What is loneliness?

As social beings, most of us feel the need for rewarding social contact and relationships. One common definition of loneliness is that it is the feeling we get when our need for this type of contact is not met.

However, loneliness is not the same as being alone. You might choose to be alone and live happily without much contact with other people. You may have a lot of social contact, or be in a relationship or part of a family and still feel lonely.

“Loneliness is not feeling part of the world. You might be surrounded by loads of people but you are still lonely.”

Loneliness can have a significant impact on your mental health. It can contribute to mental health problems such as anxiety and depression.

Having a mental health problem can also make you feel lonely. For example, your condition may mean that you find social contact difficult or that you find it hard to maintain friendships or you may feel isolated because of stigma and discrimination.

What makes people lonely?

Loneliness has many different causes and affects people differently. Often people feel lonely because of their personal circumstances. But sometimes loneliness is a deeper, more constant feeling that comes from within.

Personal circumstances

Certain lifestyles and the stresses of daily life can make some people socially isolated and vulnerable to loneliness. There are many situations that might make you feel isolated or lonely.

For example, if you:

  • lose a partner or someone close to you
  • go through a relationship break-up
  • are a single parent or caring for someone else – you may find it hard to maintain a social life
  • retire and lose the social contact you had at work
  • are older and find it difficult to go out alone
  • move to a new area without family, friends or community networks
  • belong to a minority ethnic group and live in an area without others from a similar background
  • are excluded from social activities – for example, because of mobility problems or a shortage of money
  • experience discrimination and stigma – for example, because of a disability or long-term health condition, or your gender, race or sexuality
  • have experienced sexual or physical abuse – you may find it hard to form close relationships with other people


Internal feelings of loneliness

Some people experience deep and constant feelings of loneliness that come from within and do not disappear regardless of their social situation or how many friends they have.

There are many reasons people experience this kind of loneliness. You might feel unable to like yourself or to be liked by others, or you may lack self-confidence. This may come from having been unloved as a child so that as an adult you continue to feel unlovable in all relationships. Or sometimes, consciously or unconsciously, people isolate themselves within their relationships because they are afraid of being hurt.

“Loneliness, for me, is a side effect of the barriers I’ve put up over the years to protect myself from the world, and the world from me.”

If you experience this deeper type of loneliness you may try to avoid being on your own and spend a lot of time socialising. Or you may react in the opposite way, hiding away on your own so you don’t have to face a world of people you feel unconnected to. You may also develop unhelpful habits, such as using alcohol or drugs, to escape your feelings of loneliness or to face social situations that you can’t avoid.


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