How to cope with loneliness and when to get help

Around three million people in the UK feel lonely often or always, according to the Office of National Statistics. In fact, loneliness is something most of us will experience at some point in our lives and can affect people of all ages, from children to older adults. Identifying the signs, understanding the causes and knowing what you can do about it can help combat feelings of loneliness. 

What is loneliness?

Your personal experience of loneliness may be different to someone else’s experience. However, in general, loneliness refers to the feeling you get when you want rewarding social interactions or relationships but are lacking in them. 

Loneliness isn’t defined as a mental health problem but living with a mental health problem, such as depression or anxiety, can increase your risk of loneliness. 

It is important to note that feeling lonely isn’t the same as feeling alone. You can feel lonely when you’re surrounded by people and feel content when you are all alone.

The difference between loneliness and social isolation

Social isolation refers to a very objective measure of how many social contacts you have. You may prefer having fewer social contacts and enjoy your solitude — this doesn’t mean you are lonely.

In contrast, loneliness refers to a subjective feeling of lacking the level of social contact and types of rewarding relationships that you want.

Although social isolation and loneliness are different, they are linked. For example, during the 2020 global pandemic, lockdowns resulted in many people becoming socially isolated and this, in turn, increased the number of people who felt lonely.

Loneliness can also lead to someone who ordinarily socialises with friends and family retreating from social interactions and becoming socially isolated.

What causes loneliness?

There are many different causes of loneliness, which are often unique to an individual. However, commonly cited causes of loneliness include financial struggles that lead to feelings of shame, the death of a loved one, changing jobs, retiring, moving to a new area, a lack of friends and family members nearby and relationship breakdowns.

Mental health conditions can put you at greater risk of feeling lonely irrespective of whether or not any of the situations above occur.

Living with a disability, becoming a single parent or carer for a loved one, or experiencing discrimination of any kind can also increase your risk of loneliness.

What are the signs of loneliness?

As the causes and experience of loneliness vary from person to person, so too do the symptoms. However, common signs of loneliness include feeling disconnected or isolated from others, feeling sad, empty, insecure or misunderstood, and finding yourself spending increasing amounts of time reminiscing about the past and longing for social interactions.

You may also feel lonely when you are surrounded by people, feel burnt out after social interactions and find yourself retreating from social situations.

As loneliness also affects your health, you may develop symptoms of other conditions.

The impact of loneliness on your health

Loneliness can lead to or worsen an existing mental health condition, such as anxiety, depression, stress or low self-esteem. 

It can affect your physical health too, causing difficulty sleeping, fatigue, an increased likelihood of catching colds and experiencing worse symptoms, as well as an increased risk of cardiovascular conditions, such as heart attacks, stroke, high blood pressure and heart disease

In adults, loneliness can also increase your risk of dementia in later life.

How to cope with loneliness

The first step in learning how to cope with or overcome loneliness is to acknowledge that you feel lonely. This may be especially difficult to admit if you are surrounded by people in your daily life, but it is an important step to get the help and support you need. 

There are different things you can try to ease your loneliness, such as seeking out social connections through volunteering, joining local classes or clubs, or even going to the supermarket or a cafe and trying small interactions with strangers. 

It is also important to practice self-care. This means finding time to do whatever relaxes you, following a healthy, nutritious diet, trying to get enough sleep each night and exercising regularly, whether that means playing a sport or going for a walk.   

Adopting a pet is another way to help combat loneliness as this not only provides you with companionship but can also connect you with a community of other pet owners.

Reaching out to trusted friends or family members and confiding in them about how you’re feeling and meeting up with them more often can also help. You may find that by spending more time together, your relationship strengthens and becomes more rewarding. 

When to seek help

Sometimes it can be hard to break out of a cycle of loneliness without professional help. If you’re struggling to cope or finding that your efforts aren’t making a difference, feel ill-equipped to take steps to ease your loneliness or are concerned that your loneliness is causing you physical or mental problems, see your GP. They can provide you with tailored advice and support.

You can also reach out to UK charities that are experienced in dealing with loneliness, such as Age UK for older adults, Childline for children and Mind for all ages.

We hope you've found this article useful, however, it cannot be a substitute for a consultation with a specialist

If you're concerned about symptoms you're experiencing or require further information on the subject, talk to a GP or see an expert consultant at your local Spire hospital.

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Author Information

Cahoot Care Marketing

Niched in the care sector, Cahoot Care Marketing offers a full range of marketing services for care businesses including: SEO, social media, websites and video marketing, specialising in copywriting and content marketing.

Over the last five years Cahoot Care Marketing has built an experienced team of writers and editors, with broad and deep expertise on a range of care topics. They provide a responsive, efficient and comprehensive service, ensuring content is on brand and in line with relevant medical guidelines.

Their writers and editors include care sector workers, healthcare copywriting specialists and NHS trainers, who thoroughly research all topics using reputable sources including the NHS, NICE, relevant Royal Colleges and medical associations.

The Spire Content Hub project was managed by:

Lux Fatimathas, Editor and Project Manager

Lux has a BSc(Hons) in Neuroscience from UCL, a PhD in Cellular and Molecular Biology from the UCL Institute of Ophthalmology and experience as a postdoctoral researcher in developmental biology. She has a clear and extensive understanding of the biological and medical sciences. Having worked in scientific publishing for BioMed Central and as a writer for the UK’s Medical Research Council and the National University of Singapore, she is able to clearly communicate complex concepts.

Catriona Shaw, Lead Editor

Catriona has an English degree from the University of Southampton and more than 12 years’ experience copy editing across a range of complex topics. She works with a diverse team of writers to create clear and compelling copy to educate and inform.

Alfie Jones, Director — Cahoot Care Marketing

Alfie has a creative writing degree from UCF and initially worked as a carer before supporting his family’s care training business with copywriting and general marketing. He has worked in content marketing and the care sector for over 10 years and overseen a diverse range of care content projects, building a strong team of specialist writers and marketing creatives after founding Cahoot in 2016.