What Do I Do When My Loneliness is Overwhelming?

Medically reviewed by Jerry Crimmins, PsyD, LP
Updated January 20, 2023by BetterHelp Editorial Team

recent report published by The Harvard Graduate School of Education suggests that 36% of all Americans, including 61% of young adults and 51% of mothers with young children, feel profound loneliness. While loneliness may mean different things to different people, it is officially defined by the APA as “affective and cognitive discomfort or uneasiness from being or perceiving oneself to be alone or otherwise solitary.”

Loneliness can be a complicated emotion, making it difficult to manage for many. For instance, while many associate the term loneliness with being physically isolated from others, some individuals experience loneliness when surrounded by others. 

Also, people often react to depression (one of the primary symptoms of loneliness) by further isolating themselves from others and continuing the cycle of loneliness. For many people experiencing loneliness, reaching out and connecting with a professional who can provide insights and coping strategies for better managing those feelings can be essential.

Loneliness Can Be A Complicated Emotion

The Physical Ramifications Of Loneliness

Being alone doesn’t necessarily cause loneliness. Some individuals enjoy time alone. However, too much social isolation can have debilitating effects on mental and physical health. 

Some experts claim the health risks associated with loneliness are more significant than those that receive more public attention, such as physical inactivity or air pollution. Studies have also shown that chronic loneliness may trigger the “fight or flight” response in our brains, negatively impacting the immune system and leading to higher inflammation levels.

Feeling Lonely When Surrounded By Others

Being around others doesn’t always provide relief from loneliness. Feeling connected to others may depend upon a few factors, including relatability and perceptions of social ostracization. 

For instance, if you’re passionate about art but those who surround you are only interested in sports, it may be challenging to establish a conversation based on connection. If you want to discuss world news or social matters, but everyone around you avoids similar topics, it may make you feel isolated and as if you “don’t belong” with the group.

Additionally, some mental health conditions and disabilities may lead to loneliness if you aren’t connected with others who understand your symptoms or conditions. 

Potential Underlying Causes Of Loneliness

The above examples show how one may feel loneliness around others. However, feelings of loneliness can also be a subjective experience independent of exposure to others. Some may assume that loneliness is a cause of mental health conditions, such as depression or anxiety. However, some people feel lonely because they’re already experiencing a mental health crisis, and loneliness is a listed symptom. 

This type of loneliness may become severe if the root cause remains untreated. For example, some people who have experienced trauma originating in childhood are much more susceptible to feelings of loneliness in adulthood. 

Loneliness caused by trauma may be dangerous because it might perpetuate a cycle of mental health issues. When an individual experiences a traumatic event that results in feelings of isolation, that isolation could produce more associated symptoms such as depression and anxiety. If untreated, this cycle may result in severe symptoms of depression, anxiety, or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). 

If you feel your loneliness may stem from trauma, consider reaching out to a mental health professional as soon as possible to discuss your symptoms. 

Loneliness, The Elderly, And The Marginalized

Research suggests that groups that are considered marginalized are often highly impacted by loneliness and isolation. These groups include but aren’t limited to, people in the LGBT community, the homeless, and those with physical or mental disabilities. Social status, gender, racial or ethnic minority status, and age may also impact the likelihood of loneliness.

Loneliness and isolation are common among older adults. A news report from the CDC states that “more than one-third of adults aged 45 and older feel lonely, and nearly one-fourth of adults aged 65 and older are considered socially isolated”. 

Several additional studies indicate that isolation may be especially mentally and physically dangerous for this group. Many of these studies find that loneliness directly correlates to higher risks in people over 55 for conditions such as cognitive declinehigh blood pressureobesityheart disease, and more.

Social Media And Loneliness

In the informational age, connecting with others from anywhere at any time can be easy. As a result, some may feel companionship with individuals they have never met in person. Some may also feel as if they’re more connected with friends and family because they can keep in contact through social media platforms like Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. 

However, for others, the reality behind those perceptions may not be what they expect. There are two opposing hypotheses regarding whether online communication contributes to, or detracts from, feelings of loneliness.

Displacement Hypothesis 

The displacement hypothesis predicts that online communication negatively affects well-being and detracts from the time spent with friends in person. The hypothesis further states that neglecting these in-person relationships may reduce friendship quality.

Stimulation Hypothesis 

The stimulation hypothesis predicts that online interactions increase the frequency of communication with existing friends, leading to feelings of connection and well-being. Furthermore, the hypothesis indicates that the quality of these relationships may improve due to increased contact.

2007 study by Patti M. Valkenburg and Jochen Peter from the University of Amsterdam surveyed the internet usage of Dutch teenagers between ten and 17 years old to test both hypotheses. The researchers found “support for the stimulation hypothesis but not for the displacement hypothesis.”

Further, they uncovered “a moderating effect of type of online communication on adolescents’ well-being,” which was instant messaging. They stated it was primarily used to communicate with existing friends and positively predicted well-being via the mediating variables of time spent with existing friends and the quality of friendships.

These findings suggest that feelings of loneliness associated with online usage may depend upon the platform used and the amount of time spent communicating online. While online communication may benefit specific individuals, it may not treat loneliness alone. 

Loneliness Can Be A Complicated Emotion

Strategies For Coping With Loneliness

Because there is no single type of loneliness, there are different approaches to treating the causes and symptoms associated with isolation and loneliness:

The Group Approach

The group approach is based on the idea that seeking out groups of like-minded people may help encourage those feeling isolated to get out and interact with others. If you have a passion or a hobby, it can “break the ice” and make it easier to connect with others. This hobby may be valuable for those who tend to feel isolated within groups of people due to a lack of common interests.

You might also try a support or therapy group to meet with others who have experienced similar symptoms or life occurrences as you. 

The Environmental Approach

Environmental approaches often focus on helping adults over 50 and those with difficulties leaving their homes. They look to help those experiencing loneliness at the community level and may include community awareness programs

The Individual Approach

Individual approaches often utilize therapeutic treatment for mental health issues related to isolation and loneliness. For example, therapists may use cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) or psychodynamic therapies to help patients uncover the causes of loneliness and develop the tools they need to cope with it.

Consider Online Counseling

Regardless of the source of your loneliness, therapy is often beneficial for treating loneliness. Even if you feel that you can “deal with it” on your own, the potential damage that isolation and loneliness may cause to physical and mental health could be a compelling reason to speak to a therapist.

For some, feelings associated with isolation and loneliness may create barriers to visiting a therapist in person. For instance, feelings of anxiety commonly associated with loneliness can make encountering others in a therapist’s office uncomfortable. Some feel awkward about speaking to a traditional therapist due to the perceived social stigma that sometimes surrounds loneliness.

Online therapy is an option for people who are uncomfortable speaking to a therapist in person. It allows the patient to connect with a therapist online from the comfort of home or anywhere with an internet connection via video conference, phone call, or live messaging. Research shows that online therapy is just as effective as traditional therapy. Additionally, because it removes some common barriers associated with visiting a therapist in person, patients engaged in online counseling are often more likely to follow through with treatment.

Takeaway

Loneliness may harm your physical and mental health when left untreated. Suppose you’re ready to speak to a mental health professional about loneliness but aren’t yet ready to meet in person. In that case, a platform like BetterHelp can match you with a licensed, accredited therapist.

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