Loneliness is another modern epidemic. And it doesn’t just affect the elderly but also the middle-aged and the young. Loneliness isn’t the same as being alone which may be a pleasurable and perhaps reinvigorating experience. By contrast, loneliness is associated with pain and may be present even if you have many social connections and even if you’re married or in a relationship. It’s nature’s warning signal to get into (more intimate) contact with people. That’s because we’re built to be in relationship with others. Relationships – not just romantic relationships – give meaning to life and are vital for survival. Chronic loneliness can be linked with significant deterioration in physical health, as well as with depression, anxiety and even suicide.

What are the signs of loneliness?

There are various symptoms – a few of them quite surprising. Among them are:

  • Wanting people around but being unable to attain that
  • A sense of social isolation or disconnectedness from people
  • A persistent yearning for closeness
  • Social anxiety
  • Even with people around, not feeling understood or cared for
  • Avoiding being alone
  • Hiding away from others
  • Making excuses, including to oneself, for avoiding human contact
  • Feeling lost and lacking direction
  • Burying oneself in work or other home activities
  • A feeling of nothingness or perhaps numbness
  • Low self-esteem or self-confidence
  • Difficulty in liking oneself or in believing that others will
  • Social isolation through mental health problems
  • Feeling depressed (in severe cases including suicidal thoughts)
  • Frequent illness
  • Shopping a lot/accumulating possessions (to fill a void)
  • Binge-watching television
  • Disrupted sleeping and tiredness but more time in bed
  • Addiction to social media
  • Excessive long, hot showers or baths (to feel ‘warm’)
  • Weight-gain
  • Having friends who feel lonely (it can be contagious)

How do I know if I’m lonely?

If you’re lonely, you may be acutely aware of it or hardly at all. You may not want to admit to loneliness but, if you’re open to the possibility, then recognizing yourself in some of the signs in the list may tell you something. There’s an explosion of online material, including loneliness tests, to help you get an idea of whether you have a problem. But most reliable of all may be speaking with your GP to get their thoughts.

What are the causes of loneliness?

The reasons for so much modern loneliness are social as well as psychological so I’ll deal with each in turn. The complexity and scale of the problem are such that I can only scratch the surface here.

Social factors

Society has changed and we’ve lost our communities and therefore an inner sense of community. Relative social isolation is the lot of many. Work and college take us away from our original families and social networks and repeated redundancies may lead to repeated moving. Divorce is more frequent so life companions are fewer. Families are getting smaller with more single parents and more only children (sometimes especially prone to loneliness). We often bring up children away from our relatives. Former centres of meeting like churches or dance halls are emptier or non-existent. The cultural impetus is towards individualism, narcissism, independence, competitiveness, withdrawal, aggression and relationships with technology rather than with people. Cars insulate us from each other.

The county of Surrey, where I’m based, is often characterized by big houses hidden up big drives, tiring commutes, exhausting jobs, partners not seen enough and neighbours not seen at all. Social media connect people but if you have two hundred friends on Facebook does that mean you have two hundred friends? There’s something about face-to-face meeting that’s uniquely enriching. Finally, simple retirement can create loneliness as can stigma through race, sexuality, gender, disability or health.

Psychological factors

Some of the psychological causes of loneliness are obvious, some less so. Bereavement, the lack of a partner and unrequited love can all be factors. The lack of someone to understand us, recognize us or simply be there in the background can be agonizing. Small wonder some people fear death less than loneliness.

Other causes may be more deep-seated. For example, every toddler needs a mother or caregiver who’s safely and consistently there. In later Iife the quest may be for a partner to provide similar stability and enrichment, without which there can be loneliness. But if the original caregiving goes wrong, the template for a fundamental insecurity and lack of trust in oneself and in others may be laid. There may be a sense of being unloveable or not good enough in some way. Childhood experiences of hurt, lack of love, trauma, abuse, neglect, abandonment, ridicule or deception can significantly contribute to loneliness both at the time and in adult life.

So it is that many of the psychological conditions I describe on this site can have the effect either of alienating people or keeping them at a safe distance. Narcissistic, borderline or paranoid traits, for instance, may do the former while schizoid, avoidant or depressive traits may do the latter. (For borderline, paranoid, schizoid and avoidant traits, please see the personality disorders page, remembering that people can have characteristics of a condition without having a full-blown personality disorder).

What can be done about loneliness?

There are numerous self-help resources and also treatments available to combat loneliness. Analytic psychotherapy may be a valuable way of dissipating it over time. (Remember that psychotherapy probably won’t achieve rapid results because it goes into the depths to tackle problems and that does take time.)

Psychotherapy provides a regular confidential space in which to think about loneliness and to identify its origins. It may be particularly helpful if the roots are in your childhood, in which case it may be possible to work through the causes and for significant changes in you and in your life to evolve naturally.

Group therapy can be of especial benefit. Although group members don’t meet outside the group and group analysis doesn’t provide ‘friends’ in that sense, it does offer a therapeutic social setting. In that setting, relating with others can be practised, problems can be worked through and a freer, more confident and more outward-looking stance can be deeply absorbed which may then be used to build new relationships in the outside world.