Loneliness is a tricky feeling to describe, despite being so common.
Many people might be concerned that they feel lonely too often or that their loneliness has become problematic for their well-being. Still, they can’t quite put their finger on what that loneliness feels like and whether or not it's a significant concern.
So what does loneliness feel like, and how do you know if you’re even experiencing loneliness?
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How common is loneliness?
Loneliness seems to be forever rising and is viewed as the ‘unseen’ social health epidemic of our time by many public health scientists, psychologists and sociologists.
What makes loneliness so pervasive is how universal and indiscriminate it is. The BBC Loneliness Experiment discovered that people in every age group experience loneliness. Perhaps surprisingly, 16 to 24-year-olds are the loneliest demographic, in part confirming the view that loneliness is increasing throughout time.
A survey by the Red Cross discovered that 1 in 5 UK adults felt lonely frequently or all of the time. 45% felt lonely sometimes.
These findings are replicated in studies across the world. Loneliness has the all-pervasive, universally experienced hallmarks of an epidemic.
Is loneliness normal?
You could argue that loneliness is part of the human condition - that it’s natural or even normal.
To some people, being alone might come naturally - some thrive off independence and even isolation. Isolation and solo experiences, like solo travel or partaking in creative projects like art, can be very wholesome.
For the most part, however, humans are social and gregarious creatures that crave contact with others. While isolation and loneliness can be endured and sustained for varying lengths depending on our personalities, there comes a time where we feel the urge to re-immerse ourselves in social life.
Many psychologists and sociologists argue that loneliness is an unnatural sensation. This goes some way to explain why it’s so damaging - because it provokes a negative physical and mental response.
Humans lived in tight-knit communities probably until the turn of the 19th-century. Communal living began to give way to a more independent, individualistic lifestyle, at least in countries undergoing industrialisation.
Eric Klinenberg, in Going Solo: The Extraordinary Rise and Surprising Appeal of Living Alone, explains how the rise of independent life and living alone evolved parallel to modern life.
Today, we can communicate with thousands of people all day long without seeing any of them face to face. It’s possible to live, work, sleep and eat without leaving the house.
Whilst every demographic can suffer loneliness, some suffer the effects and consequences worse than others.
Older populations are less likely to remain in contact with others via the internet or social media, which can provide some respite to loneliness - though this is a double-edged sword. Some researchers urge people to err on the side of caution when relieving their loneliness with social media. In contrast, others actively encourage it, especially in the case of very isolated elderly individuals.
The combination of technology keeping us apart and the rise of non-communal, individual living has ushered in a new age of loneliness.
Throughout the coronavirus pandemic, these sensations intensified for both regular and new loneliness sufferers. The visibility and awareness of loneliness have been renewed somewhat, which provides some promise that we can tackle loneliness together going forward.
Loneliness vs being alone: know the differences
Loneliness is often conflated with being alone, and both can be confused and conflated with social isolation.
These three concepts share considerable overlap, but in a nutshell, loneliness is an emotion and being alone is a physical state. Social isolation means inaccessibility to social situations and contact with others.
“Being alone is actually just a state; it means that you are not with other people. Loneliness is an emotion, which describes a feeling of sadness attributed to not having a connection.” - Sarah Adler, PsyD.
Age UK has been quick to point out that loneliness is not the same as social isolation either. Social isolation is the physical state of removal from social contact and situations. You can read our detailed guide to social isolation here.
This is one of the characteristics of loneliness that makes it difficult to gauge: you can be socially immersed in the company of others and still feel alone. The same is inversely true; you can be isolated and alone without feeling lonely.
Loneliness, as an emotional state, is often accompanied by negative emotions. Depression, anxiety and demotivation are the most commonly associated mental health problems. You might feel that loneliness is negatively affecting the way you live your life, altering your day-to-day habits and preventing you from leading a life that fulfils you.
Loneliness can creep up on us, starting small and growing into something increasingly bothersome.
This was apparent throughout the Covid-19 pandemic. People initially coped with lockdown quite well, enjoying their newfound peace and finding ways to experience their loneliness productively.
But, lingering in the back of our minds, most of us trusted this was a temporary setup and we’d be out and about again before we knew it. When that grinds on for longer and longer with no end in sight, this feeling transitions somewhat from being alone to loneliness.
Psychologists pointed out that we need to make distinctions between being alone and being lonely. Whilst our obligation to society might force us to spend time alone, we can’t dismiss that loneliness itself has a drastic impact on mental and physical well-being.
When loneliness becomes problematic for one's mental and physical well-being, it’s time to get help and take action.
To discover some effective strategies for reducing loneliness, read our guide here.
What does loneliness feel like?
The best way to answer this is to look at genuine accounts of loneliness online. There are many sites and forums where people gather to discuss loneliness, like Quora and Reddit.
“But for me, no one is there to hold, to hug or to share my sorrows or happiness. Where I can hug and cry like a baby or someone hug me tight and say I am there for you. But this all is in my thoughts but not in reality.”
Another says that there are five main features to feeling lonely; lack of attachment, jealousy, false pretence and fake conversations, loss of hope, and attempts to prove one's social image. Conversations with others simply patch the cracks of a more serious issue.
This respondent from Hawaii describes loneliness as; “like you are completely disconnected from others and the world. No one understands you or can understand you and you don’t care about trying to understand others, even meet other people. It feels like it would be a total waste of your time and energy. And yet, you long for that touch, that connection, that smile, those sweet reassuring words. Your heart feels squeezed and you sob at the pain of your loneliness. It physically hurts you.”
Channel 4 released a powerful account of loneliness in 2015. They ask two elderly individuals what loneliness feels like; their replies are an evocative description.
“It feels as though you’ve been dumped in the deep end and there’s no one there to rescue you”...”If you go out and come back, it’s an empty house, and it’s loneliness again”...“it’s something that’s thrown at you, and you can’t throw it back to everybody, so you’ve just got to carry on” - Roy Crouch.
"The room is just empty." - Margaret Nicholastells Channel 4.
Loneliness feels like a force as well as an emotion, as Roy Crouch describes. It’s a weight, a veil, that doesn’t leave you so long as you feel lonely. Loneliness is often described as a heavy feeling that you have to fight - you just have to carry on.
From these accounts, you can also glean that loneliness has both psychological and physical features. Loneliness is not just confined to the mind; it's also experienced in the body.
Many emotions are experienced or felt in the body, like 'butterflies in the stomach,’ ‘a sinking feeling’ and ‘heartache’.
PsychCentral explains how emotions and physically felt. Our brains send a series of impulses throughout our body when we experience emotion. Different emotions have a different 'program' that affect us on a physiological level.
It’s these physiological effects that help explain why loneliness is damaging both mentally and physically.
The health consequences of loneliness
The health consequences of loneliness are far-reaching. While loneliness can cause anxiety or depression, researchers believe that it has its own unique physiological profile.
Loneliness causes stress by raising the levels of cortisol in the blood. This increases blood pressure, raising the risk of cardiovascular disease and stroke.
The University of York found that loneliness and social isolation are linked to a 29% increased risk of heart disease and a 32% increased risk of stroke. Loneliness here presents a similar risk to cardiovascular health as obesity.
Steve Cole, PhD, director of the Social Genomics Core Laboratory at the University of California, told the National Institute of Aging that loneliness accelerates the kinds of arterial plaques that go on to cause stroke, heart attack and even dementia.
This major literature review has established links between loneliness and increased risk of:
- Cardiovascular disease and heart attack
- Type 2 diabetes
- Alzheimer's other neurodegenerative diseases
- Severe anxiety, depression and other mental health problems
What loneliness takes away from people’s health, social immersion gives back to them. Active social lives have been repeatedly linked with longer, happier and healthier lives. Social interaction is vital for the health of all humans and a potent force for keeping older people physically and mentally motivated.
Can we end loneliness?
More people are aware of loneliness than ever before, both in themselves and in others.
Awareness and education is the first step to beat loneliness. Still, loneliness cannot be fought alone, and we must work together to end it.
If you’re looking for assistance with loneliness and believe it’s affecting your day-to-day life, visit your GP. Your GP will know about loneliness, and you won't be the first, or the last, to talk to them about the way you feel.
You can also visit Age UK here if you're an older individual experiencing issues with loneliness.
Mental health charities listed on the NHS website here are ready to chat to you about loneliness. CALM and Mind are two organisations that have placed significant emphasis on loneliness. The charity Mind has put together a list of contacts for loneliness here.