Guide to loneliness.
By building our understanding of loneliness, we can help ourselves and others to manage the feeling.
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What is loneliness?
We all feel lonely at times – it’s a normal human emotion. We're biologically wired for social contact, and loneliness is our signal that we need more.
The definition: Loneliness is a perceived mismatch between the quality or quantity of social connections that a person has and what they would like to have .
Why do I feel lonely even when I'm not alone?
You don’t have to be on your own to feel lonely - you might feel lonely in a relationship or while spending time with friends or family – especially if you don't feel understood or cared for by the people around you. Other people might choose to be alone and live happily without much social contact.
Loneliness can also be characterised by its intensity, or how strongly it is felt, which can change from moment to moment and over different durations of time .
Are there different types of loneliness?
There are different types, including:
Emotional loneliness - When someone you were very close with is no longer there. This could be a partner or a close friend.
Social loneliness - When you feel like you’re lacking a wider social network of friends, neighbours or colleagues.
Transient loneliness - A feeling that comes and goes.
Situational loneliness - Loneliness which you only feel at certain times like Sundays, bank holidays or Christmas.
Chronic loneliness - When you feel lonely all or most of the time.
Who experiences loneliness?
Most of us will experience loneliness at some point in our lives, regardless of age, circumstance and background. We all experience loneliness differently.
It’s a common misconception that loneliness is limited to older people. In fact, it’s now the 16-24-year-olds who are the loneliest age group in the UK .
What causes loneliness?
There are key life points which will increase the likelihood of feeling lonely. Some examples are:
Moving away from home
Starting university or a new job
Becoming a new parent
A relationship break-up
Suffering a bereavement
Has loneliness always been an issue?
Human beings evolved to feel safest in groups, and as a result, we experience isolation as a physical state of emergency.
Imagine if you lived in a tribe and while you were out hunting, you found yourself alone. You’d be under serious threat without the protection of your group - your levels of the stress hormone, cortisol, would rocket up, and would stay raised until you’re back with your tribe .
What is the effect of long term loneliness?
There has been lots of research on the effects of loneliness for our mental and physical health – it’s seen as one of the biggest health concerns we face.
Loneliness has been linked to early deaths and an increased risk of heart disease, stroke, depression, cognitive decline and poor sleep. It’s as harmful to our health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. People who feel lonely are more than twice as likely to develop Alzheimer’s (and other forms of dementia) than those who do not feel lonely [5-7].
If you’ve been feeling lonely for a long time, make an appointment to see your GP to make sure that you are getting the right support.
Should we change the language around loneliness?
Telling someone that you’re lonely is an important step but it’s also important to be mindful of how we talk about it.
We still use words like ‘admitting’ to and ‘suffering’ from, which can unintentionally add to the belief that something is wrong with us.
There is absolutely no shame in feeling lonely and changing the language around loneliness is a positive and liberating step forward. The more we talk about it, the more we normalise it and we can move towards a society where it can be spoken about openly.
Are you feeling lonely?
Loneliness can often feel overwhelming and something out of our control, so it can be useful to have a starting point. To help you and others to feel less lonely we have framed it into three parts...
Acknowledge loneliness in yourself or others
Identify what you or they need
Take the appropriate action
Helping yourself and others feel more connected
Below, we've put together some top tips for understanding loneliness and helping yourself and others feel more connected. If loneliness continues for some time, it can start to affect your health and wellbeing. In this case, it's important to reach out to your GP and make sure you're getting the right support.
We have devised these tips with COVID-19 social distancing measures in mind. Please do make sure you adhere to the up-to-date guidance from the UK Government.
In the community...
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Perlman, Daniel, and L. Anne Peplau. “Toward a social psychology of loneliness.” Personal relationships 3 (1981): 31-56.
Campaign to End Loneliness. “About Loneliness”. Access via: campaigntoendloneliness.org/about-loneliness/
BBC Radio 4, All In The Mind. “The Loneliness Experiment”. Access via: seed.manchester.ac.uk/education/research/impact/bbc-loneliness-experiment/
Johann Hari. “Lost Connections: Why You’re Depressed and How to Find Hope.” (2019)
Holt-Lunstad et al. “Loneliness and Social Isolation as Risk Factors for Mortality: A MetaAnalytic Review”, 2015
Valtorta et al. “Loneliness and social isolation as risk factors for coronary heart disease and stroke: systematic review and meta-analysis of longitudinal observational studies”, 2017
Wilson et al.. “Loneliness and Risk of Alzheimer Disease”, 2007