According to the American Psychological Association, loneliness is the “affective and cognitive discomfort or uneasiness from being or perceiving oneself to be alone or otherwise solitary”. Experiencing this feeling from time to time is not uncommon, but chronic loneliness—or feeling persistently lonely over a period of time—can be debilitating and may negatively affect an individual’s physical and mental health. Read on to learn more about what chronic loneliness is, the effects it can have on a person’s well-being, and tips for dealing with it in a healthy way.
What Is Chronic Loneliness?
As outlined in the definition above, loneliness doesn’t always come from having no one around. It can also result from the perception of being alone or not having support or a sense of community. In other words, even if you’re surrounded by other people daily, you could still experience loneliness if you don’t feel that you have a particularly close emotional bond with anyone.
Chronic loneliness is often characterized by some or all of the following:
- Being unable to feel connected with others
- Difficulty sleeping
- Feelings of social isolation
- Feelings of self-doubt and low self-worth
- Exhaustion and burnout
Being chronically lonely can result from a variety of factors. First, an individual’s circumstances often play a role. For example, someone may experience persistent loneliness after a divorce, the loss of a spouse, friend, or family, or moving to a new place where they don’t know anyone—especially if the culture and/or language are unfamiliar. Chronic loneliness can also be connected to a disability or other serious health conditions, such as one that causes low energy levels or inability for an individual to leave the house.
Potential Impacts Of Chronic Loneliness
Chronic loneliness can have negative effects on an individual’s physical and mental health. These can include the following.
Chronic loneliness may contribute to the development of insomnia and/or other sleep disorders. For instance, some research suggests that loneliness can lead to decreased sleep quality. While this can result in direct effects like low energy and drowsiness, it can also contribute to more significant, lasting problems over the long term. The Division of Sleep Medicine at Harvard Medical School reports that insufficient sleep, especially over a long period, can have many adverse consequences, such as poor learning abilities, decreased retention of information, poor judgment, and a higher likelihood of being involved in serious accidents.
Mental Health Issues
Loneliness has strong associations with depression. A person experiencing chronic loneliness may become depressed, or the reverse may be true: A person experiencing depression may withdraw socially because of their other symptoms and become lonely as a result. As an article on the topic reports, studies show that “loneliness is a stronger predictor of mental health than mental health is a predictor of loneliness”. In other words, while a mental health condition can lead to an increase in feelings of loneliness, social connectedness can benefit mental health.
Loneliness could also lead to other mental health conditions such as anxiety, low self-esteem, or high stress levels. Any of these conditions could lead to long-term effects or suffering if left unchecked.
A Lower Life Expectancy
Chronic loneliness can also serve as a contributing factor to a reduction in an individuals’ life expectancy. Some research suggests that loneliness could shorten a person’s lifespan by several years. Loneliness can also affect a person’s physical health by contributing to excess weight gain or high blood pressure. Researchers note, however, that “identification and management of loneliness may increase years of life”.
Susceptibility To Disease
Recent studies report that the risk of dementia for individuals who experience social isolation is 50% higher than for those who do not. Chronic loneliness and social isolation can also increase the risk of certain physical health conditions, such as heart disease and stroke. In fact, research has uncovered a correlation between insufficient social relationships and a 29% increased risk of heart disease and a 32% increased risk of stroke. With feelings of social isolation linked to these risks, finding a healthy support group could be lifesaving.
Tips For Addressing Feelings Of Loneliness
Of course, seeking out methods of connecting with others is usually recommended for those who consistently feel lonely, but this can often be easier said than done. With chronic loneliness in particular, the prospect of putting oneself out there socially can become increasingly daunting over time. In addition to considering meeting your neighbors, connecting with old friends and family members, or joining a sports league, book club, or hobby group to get to know new people and make casual friends, there are other techniques you can try to manage and potentially decrease feelings of loneliness.
Be Mindful Of Social Media Use
One study reports that “problematic social media use”—which was primarily measured in terms of frequency—is associated with both loneliness and social anxiety. In other words, the more time a person spends on social media, the more risk they may be at for feeling lonely. One reason is that people tend to post the highlights of their lives on social media, often making it look to others like they’re always thriving and are constantly surrounded by dozens of friends. Comparing oneself to these representations can cause a wave of negative feelings to occur, lead to dissatisfaction with one’s own life and to social withdrawal as a result. The time an individual spends browsing social media could also take away from time they might spend with existing friends, or time that could be spent engaging in activities to form a new connection. If you’re experiencing loneliness and also spend a large portion of your time on social media, it may be worth cutting back somewhat and seeing how you feel.
Volunteering for a cause you’re passionate about can give you the opportunity to connect with like-minded people who also support that cause. However, that’s not the only reason that giving of your time can help counteract feelings of loneliness. One study, for example, suggests that those who volunteer self-report greater levels of both health and happiness. The researchers hypothesize that it could be due to the fact that volunteering can increase empathy, shift aspirations, and change a person’s mood and perspective of their own situation. They also note that the act of giving money does not seem to offer the same benefits. So if you’re experiencing loneliness, finding ways to do good for other people—whether formally in a volunteer role or more informally, such as by completing random acts of kindness—may help.
For some people, low self-esteem is what holds them back from forming new social relationships. Prolonged loneliness may also negatively impact self-esteem levels, meaning that implementing techniques to try and improve this measure can be beneficial. Practicing self-compassion is one strategy to try, which entails “entails treating oneself with kindness, recognizing one’s humanity, and being mindful when considering negative aspects of oneself”. Engaging in more positive self-talk can be an important element of this. You might also work on setting realistic goals and achieving them and learning to set boundaries.
Speak With A Therapist
If you’re concerned about long term feelings of loneliness that you may be experiencing, it can also be worthwhile to consider speaking with a health care professional, such as a counselor. If your feelings of loneliness are the result of a mental health condition, they can offer strategies for managing your symptoms. If they’re due to low self-esteem, loss, or other reasons, they can provide support, a safe place to express your emotions, and techniques for self-care and coping with difficult feelings.
Research suggests that both in-person and online therapy can offer similar benefits in most cases, which means that most people can choose whichever format they prefer. If you’re looking for a more convenient or cost-effective option, you might consider online counseling. With a virtual therapy platform like BetterHelp, you can get matched with a licensed therapist who you can meet with via phone, video call, and/or online chat to address the challenges you may be facing. See below for reviews of BetterHelp counselors from clients who have experienced similar issues.
"Shelley is very accommodating, gentle and encouraging. No matter what place I was in, she tries to make me comfortable exactly where that is. She is the comforting soul that keep me company in a lonely place. I look forward to each of our session, and I'm given weekly takeaways to reflect on that helps tremendously, step by step, week by week. Learning to love yourself, learning to love your time spent, these are not always the easiest thing to do, but it's a lifelong process. Shelley is the perfect guide."
"Jenny has thoroughly helped me realize things about myself that I would have not been able to alone. She keeps things personable while remaining professional. She has created a safe and trusting environment and I'm grateful that BetterHelp has such an amazing counselor!"
Many of us feel lonely from time to time, but persistent or chronic loneliness may be cause for concern. Since it can correlate with both mental and physical health problems, considering some of the strategies outlined above for managing loneliness may be worthwhile.
What is chronic loneliness?
Chronic loneliness is a feeling of persistent and ongoing discomfort due to being or perceiving yourself as alone or without meaningful support.
Is chronic loneliness a condition?
“Chronic loneliness” is a term used to describe feelings of loneliness that persist over a long period of time. While it is not considered a specific mental health condition, research shows chornic loneliness can lead to or exacerbate symptoms of mental health conditions such as depression and anxiety.
What is the difference between loneliness and chronic loneliness?
Standard feelings of loneliness are typically short-term and ease upon participating in social interaction, while chronic loneliness is experienced long-term and often persists even when interacting with others.
How do you recover from chronic loneliness?
Recovering from chronic loneliness is possible through the improvement of one's social and emotional well-being. Some helpful recovery techniques include being mindful of social media use, as it can exacerbate feelings of isolation, volunteering for a cause you're passionate about to connect with others, working on self-esteem through self-compassion and positive self-talk, and considering therapy with a healthcare professional whether in-person or online.
What are the side effects of chronic loneliness?
Chronic loneliness can have a pround effect on both the mind and body. It is strongly associated with certain conditions including insomnia, depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, and high stress levels. Additionally, chronic loneliness may increease susceptibility to diseases such as dementia, heart disease, and stroke.
What are the three types of loneliness?
- Emotional Isolation: Characterized by the lack of significant and fulfilling relationships.
- Social Isolation: Involves perceived shortcomings in the depth and quality of relationships, causing the individual to feel isolated.
- Existential Isolation: A sensation of profound detachment from both fellow individuals and the broader universe.
Is being a loner a mental illness?
Prefering solitude or enjoying time alone is not a mental health condtion. However, if feelings of lonliness point to symptoms of depression, anxiety, or overall feelings of isolation and low self-worth, this may be a sign of an underlying mental illness.
How many people suffer from chronic loneliness?
A study published in 2021 revealed nearly 36% of American adults report experiencing “serious loneliness”.
Is chronic loneliness genetic?
Research in genetics suggests that loneliness can be passed down through genes to some extent, meaning that chronic loneliness may run in families. Additionally, the type of genes you have can interact with your social environment. For example, if you have genes that make you more sensitive to feeling lonely and you don't have strong social support, you might feel even lonelier.
Why do I feel lonely for no reason?
It can be challenging to deal with feeling loney for seemingly no reason. If you are having trouble finding an obvious reason for feeling lonely, this may be a sign of an underlying mental health condition such as depression or anxiety. Additionally, feeling lonely can be the result of big life changes such as moving, changing careers, and others.
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