Loneliness: Causes, Effects And Prevention (2023)

Table of Contents

  • What Is Loneliness?
  • Causes of Loneliness
  • Effects of Loneliness
  • How to Cope With and Prevent Loneliness

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Loneliness is a universal emotion that most of us experience at least once during our lifetime, although certain events, such as an illness or a pandemic, can make it feel more pervasive. If you’re currently experiencing feelings of loneliness, you aren’t alone. In fact, a 2020 study by Cigna found that 61% of Americans reported being lonely in 2019, up from 54% in 2018[1]Loneliness and the Workplace . Cigna. Accessed 7/6/2022. .

No matter what events are occurring around you, understanding loneliness and its risks is important for recognizing when you may need support. Read on to learn what loneliness is, its causes, long-term risks and ways to cope with the emotions that may come up when you’re lonely.

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What Is Loneliness?

The American Psychological Association (APA) defines loneliness as the “affective and cognitive discomfort or uneasiness from being or perceiving oneself to be alone or otherwise solitary.”

In other words, loneliness is the mental or emotional discomfort you may experience from either being alone or feeling as though you are alone. This feeling stems from your social needs not being met and/or an inability to get the social connection you desire.

Loneliness vs Being Alone

Although loneliness and being alone are commonly confused, being alone doesn’t necessarily mean someone is lonely. “Loneliness is a feeling, while being alone is a situation or state of being, which is not inherently negative,” says Nina Vasan, M.D., psychiatrist and professor at Stanford University School of Medicine and chief medical officer at Real, an online mental wellness membership site.

“You can feel lonely even when you’re surrounded by other people—such as a partner, family, co-workers or friends,” continues Dr. Vasan.

It’s also possible to be alone, but not feel lonely, she adds. “For example, if you’re by yourself but connecting to others through good communication or activities like volunteering, you don’t feel lonely.”

Causes of Loneliness

There are various demographic factors that may contribute to loneliness. Although Dr. Vasan notes that anyone can feel lonely at any time in their life, a few groups that stand out as having an increased risk of loneliness include “young adults, mothers with young children and the elderly.” Immigrants and individuals in the LGBTQ+ community are also at higher risk for loneliness, continues Dr. Vasan.

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You may experience loneliness for a variety of reasons, but it can often stem from a major life change. A 2020 study by the University of Edinburgh suggests that the causes of loneliness differ depending on the age of the individual[2]Altschul D, Iveson M, Deary IJ. Generational differences in loneliness and its psychological and sociodemographic predictors: an exploratory and confirmatory machine learning study. Psychological Medicine. 2021;51(6):991-1000. . For example, older adults experience loneliness more frequently as a result of living alone, while middle-aged individuals aren’t as likely to report living alone as a cause of their loneliness.

This discrepancy between what causes loneliness in older adults versus those who are middle-aged could be due to the fact that older adults have retired and no longer have the community and daily interactions of work life, explains Nikki Press, Psy.D., a clinical psychologist in New York City. Older individuals are more likely to have lost friends and family members, and they are more likely to experience medical or physical limitations that restrict their opportunities for activities and socializing, continues Dr. Press.

Other common causes of loneliness include:

  • The death of a close friend or family member
  • Physical isolation, such as living alone or moving away from family and friends
  • Illness or disability
  • Retirement
  • Working alone

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Effects of Loneliness

Healthy social connections are important to one’s overall health. Prolonged loneliness can have serious health implications, including decreased mental and physical health and even premature death.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), other long-term risks of chronic loneliness can include:

  • Cognitive decline
  • Depression
  • Heart disease
  • High blood pressure (hypertension)
  • Obesity
  • Weakened immune system
  • Alzheimer’s disease

Chronic feelings of loneliness can interfere with your quality of life. If left untreated, these feelings can lead to more serious issues, including depression or other mental health conditions. If you’re struggling with loneliness, consider seeking help from a mental health professional. A therapist can help you understand your emotions and offer coping strategies to improve your overall well-being.

In general, if loneliness seems to be taking over your experience, the sooner you talk with a therapist, the better, explains Dr. Vasan. “There is no harm in seeking help. The resources your doctor can provide can help not only you, but also your family and loved ones.”

If you’re not sure where to start, consider talking to your primary care doctor. They may be able to provide referrals to mental health professionals in your area.

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How to Cope With and Prevent Loneliness

Just as the cause of loneliness can vary from person to person, coping and prevention strategies can also differ. In general, the goal is to make strong, healthy connections that fulfill your need for social interaction.

While there is no substitute for help from a mental health professional, the following tips may help you build emotional connections.

  • Find hobbies you enjoy: Taking part in activities you enjoy can be a great way to meet others with similar interests. Consider a book club, art class, fitness group or any other activity where you can interact with others who enjoy the same things.
  • Volunteer for an organization you support: Volunteering will not only give you a sense of accomplishment and pride, but it’s an opportunity to meet others who support that same organization.
  • Join support groups: Support groups are an excellent way to connect with others who you have something in common with, such as a mental or physical condition.
  • Routinely contacting family and friends: Attempting to stay connected, even if only by phone or video chat, can help nurture your emotional health and help prevent loneliness.
  • Maintain a healthy diet and regular exercise regime: Living a healthy lifestyle promotes overall wellness and reduces your risk of chronic medical conditions—which could interfere with your social life.

Regardless of your interests, it’s important to listen to and fulfill your desire for social connection. This can help diminish feelings of loneliness or isolation, and could help improve the overall quality of your life.

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