Loneliness – how to cope with it

Loneliness – how to cope with it

Most people experience loneliness at some point in their lives. Loneliness can be difficult to bear. When it persists, it can affect our health in the long term. Get advice on how you can help yourself if you feel lonely.

What is loneliness? 

Feeling lonely is more common than you think. To varying degrees, all of us will suffer from loneliness at some point in our lives. You may feel lonely if you move to a new city or country, change school or workplace, go through a divorce or lose a partner. 

Loneliness is often associated with lack of close friends and acquaintances, or a romantic partner or family with whom to share thoughts and feelings. It is also common to feel lonely if you feel different, don’t feel seen or understood, or lack a sense of purpose or direction in your life.

Someone’s level of loneliness cannot be calculated based on how many social contacts or relationships they have. Someone with a large social network may feel just as lonely as someone with few social contacts. Feeling lonely doesn’t mean you lack social skills. 

Self-imposed solitude and involuntary loneliness 

Humans are social by nature. Community, fellowship and close relationships are important for our well-being. For this reason, the feeling of loneliness can be experienced as frightening, as implying that something is wrong and as something you want to avoid.

Long-term solitude that you do not choose yourself and in which you lack a social context can create stress and negatively affect your long-term health. Research also indicates a connection between involuntary loneliness and mental illness.   
But not all solitude is harmful. Many appreciate few social contacts and their freedom, not having to pay attention to others or simply that they are happiest on their own or in solitude. We’re all different.

At certain times in our lives, we all may need more privacy or time to ourselves. If you for instance have gone through a major life change or crisis, you may need time alone to recover and reflect. 

On the other hand, it is important that self-imposed loneliness does not lead to long-term social isolation, that can become difficult to get out of.

What does loneliness feel like? 

Involuntary loneliness is not visible from the outside, but it can make us feel worse – both physically and mentally. Everyone experiences loneliness differently, but it can feel like physical discomfort and even physical pain. Abandonment, insecurity, hopelessness, depression and anxiety are other common emotions. 
Loneliness is often a taboo subject, which makes it difficult for many people to talk about and acknowledge their feelings. Many feel ashamed of their loneliness. This can increase withdrawal from social situations and increase the loneliness as a result. 

How loneliness affects health 

When we feel involuntarily lonely, the level of stress hormones in our body increases. In other words, your body and brain react in the same way as when you are exposed to danger. 
Social isolation can have the same negative effects as bad lifestyle habits. Long-term loneliness is most harmful. Over time, it can create a low-intensity stress, which can cause high blood pressure and increase the risk of diseases such as heart attack, stroke or dementia. 
Long-term loneliness can also cause sleep problems, make you irritated, restless, weak and depressed or feel hopelessness. It is also common that it affect the way we live, by making us eat worse or exercise less. 
If loneliness becomes chronic, it is easy to become trapped in a vicious circle in which you end up avoiding other people and social contexts. Loneliness can also lead to lower self-esteem. 

Who is affected by loneliness? 

Everyone will experience loneliness at some point in their lives – regardless age, gender or background. Those who have recently lost a partner are most at risk. Yet the feeling of loneliness can also emerge as a result of a divorce, moving to a new city or country, unemployment, retirement or other big incidents, such as accidents, illnesses or crises.

Studies also show that more men than women are affected, due to that men more frequently lack a well-developed social network or close friends in whom to confide in. 
You may also be more vulnerable to loneliness at certain times in your life. It is common to feel lonelier during holidays such as Christmas and New Year, when the social gathering is in focus, as well as in other contexts when people tend to come together. 

Loneliness among elderly people 

Getting older doesn't have to mean feeling lonelier, although age does play a role. Many elderly may no longer have a partner or close friends left in life. If you suffer from health problems, reduced mobility or a lack physical energy, it can also be difficult to maintain your social contacts in the same way as before. 
It is important to feel involved, to have a social network you can lean on and that you get enough social stimulation to feel good. It is not always easy to develop new friendships or find new contacts, but many places have associations and networks that regularly organise activities and meetings for seniors in a similar situation. 
Learning to use digital technologies such as computers and the internet also facilitates contact with family and friends. 

Loneliness among younger people 

More and more adolescents and young adults feel lonely and is commonly associated with shame and many are unwilling to talk about it.

Going from child to teenager and young adult is a major transformation and it is completely normal to sometimes feel unsure of who you are and how you fit into the world. For many young people, it is important to be like everyone else and to not be alone or left out. 
Even with a lot of friends online, you can still feel lonely. Maybe you don’t have a romantic partner and long to meet someone. Or maybe you wish you had someone to hang out with in person, instead of just seeing your friends in the virtual world. You might feel sad and left out when you see your friends’ posts on social media, showing off all the fun times they’re having without you – be it because you weren’t invited, or because you couldn’t join in.  

How do I break free of my loneliness? 

Being lonely can feel shameful and difficult to talk about. Maybe you lack the confidence in yourself to make new connections or find new friends, or perhaps you don’t know where to turn for advice and support. Whatever the reason, there are ways to free yourself from loneliness. 

  • Be sure to maintain your daily routines. Food, sleep and regular exercise give you better conditions to feel good.
  • Offer your help to others. It feels good to be needed, and sometimes it helps to shift the focus from yourself to someone else, through volunteer work or other volunteer activities. You can also ask someone close to you if you can help them with something.
  • Don’t be afraid to reach out to the people around you. Invite a colleague for a cup of coffee or lunch or ask if a neighbour wants to join you for a walk. Why not reconnect with old friends from the past?
  • Make the most of everyday conversation. Stop and exchange a few words with the people you encounter.
  • Say yes to social activities, even if it may feel difficult. We all need to practice our ability to be social.
  • Find other people who share your interests. Join an association or participate in activities such as courses and social gatherings. This will make it easier to make new contacts. There are also special forums for singles, as well as for lonely people. 
  • Find new ways to socialise, such as social media or video calls. This is especially important for elderly and those who are isolated at home.
  • Do the things that you enjoy, that makes you feel good. Listen to music, read a book or spend time outdoors.
  • Touch and physical contact can also increase wellbeing. Consider getting a massage.
  • Pets are great companions and can reduce loneliness. A dog makes you feel needed and can also help you meet new people outside your home.
  • Ask for help. Don’t be alone with your thoughts and feelings. Talk to a friend or turn to a support forum. Chances are, you’ll discover you’re not alone in your situation.
  • Dare to seek professional support to help you cope with your thoughts and feelings, as well as any other difficulties you might be facing. 

How can I help someone who is lonely? 

  • Don´t be afraid to ask how they are feeling, and feel free to come up with suggestions for things you can do together.
  • Do various activities together, like going for a walk or training at the gym.
  • Get in touch by phone or social media. Make a plan to meet at a specific time and date and put it in your schedule, especially if you can’t meet in person. Provide support in learning how digital meeting platforms work. This is especially helpful to elderly.
  • Help the person find the right help. This might involve contact with the healthcare system.
  • Many people are afraid to reach out to a someone who is alone due to a recent divorce or case of death to not disturb them, but don´t be afraid to make contact and ask if there is something you can do to help. Show that you are there for them.