Could feeling lonely turn into depression? Or does depression make you feel lonely? Understanding the link between the two may help you cope.

Loneliness can hit you hard sometimes. It can come with feelings of hopelessness, sadness, and lack of motivation. So, is it depression?

As humans, we’re wired for connection the same way we’re wired for food, shelter, and oxygen. We need it in order to thrive.

For some, feeling lonely may start to look and feel like depression symptoms. For others, feelings of loneliness can come after experiencing other symptoms.

If this sounds like you, know that you’re not alone, and there is hope. It’s natural to feel down if you also feel lonely. But there are ways to cope.

Yes. Feeling lonely can sometimes cause you to develop symptoms of depression.

Researchers believe that depression is caused by a combination of factors, including:

Loneliness can sometimes be a contributing factor, too.

In fact, a 2018 literature review found that loneliness was considered a moderately significant variable in a sample of more than 40,000 people living with depression.

“Depression can be triggered by loneliness following a breakup, divorce, or death of a loved one,” said Lori Ryland, a licensed clinical psychologist in Kalamazoo, Michigan.

But that’s not all, she says, “[Loneliness] can even be experienced when in a crowded room filled with those who care about us.”

Feeling this way can make you experience sadness and hopelessness and affect your everyday life.

Stress hormones may play a role too

There may be some biological reasons why loneliness can lead to mental health conditions.

Research shows that feeling lonely increases the production of stress hormones, like cortisol, in your body, which can intensify symptoms of depression and anxiety.

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There’s an overlap between the signs of loneliness and the formal symptoms of depression, but there are some key differences.

You may think of feeling lonely and living with depression in similar ways. For example, you could experience:

  • irritability or anger outbursts
  • low patience and tolerance
  • self-doubt and low self-esteem
  • restlessness
  • sadness
  • physical symptoms like:
    • fatigue
    • muscle stiffness or heaviness
    • shortness of breath
    • heart palpitations
    • headaches

The biggest difference between loneliness and depression is that one is classified as a feeling and the other as a formal mental health condition, says ​​Pareen Sehat, a registered clinical counselor in Vancouver, Canada.

You can think of loneliness as a temporary emotional state, even if it may last a long time for some people.

Loneliness means that your mind and body long for connection. Typically, once you find connection, you’ll feel much better, says Sehat.

On the other hand, depression is a complex mental health condition that can be caused by multiple reasons, not just loneliness. Symptoms of depression often last longer and require professional support.

Sometimes, depression makes it harder to want to reach out and connect with others. On the other hand, feeling lonely may push you to act in the opposite way.

There’s also the matter of how long loneliness and depression last.

Loneliness can come and go or only last a short while. It can also last longer, depending on your situation. A diagnosis of depression, on the other hand, means you’ve experienced symptoms for at least 2 weeks, Sehat clarifies.

The best way to know if what you‘re experiencing is loneliness or symptoms of depression is to reach out to a mental health professional.

In either case, both loneliness and depression can be managed with support and coping skills.

What if you started feeling lonely now that you also experience other symptoms of depression?

Depression symptoms can include feeling tired, lethargic, or having little interest in the activities you used to enjoy, like being around loved ones.

In other words, living with depression could lead you to put yourself in some situations that may make you feel lonely over time.

This isn‘t a personal flaw but rather a consequence of the symptoms you experience.

So, it’s possible that loneliness isn’t only a contributing factor to depression, but it can also be a consequence.

You may feel like the people in your life don’t “get” you anymore, or like you’re somehow detached from them. Loved ones may tell you to snap out of your feelings or ask you why you would be depressed. This type of disconnect can increase feelings of sadness.

This situation can also lead you to withdraw socially even more. In turn, it could also make your depression symptoms more intense.

For some, it’s a painful cycle: depression, social isolation, more intense depression symptoms.

But this cycle can be broken.

If you’ve ever been to a party full of peers and felt isolated, that’s because being with people doesn‘t necessarily influence your feelings of loneliness, explains Ryland.

Being surrounded by people isn‘t always related to how you feel.

“One person may be disconnected from others and experience a gripping sense of loneliness. Another person may be completely alone and disconnected, yet feel a sense of peace, independence, and freedom,” she said.

A lot of it comes down to how you perceive your interpersonal connections and the quality of your relationships.

  • Do you feel seen?
  • Do you feel understood and accepted?
  • Do you feel valued?
  • Do you feel supported?

“Even being surrounded by others does not prevent feelings of loneliness. You can be in the middle of a crowd and still feel extremely alone,” she added.

Your emotional resources, including coping skills, may also make a difference. That’s why some people can manage being alone without feeling lonely.

As you might expect, social and physical isolation from the COVID-19 pandemic caused a spike in both loneliness and depression.

“Many people lost their loved ones during the pandemic,” says Sehat. “Moreover, people could not travel to meet their families or be with them. That lack of social connection, and the loss that many faced, worsened the loneliness factor in people.”

In fact, one study found that one-third of participants reported symptoms of depression as a direct result of the pandemic.

Interestingly, those who had frequent in-person contact with loved ones were less likely to experience loneliness and depression, compared with those who had frequent remote contact.

This showed researchers that the type of connection also matters when it comes to feelings of loneliness and depression.

If you’ve felt “connected” yet disconnected at the same time, you’re not imagining things.

The study results demonstrate that perhaps virtual services like Zoom or FaceTime can’t alleviate the sting of loneliness quite like an in-person connection.

For some, loneliness and depression can impact perspective like a heavy fog.

It may make it difficult to spot others just beyond the veil. If this sounds like you, know that there’s support available, and you don’t have to do this all by yourself.

You may want to consider seeking support if:

  • you’ve experienced symptoms of depression for 2 weeks or longer
  • symptoms are interfering with your self-care, work or school life, and relationships
  • you have contemplated suicide or self-harm

“When your feelings of sadness, hopelessness, and loneliness make it difficult to function in day-to-day life, or when you feel like it is too painful to go on feeling this way, it is critical to seek help from your family doctor or a therapist,” said Ryland.

“When you feel sad and lonely for a long time and it doesn’t seem to be lifting, there are therapies and medications that can help,” she added.

You’re not alone

If you need to talk, help is available.

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With the right support, both loneliness and depression can be managed. A good starting point may be reaching out to a licensed therapist and trying to prioritize your well-being.

“Make sure to focus on yourself and your health. Surround yourself with positive people. This will have a good impact on your mental health,” says Sehat. “You should also understand that this feeling is not permanent. Time will pass.”

It’s important to remember: Even if it doesn‘t feel like it sometimes, you’re strong enough to get through this.