Understanding loneliness

Medically reviewed by Andrea Brant, LMHC
Updated January 17, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team
A woman in a sweater is standing up next to a window, and she has a forlorn expression on her face.
Struggling with feeling lonely and isolated?

There's a difference between being physically alone and feeling alone. We can often spend time alone and not feel lonely. By contrast, sometimes we can be in a crowd of people, even a group of people we care about, and still feel alone. In other words, loneliness doesn't always coincide with physically being alone. 

Loneliness is a common emotion that most people feel occasionally. However, if you're feeling alone often, or if that feeling is affecting your ability to function, it could be a sign that loneliness has become a bigger issue. Prolonged loneliness can lead to stress, depression, and other potential negative health consequences

By understanding how to recognize the feeling of loneliness and what you can do to address it, you can improve your mental well-being, both when you are alone and when you are with others. This article discusses loneliness and gives you some tools for addressing it. 

Why do I feel alone?

Many life situations can lead you to feel lonely. Periods of life change are times when many people are especially prone to feeling lonely. For example, you may feel especially lonely when you move to a new place, start a new job, or end a relationship. In these situations, you often lose your previous support systems and may find yourself looking for new people to spend time with and depend upon. You may feel lonely in these situations for a while, but the feelings generally subside once you get used to your new circumstances. However, big life changes aren't the only possible causes for feelings of loneliness. 

Often, when we say, "I feel lonely," what we are actually saying is, "I feel misunderstood," "I don't feel seen," or "I don't feel heard." If you're feeling alone even when you're around other people, this might be what's happening inside.

Maybe your family, friends, or romantic partner doesn't seem to understand what you're going through. You might be in a situation they've never been in before, such as dealing with a mental or physical health condition, divorce, or other major life change. Even if they have compassion, they may not fully get it, which can feel lonely. 

Other possible reasons someone might feel alone include feeling like they haven't yet found their place in the world or feeling different from the people they're surrounded by. Maybe your friends are suddenly in a life stage that feels different from your own. Perhaps you haven't found the career, hobbies, activities, or communities that make you feel satisfied and welcomed. You might be going through a time where you feel lost or without a strong sense of self. Maybe you have changed as a person or left a situation where you didn't feel like you could fully be yourself. This can be a great time for discovery, but it can feel isolating too. 

Regardless of why you feel alone, it can be an unpleasant experience, and you're likely ready to move on from it.


Signs that you feel lonely

Maybe you don't realize you're engaging in activities designed to dodge loneliness. Or you're not feeling your best and are starting to suspect that it could, in part, be due to withdrawal from other people or due to feeling lonely. Below are some potential signs that an individual might feel lonely.

Elevated stress levels

Positive social relationships are correlated with lower stress levels, so it makes sense that elevated stress levels often accompany loneliness. If you feel lonely, you might notice physical or mental signs of stress, like clenching your jaw, trouble sleeping, or aches and pains. 

Excessively checking social media

Social media can be a wonderful way to connect with people, but it does not entirely replace face-to-face interactions. If you're feeling lonely in a relationship, whether a friendship or a romantic relationship, you may want to step back and look at how much real-world time you are actually spending with the people you care about. Sometimes, constantly scrolling through social media is an indication that you are not actually very close to your friends and family or, if you are close, that you're missing a certain kind of understanding they can't provide.

Alternatively, it could be that you're not around people physically. For example, you might be engaging in social isolation or withdrawing from other people due to feeling down, anxious, or because of something else that's going on. Studies show limiting social media usage can decrease loneliness and increase overall well-being for some people. Spending less time scrolling your feeds might actually help you feel more connected. 

Spending money

Spending money on inanimate objects can be a sign of loneliness. Studies have shown that so-called "retail therapy" can give our brains a boost. It's okay to do this in moderation, but if you find yourself substituting shopping for connection or other healthier ways to boost your mood, this may be a sign you're living with loneliness or another mental health condition. 

Struggling with feeling lonely and isolated?

What to do when you are lonely

When you recognize that you feel lonely, you can take steps to mitigate it. If feelings of loneliness are unmanageable or persistent or you're experiencing other physical or mental symptoms, consider reaching out to a qualified professional for help. 

Allow your feelings to be felt

Sometimes, we try to hide or avoid acknowledging our negative emotions, thinking that it will make them disappear if we don't look at them. Unfortunately, repressing emotions can be unhealthy and even lead to uncomfortable physical symptoms. 

It's important to acknowledge your authentic feelings, whether you are having difficulty being alone or feeling lonely even with others around. Identifying and validating your feelings can help you take the next step. In acknowledging loneliness, you may also notice other feelings that could be valuable to address, such as pain, anger, or sadness. 

Practice self-love

When we feel lonely, we are missing the love and companionship of other people, which can make us forget to love ourselves. The practice of self-love, in some ways, simply means taking care of yourself. Often, we don't do the things for ourselves that we would do for others to make them feel better when they are down or are feeling lost and alone. Even if one of the things you need or crave is to find people you can relate to, it can help to treat yourself the way you would treat a friend. Be kind to yourself and practice self-soothing activities. Get in touch with your needs and brainstorm ways to meet them. It may seem strange, but these are things that you can give yourself. 

For example, one 2012 study showed that when people who were feeling lonely did things that warmed them up, the physical warmth created the same good feelings as emotional warmth from another person. You can try snuggling up in a blanket, taking a hot bath, or drinking a hot beverage. You can also try physically wrapping your arms around yourself to give yourself a hug.

Sometimes, when we practice self-love, we also learn what we need from other people and can take steps toward being more vulnerable and open when it comes to our needs. So practicing self-love will likely come in handy not just when you're alone but also when you are around others or setting out to meet new people. 

Build new thought patterns

Sometimes, feelings of loneliness can pair with maladaptive thought patterns. For example, you might notice that you are engaging in all-or-nothing thoughts, personalization, or catastrophizing. An example of a maladaptive thought related to loneliness could be "no one will ever like me." 

There are things you can do to address this and build new thought patterns. Thought reframing is one helpful skill many discover when working with a therapist. An example of reframing in this context could be, "I haven't met every person I'll meet in this lifetime, so I don't actually know if it's true that no one will ever like me."

Meet people who understand

Sometimes, loneliness is about not having people in your life who truly understand you or, in some cases, who truly understand a specific part of you and your life. One way to try to address this is to consider your answer to this question: Who do you want to be around, and what kind of people are they? Once you know the answer to that question, you can start to figure out where to find people like you. 

Maybe you won't always have the answer right away, but there could be something specific you're missing. For example, you might be a part of the LGBTQIA+ community, but you might not have any friends that are as well, or you might not be able to be out to people in your daily life. That can feel lonely. This is a circumstance where spaces like a local GSA or support groups might be beneficial. 

Try volunteering 

Giving to others is actually a great way to feel connected. Think of something you can do to help your family or community and consider doing it. Giving back to your community is one possible way to build meaning and purpose in your life, and research shows that people who volunteer are often happier and feel less lonely

Develop your personal goals and interests

Once you've looked at your strengths and interests, it's time to make some goals for them. Having goals keeps you focused on what you really want, and having a focus to return to can keep you out of the mindset of feeling all alone.

This could relate to work and your career, hobbies, or something else. Maybe there's something you loved to do as a child that you haven't had time for in your adult life, but now you can revisit it. Or it could be that there's something that you've always wanted to try but haven't yet. 

Regardless of what your personal goals and interests are, diving into them can help daily life feel more enjoyable and significant. Learning new things can feel empowering and boost your mood or confidence. This could also help you meet new people with similar goals and interests. 

Address underlying causes

It's important to note that trying different tips and techniques for alleviating loneliness may not work if underlying issues aren't being addressed. If there's a potential underlying cause for your feelings of loneliness, such as social anxiety, complicated grief, depression, or other mental health conditions, you may need to address that to address the loneliness. A mental health professional who provides talk therapy may be able to support you, help you recognize underlying causes, and find the solutions that work for you as a unique individual. 

Seek professional help

If you feel lonely often, it may be time to reach out to a therapist or another experienced specialist. A trusted and qualified professional can help you overcome barriers to connecting with others and provide a safe place to practice being open about yourself. In therapy, you can also address matters like feeling misunderstood, symptoms of depression, or anything else that's going on in your life. 

You can seek out a professional in your area or sign up through a reputable online platform that connects you with licensed, independent therapists and counselors, such as BetterHelp. Feelings of isolation or loneliness can be painful and may impact the body and mind, making it difficult to attend in-person therapy. With online therapy, you can attend sessions from wherever you're most comfortable (as long as there's internet). 

Research shows that those who experience loneliness and related emotions can benefit from online therapy platforms. A study published in Behavior Therapy, a peer-reviewed academic journal, found that Internet-based cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) can soothe feelings of loneliness. The study specifically notes a correlation between the amount of time participants spent in therapy and a decrease in loneliness, and an increase in quality of life. Online CBT programs provide the tools to help reframe intrusive thoughts that can create a sense of isolation, making way for stronger relationships and better social connections.

Read the reviews below to see what people are saying about the providers on the BetterHelp platform.

Therapist reviews

"Jeni is one of a kind. She is caring, compassionate, professional, respectful, easy to talk to, and she makes you feel like you are not alone. When we are communicating, whether it be via email or video sessions, she always makes herself seem relate-able. I really enjoy working with her and think she is great at her profession!"

"I would recommend Ashley to everyone seeking help. She asks the right questions and lets you know you are not alone, and she validates your feelings. I felt like I was hanging on by my fingernails, and in a few weeks, I have calmed and been able to step back and look at my situation."


Feeling lonely may be overwhelming or painful, but it does not have to last forever. With care, you can find relief.
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