Loneliness: How It Impacts Mental Health and How To Cope

Girl sitting alone in a room: loneliness is a universal human emotion that is complex and unique to each individual.
Photo by Sam Moghadam Khamseh on Unsplash

Loneliness: How It Impacts Mental Health and How To Cope

 Loneliness is a universal human emotion that is complex and unique to each individual depending on the age and the circumstances they are in. For example, a child at school can struggle to make friends and fit in, and may experience loneliness. An older adult who has recently been widowed experiences a different kind of loneliness. It has no single common cause. The prevention and treatment of this state of mind can vary dramatically depending on each person.

In order to understand loneliness, it is important to look at exactly what it means, its causes, health consequences, symptoms, and potential treatments for loneliness. 

What exactly is loneliness?:

Loneliness is not necessarily about being alone but instead is the perception of being alone and isolated. It is a state of mind where one perceives a gap in one’s desires for social connection and their actual experience. Loneliness can also be defined as inability to find meaning in one’s life, as well as a subjective and negative feeling related to deficient social relationships. It also describes a feeling of isolation and disconnectedness. Even if surrounded by others throughout the day or is in a long-lasting marriage can still experience deep loneliness. 

Researchers say that if you are feeling lonely more than once a week, you are suffering from loneliness.

There are three types of loneliness:

There are three types of loneliness depending on its causes: 

Situational Loneliness: Situational loneliness occurs when a person feels loneliness in response to a particular situation or environment. Fore example, a teenager who had to move towns and leave their friends may experience situational loneliness. A refugee who flee their country due to warfare or political disasters away from their home and community will certainly feel situational loneliness. Any life transitions such as relocation, new employment, becoming a parent, divorce or recent break-up, graduating from high school or college, sudden physical limitations and health-related issues can come with situational loneliness.

Developmental Loneliness: This type of loneliness occurs when a person feel as though they are not “developing” or reaching a certain level at the same rate as their peers. For example, children with both lower levels and higher levels of intellectual or emotional intelligence may be at risk of experiencing developmental loneliness. People who also perceive differences in socioeconomic statuses amongst their peers, such as coming from poverty to a university surrounded by those coming from a middle and upper class background, may experience developmental loneliness. Those who struggle to find a job right out of school while all their peers go off to start their career or internships may experience developmental loneliness.

Internal Loneliness: This type of loneliness comes from within. This type of loneliness is rooted in one’s perceived inability to make meaningful connections, and can be a reflection of their internal struggle of low self-esteem and negative thoughts of oneself. This person may feel depressed, have an overwhelming sense of worthlessness and guilt, or generally feel inadequate and therefore unable to make lasting and intimate relationships. 

Impact on physical and mental health:

There is no beating around the bush – according to the National Institute of Mental Health, loneliness leads to poorer physical and mental health. Loneliness is reported to be more dangerous than smoking; according to one study published in the journal PLOS Medicine, the health impact of loneliness is comparable to smoking up to 15 cigarettes a day. Loneliness is the silent and hidden killer of the elderly who often live alone, according to many studies. For those who are 60 years old and above, loneliness has become a disease in itself. Therefore, it is important to mention that prolonged loneliness can often lead to the following complications:

– Heart problems
– Depression
– Higher stress levels
– Decreased memory
– Drug abuse risk 
– Brain changes 
– Increased risk for Alzheimer’s and dementia
– Increased risk for suicide ideation and parasuicide

Signs and symptoms of chronic loneliness:

Those who have persistent, unrelenting feelings of loneliness and isolation may be suffering from chronic loneliness. Signs and symptoms of chronic loneliness can differ depending on the person and the situation but these are the signs to watch out for: 

– Inability to connect with others on a deeper level. Even if you are surrounded by family and friends your engagement with them could feel “surface level” and not deep or intimate enough. Your interactions are not fulfilling and do not make you feel more connected with them.

– Decreased energy. Chronic loneliness is a vicious cycle. When you feel lonely and disconnected from others, you may also experience lower levels of energy and motivation to reach out or plan social outings. Continued feelings of exhaustion and low energy can also lead to sleep problems, weakened immune system, and poor diet.

– Feeling that nobody truly “gets” you. You have friends, acquaintances, even a spouse but perhaps you feel as though nobody “gets” you or what you are going through. 

– Negative feelings of self-worth, low self-confidence. You feel as though you are inadequate or lacking in something and cannot shake off these feelings which in turn affect your ability to make new friendships and connections. Persistent, negative feelings of self-worth can be another symptom of chronic loneliness.  

Commonly used measure for loneliness is UCLA’s loneliness scale. It asks individuals about a range of feelings or deficits in connection such as: 
– How often do you feel a lack of companionship? 
– How often do you feel in tune with people around them? 
– How often do you feel there are people you can turn to? 
– How often do you feel there are people you can talk to? 

You can check out UCLA’s loneliness scale here

How to treat and ameliorate loneliness:

Loneliness is a common human emotion but a complex and unique experience to each individual. It has no common cause so the prevention and treatment for this damaging state of mind considerably differs. However, here are some effective steps you can take to decrease loneliness and isolation in your life: 

– Make sure you are taking care of yourself. Are you eating healthy meals, getting enough sleep, and getting physical exercise on a regular basis? You may feel low energy and exhaustion at the thought of social interaction but this low energy may also be partially caused by lack of self-care.

– Open up to your loved ones. You probably have good people in your life that you can deepen relationships with. Why not invite them for a coffee, lunch date, or a dinner and movie at home? It may be good to start off one at a time if too many social activities sound exhausting to you.

– Find a class or activity. An effective step in combating loneliness is keeping busy and finding a class aligned with your interests. Do you want to learn a new language or try a cooking course? Did you always want to learn the tango or karate? Investing in yourself and opening yourself up to new situations and friendships will serve you well in more ways than one.

– Volunteer and help the community. Research shows that volunteering keeps you in a positive mood and great for mental health. People who spend time helping others and volunteering often report back saying that they feel more appreciated and found something meaningful that help alleviate feelings of isolation and disconnectedness.

– Adopt a pet. Owning a pet may not be for everyone as it is a huge responsibility and comes with added veterinary costs. However research does show that pet ownership is associated with lower degrees of loneliness. So if you are an animal lover and have the time and means to do so, getting a pet could be a great idea – plus, it may open up your social circle to other animal lovers in your area.

– Seek a therapist. Persistent loneliness can be a vicious cycle where it feeds feelings of depression and helplessness, which in turn further increases your sense of loneliness and isolation. If you feel that your sense of loneliness is too overwhelming, it may be a good idea to seek a therapist who can help you. Having a therapist means you know that you are not truly alone in overcoming loneliness.

The spiritual explanation of loneliness:

Where does the spiritual problem of loneliness come from? God created us so that we could be with Him and not be apart from Him. If we were never meant to be alone, why does loneliness plague humanity? 

Genesis 2:18 reads: “The lord God said it is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him.” Thus God created Eve for Adam. Adam and Eve enjoyed the bond they had with God and the bond they had with each other. 

The fundamental problem of loneliness came from the breakage of the relationship between man and his maker. In Genesis 3, we see that the enemy Satan deceived man to disbelieve God’s word and deceived Adam and Eve to think they can be happy without God. Sin thus entered and they became captivated by the enemy. This separation from God led to all the curses in life – especially the breakage of all other human relationships in life. Adam and Eve were no longer best friends. Starting from Genesis 3, all types of relationships would be imperfect, full of conflicts, and utterly conditional. Thus, the negative feeling of loneliness is a natural result. It is inevitable. 

Christ suffered profound loneliness and isolation especially in his final days:

Jesus Christ is someone who has felt deep, profound loneliness. Even those closest to him betrayed him. Judas Iscariot sold him out for 30 silver coins. Peter disowned him three times. They were his closest friends, two of his twelve disciples. Christ was also forsaken by his father when he was dying on the cross.

Psalm 22:1-2 was a foreshadowing message about Jesus’ anguish in the garden of Gethsemane and on the cross. It reads: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, so far from my cries of anguish? My God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer, by night, but I find no rest.”

What the Gospel message has to say:

Jesus endured the wrath of being separated from God. However, he rose again and he proved to be our Christ. Jesus was willing to endure the greatest loneliness, separation, and isolation as he thought about you and me – so that we do not remain apart from God. Jesus made it possible for us to be with God again and to have communion and friendship with God again. All we need to do is just believe and receive this wonderful gift. Upon receiving this gift, we become a child of God and His Spirit fills our hearts. We are no longer alone as God is always with us. Even if no other person is close or understands us, we do not need to feel lonely if God is there with us all the time. 

Another blessing is that the Holy Spirit in me and you will allow community and friendship between us. This type of community and friendship is because we share the same spirit of Jesus who unites us in his love. Jesus Christ is one with us, creating a community through which he wants us to invite others to join the family of God until His eternal plan is fulfilled. This is a community that is not selfish or self-centered. We encourage you to try and find community with fellow Christians. 

You can watch the accompanying Anchor of Hope video here.

Enjoyed our blogpost? Subscribe to our newsletter for more resources on mental health and integrating the Gospel message in your healing journey. 

If you found our resources useful, please consider donating to Oak Health Foundation, which is a 501(3)c nonprofit dedicated to providing resources regarding holistic mental healthcare and subsidized treatment for those in need.

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