We all feel lonely from time to time. These feelings are often brief and linked with times when we feel our need for social contact and relationships is not being met. But loneliness isn’t always the same as being alone.
You may choose to be alone and live happily without much socialization with other people, or you may find this experience unsatisfying and lonely. You may have lots of social contact, be in a relationship or around family a lot, and still feel lonely. This can happen especially if you're surrounded by people who don’t understand or care for you.
If you’ve been experiencing loneliness for a long time and can’t seem to shake the feeling, it may be a sign of a more serious condition called chronic loneliness.
Defining Chronic Loneliness
Chronic loneliness signs and symptoms differ depending on what your situation is and who you are. You may be dealing with chronic loneliness if you consistently feel some or all of the following:
- You don't have any close friends. The people you see are casual acquaintances you can spend time with, but you don't have a deep connection with them.
- You experience feelings of isolation even when you're surrounded by other people or in large groups. It may feel like you're constantly on the outside looking in.
- You struggle with feeling like you're less than or not good enough.
- When you reach out to others, your interactions feel shallow, and you don't get a lot from people emotionally.
- You have exhaustion and burnout when you socialize with others. It can feel like you're constantly drained and unable to interact the way you'd like to.
Who is at Risk of Chronic Loneliness?
While anyone can feel chronic loneliness, studies show that certain people are more at risk. Current research shows that immigrant, lesbian, gay, and bisexual populations experience loneliness more than any other group. The reasons for this are usually tied to things that make social isolation worse, such as language barriers, culture differences, community, family dynamics, stigma, discrimination, and barriers to care.
Other factors that may increase the likelihood that you'll experience chronic loneliness include:
- Being left out of social activities because of a lack of money
- Health or physical issues that make it hard for you to get out
- Being a single parent or a caregiver
- Lack of friends or family
- Weak or broken ties with your family
- Past experiences of sexual or physical abuse, which may make it harder to form close relationships
- Long-term health conditions, including mental health
Chronic Loneliness and Health Problems
Chronic loneliness may have negative impacts on both your mental and physical health. Some of the most common conditions include:
- Inflammation throughout the body
- Depression and anxiety
- Low self-esteem
- Problems with sleep
- High blood pressure
- Increased stress
Some studies have also found that chronic loneliness causes a 29% increase in coronary heart disease and a 32% increase in stroke risk.
The same study also found that people experiencing chronic loneliness were more than twice as likely to develop dementia during the later years of their life than those who aren't lonely.
There is even the possibility that chronic loneliness and the health risks that come with it could shorten your life.
Changes You Can Make
Pay attention to your feelings. If you're noticing that your feelings of loneliness won't go away, it's time to ask for help.
Work on greater social connection. Instead of relying on social media, try to connect with people in person. Make plans you'll enjoy, and mark them on your calendar.
Consider volunteering. Doing small acts of kindness or engaging in bigger volunteer events can boost your mood and enhance your sense of purpose — and a great way to make new friends.
Get some sunshine. Try not to spend all your time in the house. Instead, opt for a walk outside on a nice day or a hike in your favorite park.
Focus on quality. When you engage with others, make sure to do it in a positive, healthy way. It's not about the number of people you interact with. It's about the quality of the interaction and how it makes you feel.
Find a shared interest group. Many organizations put together events and activities for adults. Try doing some online searches for your favorite hobbies and see if there is a group near you that you could join.
Treatment of Chronic Loneliness
Talk to your doctor or another health care provider so they can help. If you are dealing with chronic loneliness, it isn’t just about feeling alone. If left unchecked, it can put you at risk for serious emotional and physical issues.
The sooner you reach out, the faster you can get help and get on the road to recovery.