If you’re chronically lonely, there are small changes you can make to help satisfy your need for connection and social interaction.

Loneliness occurs when your needs for socialization do not get met. This requirement can vary for everyone. Most people experience loneliness from time to time.

You may enjoy being alone, while others thrive on social interactions. But both you and a social butterfly can experience loneliness if you don’t get to connect with people as much as you need.

If you feel lonely all the time and want to stop feeling this way, there are steps you can take to connect with others and start feeling less alone.

Loneliness occurs when your needs to socialize do not get met. This can happen for short periods of time, such as when your friends go away for the holidays or when you go home from college, leaving all your friends.

Chronic loneliness is different. It occurs when you continually do not have the social interaction you need over the course of several weeks, months, or years.

Neither loneliness nor chronic loneliness is a classified mental health condition, but chronic loneliness can lead to mental health problems, such as depression, or other effects, such as alcohol use disorder.

When does loneliness occur?

Loneliness is also not the same as being alone. Being alone can be beneficial, allowing you to reset or rest. Different people need different amounts of alone time. You may thrive on it, but you still need to fulfill your need for socialization, even if it’s less than your social butterfly friend or neighbor.

Loneliness can occur even when you are physically around other people. According to a 2019 research review, loneliness can occur when you don’t have a psychological or emotional connection to those around you.

By contrast, social isolation, which can occur with loneliness and often gets meshed in together, occurs when you severely lack notable interactions over a period of time. They often get grouped together, which makes it difficult for researchers to separate the two concepts, but they are two distinct social conditions.

If you feel your need to be around other people is unmet, this can lead to sadness, decreased energy, and self-doubt, among others. In other words, it can occur in isolation or around people you do not feel connected to.

Loneliness can feel like an emptiness or sadness, particularly when you’re alone. Chronic loneliness can lead to a worsening of these symptoms and more.

Potential symptoms can include:

  • inability to focus
  • sleep issues
  • decreased energy
  • increased shopping
  • feeling foggy
  • depressed appetite
  • substance misuse
  • bodily pains and aches
  • tendency to get sick frequently
  • desiring physical warmth
  • desire to binge-watch movies or shows
  • anxiousness or restlessness
  • feelings of self-doubt, hopelessness, or worthlessness

Several events can lead to feelings of loneliness. It can turn into chronic loneliness if the feelings do not go away for a long time.

Some events that can trigger loneliness can include:

Older folks have a higher chance of developing chronic loneliness. According to a 2020 report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM), social isolation and loneliness are serious, though under-discussed, public health risks. They note that 1/3 of all adults over 45 feel lonely.

Other experts estimate that between 40 to 69% of people in the United States feel lonely.

Causes in older folks can be similar for younger ones and can include:

  • sensory impairments, such as hearing loss
  • chronic illness
  • living alone
  • the loss of family or friends

Loneliness, particularly chronic loneliness, can lead to bad effects on your mental and physical health. Some possible mental health issues that may arise include:

Physical side effects of loneliness

Physical side effects of loneliness can also be serious and lead to higher rates of mortality. Some possible complications associated with loneliness can include:

  • lack of physical activity or obesity
  • heart issues, including coronary artery disease, chronic heart failure, high blood pressure, and higher cholesterol
  • higher rate of becoming sick, such as from a cold
  • substance misuse
  • lack of healthcare access

A 2019 study looked at the effects of loneliness on the brain. They found that, regardless of the size of the person’s social network, people who reported feeling lonely had clinically significant reductions in certain areas of their brain. They noted that, long term, it could impact emotional processing and memory.

Loneliness may also affect your sleep. According to a 2018 study of over 600 older folks, both social isolation and loneliness independently affect sleep quality.

Chronic loneliness is not a diagnosable condition. However, this does not mean it’s not important to treat. What it does mean is that there are no standards of care for loneliness, as there are for mental health conditions like anxiety, bipolar disorder, or depression.

A good place to start, if you are feeling lonely is to speak with a therapist. A therapist may be able to help you figure out the source of your loneliness and provide you with steps, specific to you, to help you find meaningful connections with others.

In fact, therapy itself can help with feelings of loneliness as the relationship with your therapist can feel quite meaningful and fulfilling.

In addition to therapy, you may find taking some steps on your own to meet and connect with others helpful. Some potential ways to make connections with others include:

  • try reaching out to distant family members either through social media, a phone call, or video chatting
  • contact a friend or friendly acquaintance to see if they’d like to go for coffee, see a movie, or have lunch or dinner
  • find a local group that participates in an activity or sport you enjoy, like basketball, painting, pottery, theater, or other activities

You may also find that treating any underlying conditions, such as depression, is helpful. This may involve a combination of therapy and medications to help you start feeling better. It may also allow you to take more steps to meet others or better connect with those you do know.

Chronic loneliness can occur even if you are surrounded by people and friends. It is a deep feeling of not connecting with others around you and is different from social isolation, though the two conditions can occur together.

Loneliness can lead to both psychological (depression, anxiety, stress) and physical health issues (heart disease, sleep issues, changes to the brain).

There are no standard treatments for loneliness, though therapy and reaching out to others through activities may help. You may also benefit from treating any underlying health condition, such as depression and anxiety. This may help you connect with those around you and feel like yourself again.