What To Do When You’re Feeling Lonely
If you’re feeling lonely, you’re certainly not alone but you may not know what to do about it.
We all feel lonely from time to time and loneliness is something that just about everyone has experienced — or will — at some point in their lives.
It is a very common and normal human emotion.
I felt lonely and isolated when I first had my son. During a time when I expected to feel blissfully happy with my new baby, I greatly missed my old life and the freedom I enjoyed before becoming a mother.
During the global COVID-19 pandemic, many of us were locked inside, away from our friends, families, hobbies, and interests, and there was a dramatic rise in the number of people experiencing the pain of loneliness as a result.
As we’ll talk about, it’s important to first identify the type of loneliness you’re dealing with so you can take steps to feel less lonely — and that might not necessarily mean spending time with people.
I reached out to experts for tips and advice that can help you feel better and find meaningful ways to spend your time whenever you’re feeling lonely.
In this article, we’ll talk about:
- What It Means To Feel Lonely
- What To Do If You’re Feeling Lonely
Feeling Lonely? You’re Not Alone
What exactly does it mean to feel lonely?
Feeling lonely is not the same as being alone.
The philosopher Paul Tillich famously wrote: “Loneliness expresses the pain of being alone while solitude expresses the glory of being alone.”
With that in mind, being alone simply means that you’re physically by yourself.
Dr. Julianne Holt-Lunstad described loneliness to us as “the subjective feeling of being alone. It’s often described as a distressing feeling, but quite often, it’s defined as the discrepancy between one’s actual level of social connection and one’s desired level of social connection.”
For this reason, people who have lots of friends can experience this gap and feel lonely, while those with few friends may not suffer loneliness at all.
There are also different types of loneliness to consider.
The Roots of Loneliness Project outlines three main types of loneliness: situational, developmental, and internal loneliness.
- Situational loneliness comes about from changes that occur during a person’s life, like starting a new job or moving to a new town, and is usually short-lived or transient.
I personally felt very lonely in my job as a journalist when I first moved to New York. My colleagues preferred to use an instant messaging service rather than communicating face to face and we spent most days in silence.
- Developmental loneliness can emerge when a person doesn’t feel like they’re developing at the same rate as their peers. It can also be short-lived.
Developmental loneliness typically develops during childhood, adolescence, or early adulthood, but it can arise from differences in socioeconomic or cultural statuses between a person and their peers.
- Internal loneliness is a more complex issue, however. This type of loneliness is deeply personal and may be rooted in one’s personality and inability to make meaningful connections with others.
Internal loneliness is more likely to be chronic and requires greater time and effort to resolve, which might even require therapy or professional help to do so.
Once you have identified the type of loneliness you have, it will be easier to find a solution, which we’ll outline below.
If you are feeling lonely it is important to remember that you are not alone in feeling this way.
Personally, I found the beginning of the pandemic to be an incredibly lonely time. I was so used to taking my son to play dates and music classes all over the city and I often met friends for coffee or drinks.
Suddenly, I was trapped within the four walls of my apartment with a very busy toddler while my husband tried to work in the next room.
My life felt very small.
The Office for National Statistics found that levels of loneliness in the UK increased since the pandemic began, as well. Nearly 3.7 million people said they felt lonely often or always.
In another national survey of American adults, 36% of respondents reported serious loneliness, feeling lonely “frequently” or “almost all the time or all the time.”
But feeling lonely is normal and it is actually what makes us human.
I spoke to Robin Hewings from the Campaign To End Loneliness in the UK.
“Loneliness is an issue that needs to be taken seriously. It isn’t just a sad thing that you write songs about, it is a normal part of what it is to be human,” he said.
John Cacioppo, social neuroscientist and author of Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection, describes humans needing socialization in the same way that we need food and water.
I spoke to psychologist Dr. Anastasia Parsons who stresses that anyone feeling lonely should remember that loneliness is an emotion just like any other.
We all feel sad, angry, happy, excited, or scared and loneliness is just another feeling that we should not ignore or dismiss.
“We all have the capacity to feel lonely at any given time. It is normal,” Dr. Parsons said, adding that “it’s important to identify it and address it.”
Author Toni Bernhard understands feeling lonely as she has lived with an illness that has kept her pretty much house-bound for 20 years. She also described loneliness as an emotion when I spoke with her.
“First, realize that, like all emotions and mental states, both pleasant and unpleasant ones, loneliness is impermanent,” Toni explained. “Emotions are as changeable as the weather. They blow into our minds, they blow out.”
The most important thing is to acknowledge loneliness and identify it.
“Check in with yourself. Focus on why you are feeling this way,” Dr. Parsons said.
Toni provided an important reminder, as well.
“Don’t think of loneliness as permanent,” she said. “We tend to take unpleasant mind states and emotions and exaggerate them way out of proportion, assuming they’re here to stay. They’re not.
“When loneliness pays a visit, treat yourself as kindly as you can,” Toni advised. “It’s not your fault that you’re feeling lonely.”
What To Do When You Feel Lonely
If you are feeling lonely there are several things you can do but you should begin by trying to identify the experience of loneliness.
Are you lonely because you are unfulfilled in your relationship? Do you feel unwanted by friends or family? Or are you missing loved ones because you are separated from them?
This is where you need to pinpoint what sort of loneliness you are experiencing and work out what you need.
Additionally, you should consider the length of time you’ve been experiencing loneliness.
In this section, I’ll offer advice for how to cope with:
How To Deal With Short-Term Loneliness
Certain types of loneliness fit into this category.
Everyone’s experience is different and you might find that what started as short-term loneliness has developed into long-term, chronic suffering.
If this is the case, it may take more time and effort to find a solution.
I can relate. When I first moved to New York from London I found myself missing my family and friends back home and feeling very lonely.
If you’re facing transient loneliness, there are things you can do to make you feel better.
- Look for opportunities to have small interactions with others.
“First, acknowledge it for what it is. Second, feel no shame, knowing you’re not alone in your loneliness and it’s a common condition in the times we live in. Humans are social animals for whom connection and belonging are important.
The trick in today’s modern world is finding ways to do that. Connection can be found anywhere, even with the simple act of asking the person who serves you coffee about their tattoo or asking a stranger about their cute dog.”
Dr. Parsons agrees that what might seem like small, insignificant interactions can have a profound impact on your mood.
“Strike up a conversation with a salesperson or even the barista,” she suggested. “If you greet your doorman every day, you will find that there will start to be genuine care there. Don’t underestimate that.”
Robin Hewings at The Campaign To End Loneliness said, “Little interactions can make a huge difference to your day. Small exchanges with people in a shop, or on the bus gives you a feeling that you live in a more friendly place.”
- Communicate your loneliness to others.
If you are feeling lonely, you should tell someone about it.
Many people don’t want to admit that they are feeling this way but it is the quickest way to feel better.
Dr. Parsons said, “It’s ok to say ‘I’m feeling lonely.’ Tell your partner, tell your friends, reach out via text message, or email, pick up the phone and call a friend. Communication is huge and you will immediately feel better.”
- Use technology to make connections.
The best way to find activities or events that will help improve your mood is to get online.
If you are feeling homesick, for instance, a regular FaceTime date with loved ones back home will help you reconnect with those you are missing most.
Additionally, you can use technology to search for events in your local area. Apps like Nextdoor allow you to easily contact people in your community.
I use the app Peanut, which provides a way for mothers to connect with other moms in their area.
You can create a profile with your interests and the age of your baby so you can meet people in a similar stage as you. As a new mom, for example, you don’t necessarily want to hang out with moms with teenagers!
Peanut was an absolute life-saver when I had my first son and was struggling to meet people. I have made life-long friends through this app.
- Get organized and make plans.
To ease short-term loneliness, make plans — no matter how small — and stick to them.
Dr. Parsons, the psychologist I spoke to earlier, advises her patients who are feeling lonely to use the “three-week rule.”
“If you can map out your schedule for the next three weeks, you get into the habit of making plans, it doesn’t become such a scary thing to do,” she said.
“You always need something to look forward to,” Dr. Parsons explained. “The plans can be as big or as small as you like. Even if it’s just arranging to call someone at a certain time.”
“If you feel like you really can’t make any plans at all, not even to call someone, it’s probably time to seek professional help,” she advised.
Scheduling a recurring appointment, phone call, or meet-up with friends or family is a great way to connect because it then becomes a habit that is harder to break.
Until you’re used to such appointments, set a reminder on your phone so you don’t miss them.
You might even consider buying yourself a paper diary or a wall planner so you have a place to write them down.
This allows you to see what you have going on during any given week at a glance, but the act of writing your plans down on paper can also make them feel tangible.
- Find creative ways to enjoy solitude.
Being with people isn’t always the best way to beat feelings of loneliness.
Sometimes, solitude and self-care can be very beneficial to your mental health and overall well-being.
Try going for a walk in nature, but challenge yourself to find a new route that you have never been on before. Or better yet — close your eyes, point to a spot on a map, and walk there.
You might even make a goal of saying “hello” to three or four people during your walk, just to see what sort of a response you get.
If you walk or jog at the same time every day, you might start to notice the same faces over and over.
If you don’t feel like going out into the world, why not start that box set that you have been wanting to watch for months? Additionally, you might create a list of must-see movies or books that you’ve been meaning to get to.
You could try working your way through a cookbook and challenging yourself to prepare every single recipe in it at least once.
If you’re in the mood for organization, maybe it’s time to finally put all your photos into a physical photo album.
What matters here is finding something that makes you feel better, whether it’s reading, going on a bike ride, doing some yoga, soaking in a hot bath, or even knitting a jumper.
Most importantly, find the time to do those things regularly.
If you have tried coping skills for short-term loneliness to no avail, it may be time to reevaluate your situation.
Author Toni Bernhard said, “If loneliness doesn’t lift in a few weeks, it may indicate that it’s time to seek professional help. It could mean that you’re depressed or have some other mental health issue that needs addressing.”
How To Deal With Long-Term Loneliness
I’ll be honest with you: internal and chronic loneliness are arguably much harder to fix.
Someone struggling with chronic loneliness feels alone and isolated from others over a prolonged length of time, even if something situational or fleeting initially triggered their situation.
Internal loneliness, on the other hand, can be influenced by a person’s mental distress, feelings of guilt or worthlessness, feeling out of control, or having inadequate strategies to cope.
If you are struggling with long-term chronic or internal loneliness and the thought of even calling someone is daunting, it is necessary to tackle the root of the problem.
Examine why you are feeling this way.
If you feel adamant that you don’t need to speak to a professional or perhaps you have spoken to someone already but are still feeling alone, you might need to take baby steps.
But throwing yourself into any old social situation may not be the best idea.
“There may be some people in your life or certain situations that actually trigger a feeling of loneliness in you,” Toni Bernhard, the author I spoke with earlier, said.
She advised that you ask yourself if certain situations or certain people trigger your loneliness. “If the latter is true, it may be time to re-examine your relationship to those people,” she said.
The key instead is to find like-minded people with whom you can form genuine connections, rather than off-loading your problems on a “random stranger” (i.e. therapist) and expecting to suddenly feel better.
This is not a quick-fix solution. If you don’t want to see a mental health professional, you’ll need to work out what will help you feel better — on your own.
This can include listening to uplifting videos and podcasts, reading self-help books, or attending inspiring in-person seminars that bolster and teach mechanisms to break free from your long-term loneliness by finding the root cause.
Robin Hewings at The Campaign To End Loneliness recommends re-evaluating what makes you happy in your life and trying to find connections that way. He said:
“Find out what it is that you enjoy. Maybe it’s going dancing. Maybe it’s talking to friends on the phone. Maybe it’s walking, drinking coffee, or watching movies. There is no one-size-fits-all solution to chronic loneliness but you can find like-minded people who are much more likely to become real, reciprocal, and mutually beneficial relationships.”
He recommends volunteering as a really good place to start to find like-minded people.
“There is evidence that volunteering can be a good way of reducing loneliness,” Robin said.
“It brings you in touch with like-minded people in a way that can help to form a strong connection, by working together on a shared interest or project and helping others. These connections are much more meaningful.”
And Dr. Parsons, the psychologist I spoke with earlier, also recommends volunteering because it “shifts your perspective,” allowing you to push your problems aside and focus on helping others that are potentially worse off than yourself.
When I first moved to New York, a city where I didn’t have many friends, I volunteered at a fantastic organization called New York Cares.
It was a great way to meet people and get out of the apartment. I felt like I had to turn up because I would be letting people down if I didn’t.
For someone who is suffering from chronic loneliness, the idea of making new friends, or even reconnecting with old ones they may have lost touch with, is incredibly daunting.
But as Robin Hewings told me:
“Being chronically lonely is really serious. But you can recover. Doing these things and forming new friendships for someone with chronic loneliness sound like really tough things to do but they do work and they are worth it. So don’t give up.”
Loneliness is normal and should not be ignored, which is why it’s important to examine why you are feeling lonely and identify what it is that you need.
Perhaps you just need a quick social boost like having a coffee with a friend.
Or maybe you’ve felt lonely for a very long while, in which case you might need to invest some time in actually solving your loneliness, working toward creating more meaningful relationships.
Either way, be kind to yourself and don’t shoulder the blame for feeling this way.
If you take steps to manage and alleviate your loneliness, you can feel better again.