, this can cause you to have fewer social connections and lead to feeling alone,” she explains.
Similarly, being introverted and not exposing yourself to many social interactions can cause you to feel like you haven’t found a group of people to whom you can reveal your true self and “who accept and match your personalities or beliefs,” explains Malone. “Without this, some can feel lost and odd.”
Another factor that can make it difficult to find that group of people, as described by Malone, is social media. It’s led to a decrease in meaningful in-person interactions, which are necessary to counteract feelings of loneliness, says Frederick. “For many in [the] Gen Z [generation], having real and authentic connections is limited unless they are face-to-face with a friend, co-worker, or family member,” she says. “Talking on the phone and having a dialogue has not been part of their culture.”
Some people may be feeling the effects of prioritizing their presence on social media over cultivating a small, reliable support system, which can otherwise prevent loneliness. “The interactions they are having can be less meaningful and more surface, such as a thumbs up or emoji on a social media post,” says Frederick.
Loneliness can also result from cognitive distortion, explains Malone. Cognitive distortion refers to inaccurate thinking, perceptions, or beliefs, according to the American Psychological Association (APA). For example, if you constantly perceive experiences or feedback from others as negative, even when they aren’t, you may feel rejected and retreat from others as a result, thereby avoiding connections that could otherwise help you feel less lonely.
A common form of cognitive distortion is overgeneralization, which may lead you to assume the worst outcome of all social situations due to one bad experience, according to the APA. “These assumptions lead to a lack of motivation towards socializing, a lack of developing close relationships due to guarding yourself against a fear of not being accepted, and eventually perpetuating a cycle of behaviors that sustain further loneliness,” says Malone.
Additionally, loneliness can stem from such as anxiety or depression, especially if the mental illness is keeping you further introverted and avoidant of others, according to the APA. In fact, loneliness “is one of the most common experiences of those who are depressed,” Forest Talley, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist and founder of Invictus Psychological Serves, previously told Shape.
Certain Life Events
Other potential causes of loneliness include events or moments that cause a disconnect with others, such as moving to a new city, the death of a loved one, a romantic breakup, or, in recent cases, a global pandemic, explains Frederick. “Life, as anyone knew [it], was drastically disrupted,” she says, referring to the COVID pandemic. “In many cases, people were physically separated from friends, loved ones, on-site jobs, entertainment, hugging people, and traveling.” Being isolated due to quarantine led to an increased number of lonely people because ultimately, “[people] feel lonely when their longing for being seen, heard, accepted, understood, or known by others is neglected for too long,” says Mascardo.
Tips for Dealing with Loneliness
If you’re currently feeling disconnected and misunderstood, you’re certainly not alone. Ahead, experts share some of their best tips for how to deal with loneliness.
Connect In Real Life
While texting has become a popular form of communication, connecting and spending time with friends and family IRL can combat feelings of loneliness, explains Frederick. (Research suggests that, generally, face-to-face interactions are more impactful when trying to form deep relationships than online interactions.) Connecting with loved ones in person also offers a chance to be vulnerable, which can lead to more meaningful relationships, adds Mascardo.
People are more likely to conduct surface-level interactions when communicating through a screen, making it difficult to feel comfortable to open up, explains Frederick. “The easiest way to start [being vulnerable] is by doing things you love with other people [regularly],” she says. “This could be dancing, painting, or even video games. Just make sure there’s a chance to connect outside of the activity of choice and get to know one another. Over time, [you’ll] find some people you can trust to share your more painful, messy, or difficult experiences with.” (Related: How to Make Friends As an Adult — and Why It’s So Important for Your Health)
“Another way to cope with loneliness is to be of service to others,” explains Mascardo. “This could include volunteering your time to a cause you care about, such as a food shelter or a beach clean-up.”
Research suggests volunteering improves mental and physical health, according to the Mayo Clinic. It can help reduce stress and increase positive, relaxed feelings by triggering the release of dopamine (a neurotransmitter that plays a role in pleasure, motivation, learning, and memory) — an effect that’s often referred to as the “helper’s high.”
Additionally, volunteers who have spent time serving others have reported feeling a sense of meaning and appreciation, both given and received, which can help reduce stress, according to the Mayo Clinic. Lower stress levels can not only decrease the chances of developing physical conditions, such as heart disease and stroke but also reduce the risk of mental health disorders, such as anxiety and depression, which are linked to loneliness.
Spend Time Online Wisely
Considering social media provides a look at everyone’s most edited and filtered moments, it may contribute to depression and lower-self esteem, which can increase feelings of loneliness, according to Frederick. Instead of mindlessly scrolling, use social media as a tool to connect with others, she suggests.
“If you are going to be on social media, at least be social,” says Frederick. “Instead of passively reviewing posts, use [social media] to find ‘groups,’ Zoom meetings, charities, or music events in your area. Reach out to an old friend whom you lost contact [with]. Find a way to take the online conversation into an in-person activity.”
Consider Professional Support
“Most people make the mistake of waiting until the problem is really bad before seeking professional help,” says Mascardo. Seeking professional help is worthwhile whether you’re wondering how to deal with intense loneliness or are experiencing something milder. For instance, if you’re experiencing a brief period of loneliness due to a recent breakup or move, speaking with a therapist can help you navigate that difficult time period and help you move on and adjust. (Related: What to Talk About In Therapy)
That said, if your loneliness is chronic, or lasting for a long period of time and contributing to overall negative quality of life, seeking professional help is even more imperative, explains Malone. Lacking close friends or relationships, experiencing feelings of isolation, and losing interest in most social interactions could all be indicators that someone is experiencing chronic loneliness, says Malone.
Seeking a professional can also help if loneliness is caused by negative or distorted thinking patterns, explains Malone. “Since loneliness [can be] due to distortions in thinking, interpretations, and processing of emotions, those that experience this would benefit from seeking a psychotherapist that can help them determine if they have a mood disorder, such as depression, which makes one more prone to feelings of loneliness,” she says. “A psychotherapist can also develop a treatment plan to challenge the cognitive and emotive distortions that create a lonely mindset.”
At the end of the day, you don’t have to resign to the belief that feeling lonely is inevitable. There are multiple ways to deal with loneliness, so don’t hesitate to reach out to a mental health professional for individualized guidance.
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