An Overview Of Chronic Loneliness
By: Samantha Dewitt
Updated January 15, 2021
Medically Reviewed By: Juan Angel
Loneliness is defined as "a complex and usually unpleasant emotional response to isolation." Many of us can underestimate just how dangerous and insidious loneliness can be. The fact of the matter is that chronic loneliness can be debilitating, and in the worst cases, it can even be life-threatening. Interactions with other human beings are important to having a healthy, whole, and happy life. But what can you do if you've been isolated or have felt lonely for an extended time, even years?
What is Chronic Loneliness?
Chronic loneliness doesn't mean that you're simply alone or that no one is around you. Rather, it means that you feel like you are entirely alone and have no one to support you; sometimes it is more a perception than a reality. You could be constantly surrounded by people and still feel like you are lonely. If you experience any of the following symptoms, you may be experiencing chronic loneliness.
- Inability to connect with others
- No close friends
- Feelings of isolation
- Feelings of self-doubt and low self-worth
- Exhaustion and burnout
While these may indicate that you have chronic loneliness, if you can identify these signs, then you can reach out for help. There is a great deal that you can do to improve your outlook- including counseling.
A Closer Look At Chronic Loneliness
Contrary to popular belief, there is a very clear distinction between loneliness and being alone. Loneliness is deeper than simply feeling alienated from other people. Being alone involves being without human company, but in most cases, loneliness goes deeper than one's surroundings. Someone can be in a room full of happy, cheerful people and still feel lonely.
Chronic loneliness is, furthermore, linked to negative internal struggles, such as low self-esteem, embarrassment, and insufficiency. Individuals who experience chronic loneliness struggle with developing healthy relationships, connecting with other people, and thriving in situations that involve social interactions. Certain individuals may even isolate themselves intentionally out of fear, which only serves to worsen the already serious affliction of chronic loneliness.
What Triggers Chronic Loneliness?
There are several factors, which can trigger chronic loneliness. First and foremost comes genetics. Someone who comes from a family where certain members have struggled with loneliness may find themselves more susceptible to the affliction. This does not mean that every person with struggling relatives will experience this; it simply means that genetics and heredity can, and sometimes does, impact whether or not one experiences chronic loneliness.
Another potential cause of chronic loneliness can be environmental and situational circumstances. Sometimes painful events in one's life, such as divorce or the death of a friend or family member, can trigger loneliness. Loneliness can be, and often is, a part of the normal grieving process. However, trouble may arise when it persists unrelentingly or when one refuses to engage in healthy interactions with other people after the event. Human beings have sought out one another for hundreds of years. Isolation and alienation, like chronic loneliness, can have incredibly adverse impacts on the human psyche and mental health.
Unfortunately, the existence of chronic loneliness can also be indicative of a bigger issue. Extreme chronic loneliness is often symptomatic of other mental health issues, such as ADHD, schizophrenia, hallucinations, delusions, depression, or thoughts of suicide. It is very important for anyone who experiences chronic loneliness to understand that they are not at fault, and with time and possible treatment, they can recover.
Impacts Of Chronic Loneliness
Like other negative states of being, chronic loneliness has no positive effects. The obvious downsides are well-documented. However, the after-effects, which can manifest if chronic loneliness persists for too long, require careful observation to fully understand.
Negative Mental Impressions
First, there are detrimental impressions left on the brain. The human brain processes loneliness in the same manner as physical pain. In layman's terms, although human beings may be able to consciously tell the difference between physical distress and the emotional wounds of chronic loneliness, the brain cannot make the distinction. Neurobiological substrates play a huge role in the impressions on the human brain.
Reduction In Life Expectancy
Chronic loneliness can, moreover, serve as a contributing factor to a reduction in life expectancy. Individuals who are frequently lonely or live by themselves are more susceptible to experiencing heart attacks, strokes, or other similarly fatal health traumas. Older adults who habitually feel lonely, isolated, or rejected are also more likely to die sooner than their sociable counterparts.
Susceptibility To Alzheimer's Disease/Dementia
Unfortunately, negative impressions on the brain and a reduction in life expectancy only serve as the tip of the iceberg regarding the severely adverse impacts that chronic loneliness can have on a human being. Individuals who experience chronic loneliness are 50% more likely to be diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease or dementia. There are over three million new cases of dementia annually, and although treatment can counteract some of the symptoms, there is not yet a cure for this mental health issue. Alzheimer's disease sadly targets the brain; many times this ailment halts an individual's memory and ability to perform the most basic tasks, such as eating, getting dressed, or remembering their friends and relatives.
Susceptibility To Heart Disease
Similar to dementia, the existence of chronic loneliness also increases the probability of a person to experience heart disease. The link between the two health issues may not seem readily apparent, but it does exist. This is because some chronically lonely individuals have genes, which differ from their sociable counterparts; their genes undergo a phenomenon, known as overexpression. Over time, overexpression causes trauma and inflammation to the heart's tissues and blood vessels. Ultimately, the damage leads to strokes, heart attacks, and additional cardiovascular ailments.
Susceptibility To Insomnia And Other Sleep Disorders
Similar to social isolation and even retirement, chronic loneliness can trigger insomnia and other sleep disorders, especially in elderly individuals. Not only do chronically lonely people struggle with sleep, but the quality of the sleep that they do manage to get is poor at best. The existence and quality of an individual's sleep are directly linked to how well they function during their waking hours. The Division of Sleep Medicine at Harvard Medical School affirms that insufficient and poor amounts or quality of sleep can have many adverse consequences, such as poor learning abilities, decreased retention of information, poor judgment, and a higher propensity to find oneself in serious accidents.
The bottom line is that chronic loneliness often serves as the gateway to a plethora of unwanted and potentially fatal health issues.
How To Overcome Chronic Loneliness
While the knowledge and understanding of chronic loneliness are critical in today's society, so is the awareness of how to overcome this condition. In the worst-case scenarios, professional treatment may be required, but more often than not, there are certain steps and measures that individuals can take to reduce and, over time, halt the feelings of loneliness altogether.
Connect With Other People
As obvious as it may appear on the surface, connecting with other individuals is one of the best ways to combat feelings of loneliness. Unfortunately, in many cases, this is often easier said than done. Various events can happen in life that may hinder one's ability or comfort with putting themselves out there and getting to know other human beings. This is especially true of individuals who are going through or have recently come out of a traumatic or upsetting life event.
Some of the best ways to connect with other people and alleviate feelings of loneliness are by joining clubs or groups or doing volunteer work. Not only does this put people in contact with others who share similar interests, but becoming part of clubs or volunteering can also help one feel as though they are a part of something bigger than themselves. There are also apps available to make meeting new friends an easier process.
Make Plans to Do Something
While you may feel like just hiding away and doing nothing, getting out there and making some plans can help. When you hide away because you feel lonely, you're often perpetuating a cycle that makes you feel worse. Sometimes it takes pushing yourself outside of your comfort zone to start feeling less lonely and to keep pushing yourself to get out there and do something new.
This can make all the difference in the world and eventually increase one's comfort levels. Attending gatherings and meetings regularly, even if it's only a few times a week, can also provide the individual with something to look forward to. All of this serves as a great deterrent against chronic loneliness.
Avoid Being Critical of Yourself
Finally, give yourself a little bit of grace. Often, a side effect of loneliness is that you tend to be extremely hard on yourself. You might tell yourself that no one wants to be around you because of certain traits, or you might tell yourself you deserve to be lonely because of those traits. Avoid doing this, and instead, practice self-care and give yourself some love. You have great traits, and people will want to spend time with you because of those traits. You just have to be able to see them too. So, any time you start getting too hard on yourself, think of three good things about yourself and focus on those.
What If These Don't Work?
While connecting with other people is often an excellent way to overcome chronic loneliness, sitting down with a counselor or therapist can also make a great difference. Unfortunately, many people have reservations about seeking professional help; sometimes they view it as indicative of weakness, but in reality, it is precisely the opposite. The strongest people alive are the ones who know when they need help and ask for that help. In many cases, it can determine a person's quality of life.
Getting Outside Help
Here at BetterHelp, we pride ourselves on having professionals who are equipped to work with you, regardless of what you may be going through or experiencing. Whether it's chronic loneliness or some other hurdle, the reality of life is that each of us will be faced with battles and other things, which have to be dealt with or overcome. Never allow anyone to tell you that asking for assistance or guidance makes you less of a person.
Online resources such as online cognitive behavioral therapy or group counseling have been shown to help individuals find ways to manage chronic loneliness healthily and maturely. An article published in Behavioral Therapy in 2020 found that these types of interventions were successful in providing individuals with the tools they needed to increase opportunities for social contact. CBT, specifically, was observed to be beneficial for over 70% of participants in CBT-focused interventions. Participants reported a better quality of life and reduced social anxiety.
The benefits and successes that BetterHelp provides in the lives of those who come to us are well-documented and recognized by countless reputable sources. Ultimately, our mission entails helping anyone with life challenges at any time or place. With online counseling, you do not need to go out of your way to drive to a busy office or wait for an appointment when you have a busy schedule. Online therapy is convenient and accessible because it can be done from the comfort of your own home. You can reach out to licensed professionals through phone calls, video conferences, or even live messaging.
Read below for some reviews of BetterHelp counselors, from people experiencing 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!"
There is a great deal that you can do for your future, and you don't have to feel alone. Don't let anything keep you from living the kind of life that you want most. Take the first step today.
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