Loneliness: Causes & effects of isolation

When we feel disconnected and isolated from others, loneliness can start to take hold. Loneliness is a natural but emotionally and physically intense response to feeling cut off from other people. That said, even when we’re surrounded by others, it’s still possible to wrestle with the sensation of loneliness. 

Discover more about the intrinsic connection between our physical and mental health and loneliness. Also, learn some of the common causes of loneliness, how to ward off or respond to feelings of loneliness (even in challenging times, like the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic), and more in this deep dive.


What Is Loneliness?

Loneliness can be described as an intense longing for human companionship by an individual who is physically or emotionally isolated. This means that someone doesn’t need to be physically distanced from others to feel isolated; it’s possible to feel lonely, despite having a large social circle to interact with. 

Loneliness is not only a state of mind; it can have a severe emotional and physiological impact on the sufferer over time. Loneliness can age the human body prematurely—causing as much damage to the cardiovascular system as habitually smoking cigarettes. Loneliness affects all major systems in the body negatively, including our circulatory system, our nervous system, and our lymphatic system.   

Are Loneliness and Being Alone the Same Thing?

Being alone and feeling alone (loneliness) isn’t the same. This is due to the psychological aspect of loneliness, which means that even when surrounded by other people, it’s possible to feel alone. Being alone, on the other hand, is about physical proximity—being alone means there’s no one else around, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a negative experience. True loneliness is as much about missing physical contact as it is about having a genuine emotional connection with other people. 

Being alone, whether it’s a purposeful choice or not, can still trigger feelings of loneliness. Human contact is both necessary and helpful in staving off the sadness, frustration, and possible depression that can be brought on by extended periods of isolation. This, in a nutshell, is what connects being alone and loneliness; both states of being can play off of each other.

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What Are the Signs of Loneliness?

The signs of loneliness can vary from one person to the next, based largely on their personality. This includes their social habits (are they introverted or extroverted?) their tendency to display emotions, as well as their coping methods. Everyone may react differently to feelings of loneliness, but some common signs include: 

  • Seeming withdrawn or unwilling to engage with other people: Though this might sound contradictory, lonely individuals might find it harder to engage with others after long periods of extended isolation. When loneliness becomes routine, motivation to socialize might wane.
  • Substance abuse, including alcohol or illicit drugs: Like many other negative mental health states, loneliness can cause people to start self-medicating with drugs or alcohol. These substances might temporarily alleviate some of the intense emotional and physiological pain that loneliness can create, but the danger of long-term addiction is ever-present. 
  • Out-of-character behavior on social media: This includes posts or pictures involving sad imagery, despondent captions, or passive-aggressive commentary directed at those in their social circle. These sorts of actions may be indicative of feelings of abandonment
  • Explosive outbursts: This might involve blaming others for their feelings of isolation. While these outbursts are often undeserved, they should be taken as an attempt on the part of the lonely individual to express their emotional state. It’s also a cry for help: But sometimes, it can be a struggle for lonely individuals to express how isolated they feel constructively. 
  • Outright verbal expressions of loneliness: This should be taken seriously by those who are close to the sufferer. Sometimes, when a lonely person wants to communicate how they’re feeling, they use sarcasm or other forms of veiled responses. This might be because they’re embarrassed about feeling lonely—or it could be because they’re trying to take the edge off of a subject that’s painful to talk about. Whatever their reasons may be, it’s important not to brush off their comments

What Causes Loneliness? What Is the Main Cause of Loneliness?

There’s no one specific cause of loneliness, but often, people become lonely because of some type of life transition or lifestyle choice that reduces the number of perceived connections with other people, both physically and emotionally. Some factors that might cause loneliness include: 

  • Moving to a new city, state, or country: While a permanent change of scenery can often boost our mental health if new social connections aren’t formed (which takes approximately 300 hours), an individual might start to slip into feelings of loneliness. The chances of this happening are more likely if they choose to remain stuck in old habits that may not transition smoothly into their new environment. 
  • The loss of a romantic relationship: Romantic relationships can be chemically addictive, according to science. This means that when they end, the steady supply of oxytocin, dopamine, and more — which was fuelled by consistent physical touch and other forms of affirmation—is cut off. Those who experience a breakup are likely to spend a period mourning, possibly even passing through the 5 stages of grief. Loneliness is common when one’s romantic partner is suddenly and permanently out of the picture.
  • The loss of a friendship: Good friends are hard to come by—and maybe even harder to let go of, it seems. Friendships may not create the chemical dependency we feel in romantic relationships, but social connections with friends are essential to holistic health. Losing a friend may happen for a variety of reasons, but our self-esteem can take a hit if someone lets go of us, or if their toxic behavior forces us to step away. Removing friends from one’s daily life can easily lead to loneliness; replacing them is not only possible but necessary. 
  • The death of a family member or loved one: The grieving process can trigger a flood of emotions, including feelings of loneliness. Family members often are drawn closer together by death, but there’s still the absence created by the person who’s passed away.  

How Do You Deal with Loneliness After a Breakup?

A breakup can be one of the most difficult forms of loss to experience, and loneliness that can arise post-breakup usually revolves around coping with the marked absence of a romantic partner. 

As stated before, romantic relationships can create chemical addictions, which function beneficially during relationships, but once they’ve ended, can be harmful. The “heartbreak” of lost love is a very real physical and emotional process that our body has to recover from. 

Dealing with loneliness after experiencing a breakup might involve you: 

  • Sticking to a self-care routine: exercising, healthy eating, hydrating, and journaling can all compose a well-rounded self-care schedule.
  • Practicing gratitude: Your partner is gone, but what remains in your life? We’re often quick to disregard the roof over our heads and the food in our fridge; slowing down a bit to remain more mindful of these small things can help counteract the loneliness. 
  • Reconnecting with the people or things that you enjoyed before the breakup: Sometimes relationships can change our day-to-day routine, especially in partners that aren’t well-suited to one another. To regain lost connections, it may be useful to reach out again, building back relationships that might’ve gone neglected during a romantic relationship. This might involve getting involved in interest groups again and scheduling coffee with an old friend—whatever feels lost can often be regained. 

What Can Loneliness Cause? How Does Loneliness Affect Your Health?

Loneliness, if not dealt with, can cause serious physiological and psychological harm. Loneliness may cause sufferers to experience the following at higher rates than non-lonely individuals: 

  • Greater risk of cardiovascular illness, including heart disease 
  • Cognitive decline and signs of neurological aging 
  • Obesity 
  • High blood pressure 
  • Depression 
  • Anxiety disorders 
  • Premature death 

Loneliness is detrimental to our long-term health. Still, there is a difference between spending time alone and being lonely. Some individuals are introverted; they prefer to spend more time alone than extroverts, and this is perfectly normal. What matters most is the way that time spent alone makes someone feel.

How Can I Stop Feeling Lonely?

As stated previously, defeating loneliness will most likely include partaking in the activities you enjoyed before the onset of your loneliness. It will also involve participating in the social circles of your choosing. That said, loneliness often arises when we don’t have activities that we enjoy or social circles to start engaging with in the first place. Some ways to counteract loneliness, if you don’t have any outlets, include: 

  • Joining local clubs or interest groups to meet other like-minded people 
  • Performing volunteer work, which can reconnect individuals with their community and restore a sense of purpose and fulfillment 
  • Attending therapy or counseling to address how your loneliness is making you feel 
  • Going on dates, even casually, to get to know new people 
  • Joining a gym, or purchasing a monthly fitness membership at a club—staying active is one of the best solutions to combating negative emotions stirred up by loneliness

What Do You Do When Loneliness Becomes Unbearable?

When loneliness becomes unbearable, it’s time to talk with a mental health professional. Doing so will help to alleviate some of the mounting pressure and anxiety that often accompany intense feelings of loneliness. The type of provider you’re paired with depends on the severity and symptoms of your loneliness. Short-term, immediate solutions to reducing loneliness, if it becomes unbearable, might include: 

  • Listening to music or a podcast; while it’s not the same as human contact, hearing someone’s voice, or staying preoccupied with a melody, can help alleviate loneliness
  • Adopting a pet, which can often help lower our stress levels and is proven to alleviate feelings of loneliness
  • Running, an activity that’s been proven to be a steadfast way to overcome the daily challenges caused by stress, anxiety, and depressive symptoms—all of which can be experienced by lonely individuals
  • Taking a drive. Studies have also shown day trips can help alleviate chronic stress and anxiety, which when our environment is altered, may be easier to process

How Do You Cope with Loneliness During the Pandemic?

The COVID-19 pandemic represents a unique and challenging mental health situation for people everywhere. Coping with loneliness during this time is difficult—social environments require more space between people. And businesses, restaurants, gyms, retail stores, and more have all changed; meeting people, finding things to do, and maintaining close relationships with others all take more dedication than ever before. 

Some ways of handling feelings of loneliness during the pandemic include: 

  • Acknowledging the mental health effects of the pandemic—this is truly a difficult time for everyone. It is a period of social movements and unrest—but everyone is seeking shelter in some form. Don’t run from the uncomfortable feelings that you are experiencing; the current epidemic provides a unique opportunity to address mental health issues and conditions without stigma. 
  • Connecting virtually with the people around you—whether it’s a streaming service, a live chat, video call, or virtual date, finding ways to connect while remaining socially distanced (by choice or necessity) is key. Just remember that it’s not a substitute for face-to-face interactions. So if or when it’s healthy to interact with others in person, you should.
  • Getting out of the house as much as possible—as long as you’re healthy enough. Go for a walk, a run, or even a short jaunt down the street to get coffee. Loneliness can be made worse by spending more time inside, isolated, and apart from the outside world. Despite the virus, we can still enjoy ourselves. There’s no need to limit yourself to short trips, either: Consider taking a road trip, if needed. But whatever you plan, be sure to follow regulations set forth by your local and state officials.

The COVID-19 pandemic has created unique challenges and threats to the mental health of people everywhere, but the essential aspects of self-care and emotional stability have not changed. To properly combat the upsetting and potentially dangerous effects of the virus, a proper foundation should be established—one that prioritizes a sense of normalcy. 

This doesn’t mean ignoring our rapidly changing world, but preparing ourselves; we must hold on to the people and things that we hold dear. 

Table of contents

What Is Loneliness?

Are Loneliness and Being Alone the Same Thing?

What Are the Signs of Loneliness?

What Causes Loneliness? What Is the Main Cause of Loneliness?

How Do You Deal with Loneliness After a Breakup?

What Can Loneliness Cause? How Does Loneliness Affect Your Health?

How Can I Stop Feeling Lonely?

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Jason Crosby

Jason Crosby

Jason Crosby is a Senior Copywriter at Thriveworks. He received his BA in English Writing from Montana State University with a minor in English Literature. Previously, Jason was a freelance writer for publications based in Seattle, WA, and Austin, TX.

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