Feeling lonely? It’s totally normal (and not always about how many friends you have). Find out the four hidden causes of loneliness and what you can do about them.
Loneliness is totally normal and incredibly painful.
It can erode our mental health, undermine our physical health and rob us of our joy in life. Yet it’s also something that many of us are reluctant to talk about, mainly because of shame, fear and a worry that others just won’t understand.
If loneliness is something that you’re dealing with right now, then let’s start by saying that you’re definitely not alone in this (although it can certainly feel that way). Various studies have shown that anything from 25 to 48% of us feel lonely at any given time. For instance, the UK’s Campaign to End Loneliness reports that 45% of adults (25 million people) feel lonely from occasionally to often. And in 2021, the Office of National Statistics published a report stating that loneliness had increased by a staggering 40% during the pandemic.
The effects on our wellbeing can’t be underestimated — in fact, according to psychologist and loneliness expert, Professor John Cacioppo, loneliness releases the same amount of the stress hormone cortisol as being physically assaulted by a stranger. This means that feeling alone can take a huge toll on our mental health, causing or aggravating issues like anxiety, depression and addiction. Yet it’s also a big risk to our physical health, with research showing that it is just as dangerous as smoking. Shockingly, a 2015 study by Dr. Julianne Holt-Lunstad found that loneliness can increase a person’s risk of death by 26%.
But the question is — why do so many of us feel lonely? What’s causing this issue? And what can we do about it?
Despite cultural stereotypes that suggest otherwise, loneliness isn’t automatically linked to the amount of time we spend with others or even to our social skills. For instance, a person can have good social skills and lots of people in their life, yet still feel deeply lonely.
According to Cacioppo, when it comes to loneliness, living alone or the size of your social network is only weakly related to the feeling of being lonely. In his words, 'Loneliness is like an iceberg — it goes deeper than we can see’. This means that loneliness is often found in the feeling of being isolated with our experiences and emotions, rather than being physically separated from others. It is the painful sense that you are not seen, heard or understood by anyone around you.
But what causes us to experience these feelings? The truth is that the roots are often deep-seated and might stretch right back into childhood.
To understand why so many people feel lonely, we need to start by looking at the role of coping strategies in our lives. A coping strategy is basically a mental, emotional or behavioural tactic that we develop to manage stressful conditions. Often, we acquire these when we are quite young as a way of dealing with childhood fear, pain or uncertainty. For instance, a child whose parents argue a lot might develop the coping strategy of daydreaming to disconnect from their surroundings.
Unfortunately, it’s often the case that we hold on to coping strategies long after the need for them has ended (for instance, growing up and leaving an abusive home). And although we usually do this unconsciously, it can have a big impact on how we relate to others, causing us to filter current relationships through the lens of a painful past.
Here are four main coping strategies than can cause or increase loneliness:
Do you put more focus into being agreeable than being your real, authentic self? Do you sometimes feel that you ‘disappear’ when you’re around people?
People pleasers put other people’s needs above their own to an unhealthy degree, often losing sight of themselves in the process. They also avoid revealing their true thoughts and feelings to others for fear that they will be rejected, abandoned or even abused. It’s a behaviour pattern that can be rooted in growing up with a troubled or narcissistic parent with unpredictable moods. This meant that as a child, people pleasers learned to suppress their true self and turn their focus towards placating the parent. In a sense, they disappeared.
As an adult, this coping mechanism can cause weak boundaries and unsatisfying co-dependent relationships. You might feel that you rarely get to express the real you or that you don’t even know who the real you is. This can lead to deep feelings of loneliness.
What can you do about it?: Developing a stronger sense of self — including a clear idea of your needs, wants and boundaries — can be key to recovering from people pleasing.
In social situations, do you often feel the need to be the brightest and best? And do you worry that if you aren’t, you won’t be accepted, respected or even seen?
If you feel a need to impress others, then you might have grown up believing that you somehow weren’t ‘enough’ or worthy or love just by being yourself. Instead, you might have received the message that you had to perform, excel or stand out in some way. This belief can be caused by demanding parents, competition between siblings or a high-pressure school environment.
But whatever the cause, if you’re always ‘on’ around others then you never get to reveal your authentic self. And if you don’t allow yourself to be vulnerable in this way, then others might feel reluctant to show their vulnerabilities to you in turn. In the words of author Brené Brown, ‘Vulnerability is the core, the heart centre of meaningful human experiences.’ The need to impress can cause us to miss out on these meaningful connections.
What can you do about it?: Developing greater self-acceptance is a big part in letting go of the need to impress.
Do you often feel distanced from others? As if you are observing life from afar and can’t quite get close to people — even when you really want to?
Detachment is a state of disconnection from others that can make it difficult to receive care, love or support. As a result, it can be a big cause of loneliness.
There can be lots of reasons why people experience feelings of detachment, but trauma and Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) are big factors. This can include going through stress, abuse, neglect, poverty, social exclusion or bereavement, especially when young.
Adverse Childhood Experiences can cause us to develop a sense of isolation in our early years. As a result, we can sometimes carry (and hide) that lonely child inside of us well into adulthood.
Trauma (including conditions like PTSD and C-PTSD) can cause us to view other people as unsafe, meaning that we detach ourselves in social situations as a coping mechanism. This is especially true if we find ourselves easily triggered by others, for instance, experiencing sudden bursts of fear, anger or shame in interactions. As a result, it can seem easier and safer to remove ourselves mentally and emotionally from people altogether so that they can’t affect us. But all this does is lead us deeper into a loneliness trap.
What can you do about it?: Connecting with your emotions and processing old traumas can help you to feel safer in relationships. And remember, trauma isn’t necessarily caused by one big dramatic life incident — it can also develop through prolonged periods of stress in childhood or adulthood.
Do you feel as if you have an invisible wall around yourself? Do you avoid letting anyone get really close to you — even long term friends, partners or family members? Do you sometimes feel that people are overly clingy, suffocating or needy?
Putting up a protective wall — in other words, being emotionally avoidant — is a sure-fire way of sidestepping intimacy with others. But the trouble is that when we avoid intimacy, our relationships can become limited, superficial and short-lived, leading to loneliness. But what might be causing you to act in an avoidant way in the first place?
People with an avoidant attachment style might not have had their mental, emotional or physical needs met consistently as a child. As a result, they might find it difficult to receive love or comfort from others as they never learned how. Conversely, you can also develop avoidant patterns if you were suffocated by a parent’s needs when young — for instance, having a mother or father who was physically ill, depressed or addicted. This can mean that as an adult, you might feel panicked or overwhelmed by other people’s needs and feelings.
Either way, the protective wall that you built around yourself as a coping strategy in childhood can end up as a lonely fortress in adulthood.
What can you do about it?: Learning to become aware of patterns of avoidance in your life can be the first step in creating better connections with others.
Loneliness isn’t a simple issue with a single trite solution. And as we’ve explored, it can often have deeper roots that go way beyond how many friends we have. So while it’s important to try to forge healthy connections (through hobbies, volunteering and socialising), it’s also crucial to explore the hidden causes of why you might feel isolated.
So if you’re dealing with loneliness right now, then the first step might be in trying to understand yourself and your relationships better. It takes time but eventually you might find that a whole new world of deeper, more fulfilling connections opens up to you.
Therapy can be a useful step in discovering what it can be like to reveal your authentic self to someone — even the parts you usually keep hidden — and really feel seen and known. This can then make it easier to open up and connect with others.
Using therapy to explore your patterns in relationships can be helpful and this can shed light on the ways you protect yourself from emotional discomfort, why these defenses have developed and the impact they have now. Psychodynamic therapy is one approach that uses the relationship with the therapist to learn about yourself and highlight your patterns in other relationships. Schema Therapy and CAT are other therapies that do this but in a more structured way, drawing out patterns in relationships and then bringing in new information using experiential exercises. EMDR can also help you heal the wounds left by upsetting past experiences that are continuing to shape your relationships now.
As interactions with people can often evoke emotions, it can help to work on emotion regulation skills and assertiveness skills to increase your confidence in being able to manage any relationship challenges and tolerate the vulnerability necessary to connect. Structured, skills-based therapies such as CBT and ACT can help with this. CFT can also help you understand how your threat responses are impacting your relationships and support you to view yourself in a more compassionate light.
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