We all feel lonely from time to time. Feelings of loneliness are personal, so everyone’s experience of loneliness will be different.
One common description of loneliness is the feeling we get when our need for rewarding social contact and relationships is not met. But loneliness is not always the same as being alone.
You may choose to be alone and live happily without much contact with other people, while others may find this a lonely experience.
Or you may have lots of social contact, or be in a relationship or part of a family, and still feel lonely – especially if you don’t feel understood or cared for by the people around you.
Is loneliness a mental health problem?
Feeling lonely isn’t in itself a mental health problem, but the two are strongly linked. Having a mental health problem can increase your chance of feeling lonely.
For example, some people may have misconceptions about what certain mental health problems mean, so you may find it difficult to speak to them about your problems.
Or you may experience social phobia – also known as social anxiety – and find it difficult to engage in everyday activities involving other people, which could lead to a lack of meaningful social contact and cause feelings of loneliness.
Feeling lonely can also have a negative impact on your mental health, especially if these feelings have lasted a long time.
What causes loneliness?
Loneliness has many different causes, which vary from person to person. We don’t always understand what it is about an experience that makes us feel lonely.
For some people, certain life events may mean they feel lonely, such as:
Experiencing a bereavement
Going through a relationship break-up
Retiring and losing the social contact you had at work
Changing jobs and feeling isolated from your co-workers
Starting at university
Moving to a new area or country without family, friends or community networks.
Other people find they feel lonely at certain times of the year, such as around Christmas.
Some research suggests that people who live in certain circumstances, or belong to particular groups, are more vulnerable to loneliness. For example, if you:
Have no friends or family.
Are estranged from your family.
Are a single parent or care for someone else – you may find it hard to maintain a social life.
Belong to minority groups and live in an area without others from a similar background.
Are excluded from social activities due to mobility problems or a shortage of money.
Experience discrimination and stigma because of a disability or long-term health problem, including mental health problems.
Experience discrimination and stigma because of your gender, race or sexual orientation.
Have experienced sexual or physical abuse– you may find it harder to form close relationships with other people.
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.
Thinking about what is making you feel lonely may help you find a way of feeling better.