Feeling alone can happen anywhere. Loneliness, however, does not always coincide with physically being alone, and many people may wonder "why am I so alone?" even when surrounded by others. This can be due to a lack of deep, meaningful connections or feeling disconnected from those around us. In fact, we are often capable of spending time alone with ourselves and not feeling lonely. By contrast, sometimes we can be in a crowd of people, even a group of people we care about, and still feel alone. If that’s the case, what does it really mean when we say that we feel alone or lonely?
Loneliness is a common emotion that most people feel occasionally. However, if you’re feeling alone too often, or if that feeling is affecting your ability to function, loneliness may have become an issue in your life. When that happens, 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. Below is a discussion to help you understand loneliness and to give you some tools for addressing this issue if it is affecting your life.
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, when you move to a new place, start a new job, or end a relationship, you may feel especially lonely. In these situations, you often have lost the support systems you previously had in place, and may find yourself looking for new people to spend time with and depend upon. You may feel lonely in these situations for a little while, but usually you can adjust to your circumstances and start to feel better. However, big life changes aren’t the only possible causes for feelings of loneliness.
Often, when we say, “I feel lonely,” what we can actually be saying is, “I feel misunderstood,” “I don’t feel seen nor heard,” or “I'm feeling unappreciated.” If you’re feeling alone even when you are around other people, this might be what’s going on inside. Maybe your family, your friends, or even a romantic partner doesn’t seem to understand what you’re going through. You might be in a situation that they’ve never been in before, such as dealing with a mental or physical health condition, for example, or maybe you’re going through a divorce or other major life change, whereas they haven’t been through those things. 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 one hasn’t yet found their place in the world, or feeling different from the people one is 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 you left a situation where you didn’t feel as though you were able to 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 sensation to experience, and it’s likely that you’re ready to move on from it.
Signs That You Feel Lonely
Maybe you don't even realize that 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 thought to be correlated with lower stress levels, so it does make sense that elevated stress levels are often affiliated with 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 is 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 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 other healthy ways to boost your mood, this may be a sign of an issue that you need to address.
What To Do When You Are Lonely
When you start to recognize that you feel lonely, you can take steps to mitigate it. If sensations of loneliness are unmanageable, persistent, or if they pair with other symptoms, consider reaching out to a professional who is qualified to give personalized guidance. A professional can give you guidance if you wish to never feel lonely again.
Allow Your Feelings To Be Felt
Sometimes, we try to hide or avoid acknowledging our negative emotions, thinking that it will make them go away if we just don't look at them. Unfortunately, repressing emotions can be unhealthy, and can even lead to uncomfortable physical symptoms.
It’s important to acknowledge your authentic feelings, whether you are having difficulty being by yourself, or whether you feel lonely even with others around. Identifying and validating that you feel this way 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.
When we feel lonely we are missing the love and companionship of other people, and this can make us forget to love ourselves. You have a lot of options for exercising self-love, and practicing self-love comes with a lot of benefits. 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 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. Some things you can try are snuggling up in a blanket, taking a hot bath, or drinking a hot beverage. You can also try physically wrapping your arms around yourself and giving yourself a hug.
Sometimes, when we practice self-love, we also learn what we need from other people and are able to 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 that a lot of people 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 being 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.
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 go back to helps keep you out of the mindset of feeling all alone.
This could relate to work and your career, to your hobbies, or to 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, if you can find individuals or a group who are interested in the same things.
Address Underlying Causes
It’s important to note that trying different tips and techniques for alleviating loneliness may not work if there are underlying issues that 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 condition, you may need address that in order 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 to overcome barriers to connecting with others, and they can provide a safe place for you 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.
Research shows that those who experience loneliness and related emotions can benefit from the resources and counseling services provided by 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 that there was a correlation between the amount of time participants spent in therapy and a decrease in loneliness, as well as 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.
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 as well as the mind, and they can affect anyone. Understand that you’re not on your own, and that help is available to address whatever might be ailing you.
Read the reviews below to see what people are saying about the providers on the BetterHelp platform.
"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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