A man eating breakfast alone.
How does loneliness affect your physical and mental health?Image by: Movember
A man eating breakfast alone.
4 July 2023

Dealing with loneliness

4 minutes read time

Most of us go through loneliness at some point.

It can happen when you’re alone at home, after a relationship ends, or after the loss of someone close. When we think of loneliness, we often imagine being isolated and away from people. But sometimes, we can feel lonely even when we’re surrounded by others. For instance, many new parents report feeling lonely and isolated. Why is it that some people can be content in physical isolation, while others feel lonely despite being around people?

What’s the difference between loneliness and solitude?

The difference between loneliness and solitude is often confusing. Both involve spending time alone, but where solitude can mean being alone by choice (or at least enjoying it), loneliness is the opposite.

Solitude can mean "me-time", "couch-time", time in the shed, or simply being by yourself to recharge. It's why many people enjoy jogging at night or in the morning, gaming, reading quietly, long walks or zoning out alone in nature.

Loneliness, on the other hand, is being or feeling alone, but not by choice.

What causes loneliness?

Loneliness can be thought of as a lack of meaningful connection with people. The words "meaningful" and "connection" are important here. It's possible to feel lonely – even if you're surrounded by others – if you're not feeling that vibe or link, that closeness, or the sense of being "part of".

This can happen when starting a new job or moving to a new town. You could be around people for much of the day, but without that sense of connection – that rapport – it can start to feel lonely.

It's also just as important to have that "meaningful connection" with those closest to you. Feeling lonely in a relationship is possible if things turn sour with a partner or friend – and though you might see someone all the time, it may be possible to still feel lonely.

Loneliness can happen suddenly, or it can be gradual. It might follow from unexpected grief or job loss, it might start from a deteriorating relationship, or it could be sparked by missing a loved one during an annual holiday.

Many situations can lead to loneliness, like:

  • Moving to a new town or country
  • Changing jobs
  • Leaving or changing school
  • Retiring from work
  • Kids moving out of home
  • Falling out with friends, church, sports club or other local group
  • A relationship breakdown, or estrangement from family

How does loneliness affect you?

Loneliness can be a tough to deal with. It’s like being hungry, but for social and emotional connections. Living with chronic loneliness is not fun, and, unsurprisingly, it can make you feel down, sad, anxious, helpless, or even angry. It's also been associated with an increased risk of mental health conditions like depression and anxiety.

The reasons, as with most things related to mental health, are complex. However, it's fair to say that the feeling of connection, and that sense of belonging with others, has a way of strengthening the mind against those negative feelings.

Loneliness, however, doesn’t just affect your mental wellbeing. There's a growing pile of evidence that suggests loneliness affects physical health – and in unexpected ways (there's also growing recognition that we're facing a 'loneliness epidemic').

Take the famous Harvard study. It's been running continuously for over 80 years (it began in 1938). This study tracked the mental and physical wellbeing of several hundred men throughout their lives, and later, their descendants. It found, among other things, that strong, connected relationships had a huge amount to do with healthy ageing, financial success, and even tolerance to physical pain later in life. The more satisfied they felt with their relationships, the better their reported quality of life.

Dealing with loneliness

Spending memorable and meaningful time with people might sound straightforward, but for many reasons, it's something some people struggle with.

When it comes to making new friends, things like kids and family responsibilities, work hours, mobility and physical health, or even just straight anxiety can get in the way.

That's why rekindling old friendships might be easier than making new ones. Yes, it might feel weird or awkward – at first, maybe – but reaching out to people that you’ve lost contact with can be a great way to reconnect.

For all you know, they might be thinking the same thing as you. If you notice a friend is having a hard time, or you sense someone's been real quiet lately, think about striking up a conversation. A great resource is Movember Conversations – it's packed with loads of tips for getting this right.

Opening up to friends and talking about things that matter can also do wonders. It's one thing to banter over a few beers – but you might end up pleasantly surprised (as might your friends) by where things lead if you dug a bit deeper.

Joining a sporting club or starting a hobby is another way to tackle loneliness. Sure, introducing yourself to a bunch of people you don't know can be way out of your comfort zone, but put it this way: everyone in that group started the same way.

Of course, if you're struggling, then getting help from a professional might be the way to go. Many people have a hard time dealing with grief or loss, for instance. Talking it out with a counsellor or mental health professional can help you cope, and make you feel like yourself again.