Short-term bouts of loneliness can occur to many people at some point in their lives. These types of feelings are typically brief and not considered chronic. However, when feelings of loneliness and isolation worsen and continue long-term, there may be more serious signs and symptoms to be aware of and steps you can take to help deal with chronic loneliness.
What is chronic loneliness?
Chronic loneliness occurs when feelings of loneliness and uncomfortable social isolation go on for a long period of time. It’s characterized by constant and unrelenting feelings of being alone, separated or divided from others, and an inability to connect on a deeper level. It can also be accompanied by deeply rooted feelings of inadequacy, poor self-esteem, and self-loathing.1
Ongoing loneliness can afflict even the most seemingly outgoing person. Being the "life of the party" doesn't necessarily exclude someone from being chronically lonely. This type of chronic, or long-term loneliness, can eventually impact all areas of your life.
What are the main signs and symptoms of chronic loneliness?
Chronic loneliness symptoms and signs can differ depending on who you are and your situation. If you consistently feel some or all of the following, you may be dealing with chronic loneliness:
- Inability to connect with others on a deeper, more intimate level. Maybe you have friends and family in your life, but engagement with them is at a very surface level. Your interaction doesn’t feel connected in a way that is fulfilling and this disconnection seems never ending.
- No close or "best" friends. You have friends, but they are casual friends or acquaintances and you feel you can find no one who truly "gets" you.
- Overwhelming feeling of isolation regardless of where you are and who’s around. You can be at a party surrounded by dozens of people and, yet, you feel isolated, separate, and disengaged. At work, you may feel alienated and alone. Same on a bus, train, or walking down a busy street. It’s as if you’re in your own unbreakable bubble.
- Negative feelings of self-doubt and self-worth. Does it feel like you are always less than enough? These feelings--long-term--are another possible symptom of chronic loneliness.
- When you try to connect or reach out, it’s not reciprocated, and you’re not seen or heard.
- Exhaustion and burn out when trying to engage socially. If you’re dealing with chronic loneliness, trying to engage and be social with others can leave you feeling exhausted. Continued feelings of being drained can lead to other issues like sleep problems, a weakened immune system, poor diet, and more.
Can chronic loneliness lead to health problems?
Long-term feelings of loneliness can affect your health in many ways. For example, chronic loneliness can drive up cortisol levels in the body. Cortisol is a hormone that your body creates when under stress. Over time, higher cortisol levels can lead to inflammation, excess weight gain, insulin resistance, problems concentrating, and more.2
If left unchecked, these chronic loneliness symptoms can put you at greater risk for more serious medical and emotional problems, including:3
- Sleep disorders
- Type 2 diabetes
- Heart disease
- High blood pressure
- Mental health and emotional problems
- Substance use
There is even the possibility that chronic loneliness and the health risks that come with it, could shorten one’s lifespan.4
If you think you are suffering with long-term feelings of loneliness, talk to your doctor or a therapist.
What does chronic loneliness do to your brain?
Research shows that chronic loneliness can have a significant impact on your overall health, including your brain health. Some studies even suggest that there may be a link between loneliness and an increased risk for developing dementia and Alzheimer's.5
Long term feelings of loneliness and social isolation can also reduce cognitive skills6, such as the ability to concentrate, make decisions, problem-solve, and even change negative self-beliefs. And it can ultimately lead to depression.7
Who’s most at risk for chronic loneliness?
Chronic, or long-term, loneliness can afflict all types of people. It’s easy to assume that someone who’s naturally shy and introverted might be most at risk, but outgoing, Type A, personalities can also suffer from chronic loneliness, even though they may appear to be the life of the party. This type of loneliness is not exclusive to any one personality type.
For some people chronic loneliness may become a side effect of a medical or emotional problem, including those dealing with the following issues:
- Substance use
- Depression and bipolar disorder
- Serious illness or disease
- Some mild forms of autism, such as Asperger's Syndrome
- Dementia and Alzheimer's
- Sexual orientation issues
All of these issues could also lead to long-term feelings of loneliness and isolation. Make sure your doctor, therapist, or other medical provider knows how you’re feeling emotionally.
What are some tips for dealing with chronic loneliness?
If you are dealing with feelings of loneliness that just don't go away, consider these tips:
- Talk to your doctor, a therapist, or another health care professional. Chronic loneliness isn’t limited to feelings of social isolation and alienation from others. It is often tied to ongoing and deeply rooted negative beliefs about yourself that can eventually lead to other medical and emotional problems. Let someone know what’s going on.
- Engage with other people in a positive, healthy way. Even though it may be difficult, try making the effort to connect with others. Volunteering, hobby clubs, workout groups, and other opportunities, can help boost self-esteem and provide a safe and satisfying way to connect with others.
- Get some exercise and sunlight. Getting active and out in the sunshine can help elevate endorphins and serotonin.8, 9 These “brain hormones” can boost mood, help improve sleep, and make people feel happier.
- Find a support group, especially if chronic loneliness is a side effect of some other issue you might be dealing with, such as substance use, loss of a loved one, loneliness from a divorce or break up, a chronic and isolating illness, etc. Receiving support and encouragement from others who may share similar feelings, could help ease symptoms of chronic loneliness.
If you are dealing with long term loneliness, the kind that doesn’t go away, talk to your doctor or another health care provider so they can help. Chronic loneliness is not just about feeling alone; if left unchecked it can put you at risk for serious physical and emotional issues.
This information is for educational purposes only. It is not medical advice. Always consult your doctor for appropriate examinations, treatment, testing, and care recommendations. Any third party content is the responsibility of such third party. Cigna does not endorse or guarantee the accuracy of any third party content and is not responsible for such content. Your access to and use of this content is at your sole risk.
15 ways to keep loneliness from turning into depression, Psychology Today, November 10, 2018, https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/fulfillment-any-age/201811/5-ways-keep-loneliness-turning-depression
2What happens in your body when you’re lonely? Cleveland Clinic, February 23, 2018, https://health.clevelandclinic.org/what-happens-in-your-body-when-youre-lonely/
3We’re learning more about how social isolation damages your brain and body—here are the biggest effects, Business Insider, July 3, 2018, https://www.businessinsider.com/why-loneliness-bad-brain-body-what-to-do-2018-5
4Loneliness may be a greater health hazard than obesity—and experts say it’s getting worse, Business Insider, August 7, 2017, https://www.businessinsider.com/loneliness-greater-public-health-hazard-than-obesity-2017-8
5Loneliness increases risk of dementia by up to 40%--but what does it mean to be lonely? Being Patient, October 26, 2018, https://www.beingpatient.com/loneliness-dementia-risk/
6Cognition, Psychology Today, https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/basics/cognition, accessed February 21, 2019.
75 ways to keep loneliness from turning into depression, Psychology Today, November 10, 2018, https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/fulfillment-any-age/201811/5-ways-keep-loneliness-turning-depression
8Is there a link between exercise and happiness?, How Stuff Works, https://science.howstuffworks.com/life/exercise-happiness2.htm, accessed February 19, 2019.
9Six Reasons You Need More Sun, According to Science, Self, April 2016, https://www.self.com/story/sunlight-benefits