Chronic Loneliness: From Symptoms to How to deal with it in 2024

Jul 8, 20248 min
Author's Profile picture
Mave
Clinical Psychologist
a young girl who is sad and has chronic lonliness

What is Loneliness  

We all feel lonely from time to time in our lives. This sense of loneliness could come up due to lack of social connectedness or social isolation. It could arise because our social need to connect with people, being cared for or understood or a general sense of belongingness is not met. 

A lot of times loneliness is a brief experience. It can trigger due to various reasons such as 

1.Lack of Quality Relationships: 

Being lonely in a crowd is the feeling people get when they are surrounded by family and friends and people but  still feel very alone. This usually happens because while there are many people around, one does not feel connected or understood by them, leading to feelings of loneliness. 

2.Life Changes:

 transitions in life are inevitable. People move out of their homes, cities, and countries for work and other reasons, Change in location means leaving behind familiar people and physical proximity of relationships. Transitions like the loss of a relationship also tend to trigger loneliness and isolation.

3.Health Concerns: 

Mental health and loneliness have a close relationship. At times mental health concerns like social anxiety, depression, and Asperger's syndrome, can make it harder to connect with people, leading to feelings of loneliness. Sometimes, mental health conditions can reduce interest in social activities leading to social isolation. Similarly, other chronic medical diseases and physical ailments can also lead to loneliness as many diseases impact one’s socialisation due to limitations imposed by health restrictions. 

4.Social Isolation due to Discrimination:

Often, people feel lonely as they are being discriminated against, ostracised or isolated for their religion, caste, gender, sexual orientation, colour, socioeconomic status etc. 

There are many other reasons or causes of loneliness, however the experience is usually brief, and temporary. However, if these feelings of loneliness are long-term, worsen over a period of time, and impact your well-being, it warrants a closer look and steps to take care of it. 

What is Chronic Loneliness

Chronic loneliness is characterised as persistent feelings of social isolation and lack of meaningful relationships along with disconnection over a considerable amount of time. It constantly makes the person feel isolated, different, and separated from others. It is a persistent emotional condition that differs from temporary or situational loneliness. It can also be connected to deep-rooted feelings of self-doubt, low self-esteem, and social anxiety. 

Difference between (occasional ) Loneliness and Chronic Loneliness 

1.Chronic loneliness is a persistent feeling of loneliness that can remain for weeks, months and years. In contrast, occasional loneliness is a brief episode that is more temporary in nature. It may last for a couple of hours, days or a couple of weeks. 

2.Another leading distinguisher is that occasional loneliness is often triggered by specific circumstances; e.g. moving away from a loved one, relocating to a new place, temporary loss, etc. While chronic loneliness is not specific to an event.

3.Chronic loneliness considerably impairs the daily functioning of the individual and lowers the quality of life, relationships, productivity at work or school, etc. whereas occasional loneliness does not severely impact regular daily activities.

4.Occasional loneliness is a common occurrence which can , motivates us to seek social connections. Chronic loneliness on the other hand can be debilitating. Its persistent nature can affect one’s well-being and thus needs assessment and intervention by a psychologist.

chronic lonliness

Statistics:

Many individuals who report feeling lonely display clinically significant traits of chronic loneliness, regardless of the size of their social network and the people around them. Perhaps, loneliness is a common experience encountered by huge populations irrespective of their age divisions, biological sex, economic status, etc. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that approximately 20 to 34 % of individuals worldwide report feeling lonely on a regular basis. Overall, up to 80% of the general population experiences loneliness whereas, approximately 22-47% report traits of chronic loneliness.

Recognising the Signs of Chronic Loneliness

Symptoms and behaviours: 

Symptoms of chronic loneliness might differ for everyone, some common experiences of people experiencing chronic loneliness are described below:

1.Feeling lonely even though you might have friends and family around, you might feel like you can't really talk to them about the important stuff. It's like you're only exchanging basic pleasantries, not really getting to know each other better. The relationships seem to be at a very surface level lacking depth and intimacy.

2.You might have some friends, but they feel more like acquaintances. It doesn't feel like you have any super close buddies. Like, the kind you can tell all your secrets to and who totally understands you.

3.Even in a crowd, you might feel alone. Like there's an invisible wall around you keeping everyone else out. This can happen anywhere - at parties, even though you are surrounded by known people, you feel disengaged, separated and distant. At work, too, you might experience a similar sense of isolation, and distance from people. You may feel separated from other people even in a crowded place like a bus, metro or crowd, as if you are in an unbreakable bubble. 

4.Sometimes you might feel not good enough, like something's wrong with you. This feeling of self-doubt keeps you distant and away from opening up with people and being close to them.

How does Chronic Loneliness Occur?

Current studies show that various personal, social, environmental and psychological factors play a role in the manifestation of chronic loneliness. Loneliness can result from personal factors such as mental health conditions, personality traits and life changes. Living remotely for an excessive period of time, changes in demographic location and lower levels of social engagement can also be pivotal reasons for developing chronic loneliness. Occasionally, negative cognitive thoughts or patterns, difficulty dealing with past trauma or lack of support can also be a potential cause. Moreover, chronic loneliness may arise if these issues are not addressed in a timely manner.

Who’s Most at Risk?

Numerous researches indicate that young adults are most vulnerable to long- term loneliness. At the same time, individuals battling mental illnesses, disabilities and chronic illnesses are also at high risk. The prevalence of chronic loneliness among caregivers is also documented as very high. Many cultures do not support the idea of seeking professional help. Henceforth, the willingness to ask for support is too low among them leading to a higher probability of facing this condition.

Why Does Chronic Loneliness Hurt[Painful] So Much

Chronic loneliness hurts so much because we are wired as social creatures. Here's a breakdown of why it feels so bad:

1.Connection is a Basic Need: Just like needing food and water, humans have a deep need for social connection. It makes us feel happy, safe, and supported. When this need isn't met for a long time, it can feel like something's missing, leading to sadness and pain.

2.The Body Feels It Too: Loneliness isn't just emotional. It can affect your body's stress hormones. A stressed body can lead to increased aches and pains in the body. So it just doesn't feel painful at an emotional level, but chronic loneliness can impact the way you experience physical pain as well. It can also affect your sleep and appetite leading to more pain and dysfunction.

3.Evolutionary Warning: From an evolutionary point of view, staying in a group meant that one might survive longer. Staying in groups is one’s approval ticket for longevity as one might be able to fight and protect oneself from predators successfully as a part of a group. So, not being in a group or feeling a sense of lack of belongingness can act as a warning sign from the past , to seek a social group for the sake of protection and safety.

4.Pain of Rejection: chronic loneliness can feel like constant rejection. It's like nobody wants to play with you, which can be pretty hurtful.

The Physical Impact: Can Chronic Loneliness Kill You?

Chronic loneliness can definitely have a significant negative impact on your health, 

Loneliness and Health:

1.Weakened Immune System: Chronic loneliness leads to increased stress hormones which can alter your body's natural defences, making you more susceptible to getting sick and taking longer to recover.

2.Sleep Issues: Loneliness can disrupt your sleep patterns, leading to insomnia or hypersomnia. Disruption in sleep cycles is known to cause consequences on both our physical and mental health. 

3.Poor Diet: Loneliness makes it very easy to stop caring for oneself. One of the things that gets impacted in self-care is how well we feed our bodies. Cooking exclusively for oneself might feel like a task, and many people staying alone, and going through feelings of loneliness tend to stop cooking for themselves and end up either not eating or eating out too much. This impacts one’s quality of nutrition and unhealthy changes in weight and fitness. 

4.Mental Health: Chronic loneliness is often linked to depression and anxiety, which can further worsen your physical health.

While loneliness can contribute to health problems that increase your risk of death, it's unlikely to be the sole direct cause. Chronic loneliness is a serious issue that shouldn't be ignored. If you're struggling with it, there are steps you can take to feel better and improve your overall health.

4 Tips for Dealing with Chronic Loneliness

Chronic loneliness should not be overlooked. While it is not a diagnosable mental health condition, it can lead to physical and mental health concerns. It also impacts the overall quality of life. It can be very well managed with the right tools and support.

"We fear loneliness, Annie, but loneliness itself does not exist. It has no form. It is merely a shadow that falls over us. And just as shadows die when light changes, the sadness can depart once we see the truth. What's the truth? That the end of loneliness is when someone needs you. And the world is so full of need."  -Mitch Albom, Tuesdays with Morrie

This excerpt is from the book Tuesdays with Morrie, it elaborates beautifully about loneliness as something that is not tangible. It can be overcome with connection and finding purpose. 

Some of the ways through which chronic loneliness can be overcome

  1. Speak with a therapist, psychologist or a psychiatric social worker: Feelings of social isolation and disconnect are not the only manifestations of chronic loneliness. It is often linked to persistent, deep-rooted self-defeating, critical thoughts and self-esteem issues. Working with a professional helps you navigate your feelings of social isolation.
  2. Chronic loneliness also occurs due to a lack of meaningful connections. Try to take simple yet consistent steps to engage with people. Pick up on volunteering or doing things that you find interesting. If you can't pick up anything right away, think back to your childhood. What was something that you particularly enjoyed? Pick that up with a commitment to engage with people while also reinvesting in that activity. It helps with rebuilding one’s sense of worth and also builds connections.
  3.  Exercise and being in nature immensely benefit one’s overall mood. The feelings of loneliness naturally pull down one’s emotions and moods. Exposure to sunlight, nature and movement can help to elevate mood and a sense of wellbeing. 
  4. Join a support group, particularly if your chronic loneliness is a result of another problem you are addressing, such as substance abuse, losing a loved one, a breakup or divorce, having a chronic condition that isolates you, etc. Getting encouragement and support from people who might be experiencing similar things could help reduce the symptoms of chronic loneliness.

Read more on how to cope with loneliness.

Even though there's no one-size-fits-all cure for loneliness, there are still ways to feel more connected. It might feel tough, especially if you're shy or introverted, but building friendships or strengthening existing ones is totally possible. It just might take some effort. Remember Chronic Loneliness is not a diagnosable mental health condition. It is an experience due to underlying issues. However Persistent chronic loneliness is not good for anyone. It only makes you more vulnerable and prone to health conditions - both physical and mental. So, don’t hesitate to talk to a mental health professional about it. 

References

Shiovitz-Ezra, S., & Ayalon, L. (2010). Situational versus chronic loneliness as risk factors for all-cause mortality. International psychogeriatrics, 22(3), 455-462.

Martín-María, N., Caballero, F. F., Miret, M., Tyrovolas, S., Haro, J. M., Ayuso-Mateos, J. L., & Chatterji, S. (2020). Differential impact of transient and chronic loneliness on health status. A longitudinal study. Psychology & Health, 35(2), 177-195.

Author's Profile picture
Mave
Clinical Psychologist
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