It can be hard to talk about loneliness. Even though millions of people across the UK report feeling lonely, there’s still a social stigma attached to “being alone”. As a result, you might not know what the signs of being lonely are.
1. Feeling disconnected from other people
The most obvious sign of loneliness is a lack of physical contact with people. However, loneliness and social isolation are not the same things. While one person might enjoy spending most of their time on their own, another person would find this lonely.
The charity Mind defines loneliness as “the feeling we get when our need for rewarding social contact and relationships is not met”. So, if you have interactions with people but don’t feel rewarded by them, you may experience loneliness. Perhaps, you would prefer a close-knit social group or a deeper relationship with family members or neighbours.
2. Going through a significant life event
According to the NHS website, significant life events can trigger feelings of loneliness. Life transitions are complicated, and positive and negative experiences can lead us to feel lonely. This might be moving house, having a baby, or planning a big event.
We might also feel lonely in a new situation when we compare ourselves negatively with others. A 2017 study on new mums found that “reflecting loneliness” arose when they felt they weren’t doing as well as they should be.
3. Worsening mental health
The Red Cross is working to combat loneliness in Britain. According to their COVID-19 loneliness report released in 2020, two in five people say that loneliness is having a negative impact on their mental health. The report also includes small case studies that demonstrate how loneliness affects people’s mental wellbeing. For example, one anonymous Liverpool resident said:
“I want to get out, and then when I’m out I feel anxious. It makes me feel lonelier because I can see people out with other people enjoying themselves.”
If you think loneliness is affecting your mental health or vice versa, the NHS website can help. Their dedicated loneliness page has an abundance of resources, including a mood test to help you identify what’s going on, self-help guides, and contact details of organisations that can help you.
4. Noticing physical health problems
Research on participants aged between 60 and 106 found that "feelings of loneliness decrease one's evaluation of physical wellbeing". Likewise, a different study examined links between the common cold and loneliness. Researchers found that the perception of loneliness is more closely linked to self-reported illness symptoms than social isolation on its own.
This could be because lonely people are more likely to notice symptoms. Or, it could be that loneliness leads to negative thinking; when you’re feeling low, it’s easy to get weighed down with negative thoughts. Either way, if you experience new or worsening symptoms, you should get in touch with a medical professional.
5. Feeling sleep-deprived
Analysis shows that loneliness and sleep disturbances are related. Interestingly, it’s not how long, but how well, you sleep, which links to loneliness. However, it's not clear whether sleep deprivation causes loneliness or loneliness causes sleep deprivation. You might wake up from a poor night's sleep feeling lonely, but which problem should you address?
According to a recent 2018 study, a lack of sleep can affect more than just the sleep-deprived person. It seems that sleep deprivation can affect the way we interact and even make others want to communicate with us less. Researchers found that people who come in contact with someone who is sleep-deprived, even through a brief one-minute interaction, feel lonelier themselves as a result.
6. Not wanting to talk about loneliness
Avoiding facing loneliness head-on doesn't make it go away. If you're not comfortable talking about feeling lonely, it doesn't mean it's not there. A British Red Cross report found a significant discomfort over talking about the loneliness of friends and family during COVID-19. This was even though most people agreed that everyone had been negatively affected by lockdown measures!
Let’s Talk About Loneliness is a campaign supported by the UK government and many big-name charities and organisations. As part of their campaign, they invite people to use the hashtag #LetsTalkLoneliness to start conversations about loneliness. Their loneliness toolkit also provides practical support and advice to people who need a hand.
What should you do if you feel lonely?
First of all, don’t panic. You’re not the only one who feels this way. Loneliness is more common than you might think, but many people don’t know where to get help. The British Red Cross reports a low awareness of non-face-to-face support options for addressing loneliness.
Charities such as Age UK offer a wide range of support and activities for older people facing loneliness. They offer volunteer-led chats, social activities, days centres, lunch clubs, and much more. The charity can also help you improve your technology skills so you can make video calls and keep in touch with people online.
It’s also a good idea to talk to your GP about how you’re feeling. Health professionals can support you in various ways. For example, they may arrange for you to speak to a counsellor or join a local activity that can help.
In recent years, NHS England also launched social prescribing. The idea is to enable GPs, nurses, and other healthcare professionals to refer people to a range of local, non-clinical services. This could be community groups, activities, or emotional support networks. The government plans to build on this initiative and says medical professionals will refer 9,000 people to social prescribing by 2023/24.
If you recognise signs of loneliness, it’s best to talk to someone about it. If you’re interested in finding out more about resources and statistics on loneliness, have a look at our latest articles.