What is loneliness and how can we overcome it? Explained
Published: 12 November, 2018
Loneliness is that negative feeling that arises when our social needs are unmet by the quantity and quality of our current social relationships. As social beings, we rely on safe, secure social surroundings to survive and thrive. When we begin to feel lonely we experience heightened feelings of vulnerability, which can take a toll on both our bodies and our minds.
Loneliness is common, affecting around 1 in 4 Australians. For some it may be temporary, and for others it may be more long term. The subjective nature of loneliness means that people can live relatively solitary lives and not feel lonely while others may lead a seemingly rich social life and feel quite the opposite. Loneliness is not a sign of vulnerability, fragility, or weakness, nor does it occur only in people who are physically isolated or old. We can have many people around us and still feel lonely.
Who’s at risk of experiencing loneliness?
Anyone can experience loneliness at different times in their lives, but some people are more at risk. In old age it’s common for people to experience social isolation and loneliness, either as a result of living alone, a lack of close family ties, reduced connections with their culture of origin, or an inability (often through lack of transport) to actively participate in the local community.
What may be surprising though is that in the UK, figures released in April 2018 highlighted young people aged 15-25 as a group in which loneliness was most common. In Australia (where research into loneliness is more limited), a 2015 survey found one in eight young people aged 16–25 reported a very high intensity of loneliness.
Rachel Cohen, a psychologist from the Black Dog Institute, says, “With social media we are more connected, but what is the quality of that connection? It’s the quality of our relationships that count. It’s not to say social networking is bad at all – there is plenty of positive in it – but you need to use it concurrently with face-to-face interaction. If it’s your sole mechanism for connecting with people, it’s going to feel somewhat hollow and not fulfil that basic need we have.”
“As well, a lot of people are comparing themselves to others, who are only posting their ‘highlight reel’. Even if you have just come away from a face-to-face social interaction, social media can very quickly make you feel dissatisfied with your own life and your own social engagements.”
Interestingly, research has also found loneliness to be a modestly heritable trait which affects how distressed social disconnection makes you feel – but environment tends to play a larger role. Social isolation, living alone, the recent death of a loved one and health issues are all situations that may result in a person experiencing loneliness.
Physiological effects of loneliness
Loneliness is not just a social issue, it also affects our health – so much so that the Australian government recently announced $46.1 million to be invested into combating the issue. So how bad can it be? Increased blood pressure, cholesterol and risk of developing cardiovascular disease, plus reduced brain function, are all side-effects of loneliness. In fact, overall, loneliness can increase our likelihood of earlier death by 26%.
Research indicates that loneliness takes a toll on our mental health too. What’s tricky is that if you already have a mental health issue, the chance you will feel lonely is increased, while feeling lonely can also negatively impact the severity of various mental health symptoms.
“There’s definitely a bi-directional relationship, especially if you are feeling more depressed or anxious you may have thoughts that make it harder for you to reach out or interact with other people - then you start to behave in a way that isolates yourself more. So, it’s this vicious cycle. If you’re not feeling well, you isolate more, then you feel more lonely,” says Rachel.
Loneliness increases depressive symptoms as well as perceived stress, the ability to regulate stress, fear of negative evaluation, anxiety, and anger, while diminishing optimism and self-esteem.
How to reduce loneliness
It’s clear that reducing loneliness has obvious health benefits, but this can be difficult to tackle when we are not at our best. In Australia we are only just starting to undertake the research required to develop evidence-based solutions. In the meantime, it’s not as simple as surrounding yourself with as many people as possible – we need meaningful connections.
“Some people need deep conversations, and for some that’s not it at all – it’s about bonding around something they share a common interest in,” Rachel says. “Others just need someone to sit next to on the couch in silence and it’s comfortable. It’s about knowing what fulfils that social need for you – when do you feel your need is met?”
Below are some practical ways to start tackling those feelings of loneliness.
1. Make contact with othersWhen you are feeling your most lonely, you doubt yourself, feel anxious socially, or are just unmotivated and want to be on your own. It’s almost counter-intuitive to interact with others, but that’s exactly what you need to do. There’s a chance you have been turning down opportunities to socialise without even realising it. “Look into your existing social networks first,” says Rachel. “It may be that the way you are interacting with them, the nature of the conversations you are having or the type of people you are with aren’t fulfilling that need for you. There might be some problem-solving you need to do.”
Put yourself out there, no matter how uncomfortable you may feel – chatting to the cashier at the supermarket or organising to meet up with a friend you haven’t seen in a while can have positive effects. The prevalence of loneliness means those people are likely to have experienced it too.
The fast-paced nature of today’s world means we often miss opportunities – however insignificant they seem – to engage with people, Rachel notes. “Those little daily interactions may seem insignificant but what they are doing is adding to your fuel tank – and that’s what keeps you more resilient and robust against isolation and loneliness.”
2. Get involved with the communityBoth rural and urban areas have programs which help people stay connected, whether through sport, walking, music, cooking or art. A great place to start is by seeing what is available around you and connect with like-minded people who share similar interests. You never know, you may unlock a hidden talent in the process!
3. VolunteeringVolunteering allows us to make meaningful connections with people while establishing a sense of purpose. Research has shown the benefits of regular volunteering in reducing feelings of loneliness so why not give it a go? “You’re doing something beyond yourself which is even more satisfying,” says Rachel. Volunteering Australia is the national peak body and allows you to search for available positions based on your skills and location.
4. Online groups
The internet offers a plethora of people from all over Australia that we can connect with instantly from the comfort of our own space. Facebook’s discover section allows you to browse groups by topic and covers everything from ‘sport and fitness’ to ‘science, technology and math’, so you are bound to find something that interests you. If you are living in a rural area you can even try creating your own.
Meetup is another site that offers similar groups – the goal, though, is to organise offline meetings, participating in activities that align to everyone’s interests.
“If you’re not in an environment that supports meeting people, it can be very difficult. Meetup gives opportunity to expand your social groups and meet with like-minded people that you might not be able to access in your day to day.”
“It doesn’t need to be a best friend to meet that need, you just need to start striking up those interactions and see where it goes.”
For young people, Reach Out Forums provide a supportive, safe and anonymous space where you can chat to people who are experiencing similar feelings as you.
Remember that if you do arrange to meet up with anyone you’ve met online, make sure you’ve taken safety precautions such as finding out as much as possible about them and choosing several safe and well-lit public places to meet.
5. AnimalsPets, especially dogs, provide constant companionship and unconditional love – plus their need to be kept active gets you out of the house when you’re feeling down, Rachel points out. “They get you active and non-avoiding, while giving you a sense of purpose because you need to care for something beyond yourself.”
While tips like these can be a great start, don’t be afraid to seek help if you are really struggling with the negative feelings of loneliness. Speak to your GP, who may give you a referral to see a mental health professional.
If you or someone you know is in crisis please call one of the following national helplines:
LIFELINE COUNSELLING SERVICE - 13 11 14
SUICIDE CALL BACK SERVICE 1300 659 467 (cost of a local call)