Are you lonesome tonight?

Elvis sang about missing his love but it’s likely that we all feel loneliness from time to time. In fact, it seems we’re going through a loneliness epidemic right now. It’s not difficult to see why, with family structures morphing to smaller units, people moving further away from family and friends for work or education, the growth of social media and remote working, to name a few.

The US Surgeon General, Dr Vivek Murthy declared it an epidemic last year after a cross-country listening tour helped him to understand its prevalence. He said that: “People began to tell me they felt isolated, invisible, and insignificant.”

We’ve known for a long time that isolation and loneliness is bad for our health. Dr Murthy’s report sensationalised its impact, saying it was as bad for our health as smoking up to 15 cigarettes a day. Regardless, we know that people thrive in the company of others and that limited interaction can lead to depression and anxiety as well as physical problems that affect the cardiovascular system and brain.

In my practice, I’m saddened by tales from those with limited mobility, chronic illness and those whose identities don’t fit into societal norms, about their struggles to fit in and be seen and heard authentically. It’s isolating and to be quite frank, we are all to blame for their lack of inclusivity. It’s a complex issue which isn’t the focus of this article.

Who does loneliness affect?

Loneliness can affect individuals of all ages, but research suggests that certain age groups may be more vulnerable to experiencing loneliness than others. Surprisingly, it’s the young who are affected most. In 2018, The BBC Loneliness Experiment which surveyed 55,000 people, found that levels of loneliness were highest in younger respondents with 40% feeling lonely, compared with only 27% of older respondents who completed the study.

Here’s a general breakdown of groups affected by loneliness:

  • Young Adults (18-25). Transitioning to adulthood can be a period of significant change, with individuals leaving home for the first time, starting college or university, or entering the workforce. Some young adults may struggle to establish social connections in new environments, leading to feelings of loneliness.
  • Older Adults (65+). Older adults may experience loneliness due to factors such as retirement, loss of loved ones, declining health, or social isolation. Changes in social roles and networks, such as children leaving home or friends passing away, can contribute to feelings of loneliness among older adults.
  • Adolescents (13-17). Adolescence is a time of identity formation and peer relationships play a crucial role during this period. Adolescents who feel marginalised, bullied, or excluded by their peers may experience loneliness.
  • Single Parents. Single parents, regardless of age, may experience loneliness due to the demands of raising children alone and limited opportunities for socialising.
  • Individuals with Chronic Illness or Disabilities: People living with chronic illness or disabilities may face physical limitations that affect their ability to participate in social activities, leading to social isolation and loneliness.
  • Widowed or Divorced Individuals. Individuals who have experienced the loss of a spouse through death or divorce may struggle with loneliness, especially if they lack a strong support network.

It’s important to recognise that loneliness is a complex and subjective experience influenced by various factors such as individual personality traits, social circumstances, and cultural norms. Therefore, interventions to address loneliness should be tailored to the specific needs and circumstances of each individual.

For example, introverts may benefit from smaller, more intimate gatherings, while extroverts might prefer larger social events. Personalised approaches that consider comfort levels and social preferences can enhance participation.

Why life events cause loneliness

Feeling lonely during difficult life events like death, divorce, or parenting a child through substance use can stem from several interconnected factors:

  1. Loss of Support Systems: During challenging times, individuals may experience a loss of social support networks. Friends, family members, or acquaintances might withdraw or become less available due to discomfort, lack of understanding, or their own busy lives, leaving the person feeling isolated and alone.
  2. Stigma and Shame: Events such as divorce or dealing with a child’s substance use can carry significant stigma and shame. Individuals may feel embarrassed or judged by others, leading them to withdraw from social interactions and keep their struggles hidden, further exacerbating feelings of loneliness.
  3. Changes in Relationships: Difficult life events can strain or change relationships with friends, family, or partners. Divorce, for example, often involves the loss of a significant relationship, while parenting a child through substance use may strain family dynamics and lead to conflict or estrangement. These changes can leave individuals feeling disconnected and isolated from those they once relied on for support.
  4. Emotional Distress: Dealing with challenging life events can trigger intense emotions such as grief, anger, sadness, or guilt. These emotions may be difficult to share or discuss with others, leading individuals to withdraw and isolate themselves as they struggle to cope with their feelings.
  5. Coping Mechanisms: People often cope with difficult situations in different ways, and some coping mechanisms, such as avoidance or withdrawal, can contribute to feelings of loneliness. Instead of reaching out for support, individuals may isolate themselves or turn to unhealthy behaviors as a way to cope with their distress.
  6. Perception of Others’ Lives: During tough times, individuals may perceive others as leading happier, more fulfilling lives, especially when comparing themselves to carefully curated images on social media. This perceived discrepancy between their own struggles and others’ seemingly perfect lives can intensify feelings of loneliness and inadequacy.
  7. Lack of Understanding and Empathy: Not everyone may understand or empathize with the challenges someone is facing. Individuals may feel misunderstood, invalidated, or dismissed by others, leading them to withdraw and feel even more isolated in their experiences.
  8. Fear of Burdening Others: People experiencing difficult life events may fear burdening others with their problems or worry about being judged or rejected if they share their struggles. This fear can lead to a reluctance to reach out for support, further isolating the individual.

Addressing loneliness during difficult life events often involves reaching out for support, seeking professional help if needed, and engaging in self-care practices that promote emotional well-being. Building connections with understanding and empathetic individuals, whether through support groups, therapy, or trusted friends and family members, can also provide valuable comfort and support during tough times.


An easy way to feel more connected with others is by volunteering. There are so many options that it should be easy to find an area to suit most people. 

Here’s how volunteering can help alleviate loneliness:

  1. Sense of Purpose: Volunteering provides individuals with a sense of purpose and fulfillment by allowing them to contribute to causes they care about. Engaging in meaningful activities that benefit others can boost self-esteem, confidence, and overall well-being, reducing feelings of loneliness and isolation.
  2. Connection with Others: Volunteering often involves working alongside others who share similar interests, values, and goals. This sense of camaraderie and teamwork fosters social connections and creates opportunities to form new friendships and support networks, mitigating feelings of loneliness.
  3. Social Interaction: Volunteering provides regular opportunities for social interaction, allowing individuals to engage in conversations, collaborate on projects, and build relationships with fellow volunteers, staff members, and community members. These social interactions can combat feelings of isolation and loneliness by providing a sense of belonging and connection.
  4. Expanding Social Networks: Volunteering exposes individuals to diverse groups of people from different backgrounds, ages, and perspectives. By expanding their social networks, volunteers have the chance to meet new people, broaden their social circles, and develop meaningful relationships, reducing feelings of loneliness and social isolation.
  5. Distraction from Personal Challenges: Volunteering can serve as a positive distraction from personal challenges, difficulties, or feelings of loneliness. By focusing on helping others and making a positive impact in their community, volunteers can shift their attention away from their own struggles and find fulfillment in supporting others.
  6. Building Empathy and Compassion: Engaging in volunteer work allows individuals to develop empathy, compassion, and understanding for others who may be facing challenges or hardships. This sense of empathy can foster deeper connections with others and provide a sense of shared humanity, reducing feelings of loneliness and fostering a sense of connection and belonging.

Overall, volunteering offers a multifaceted approach to combating loneliness by providing individuals with a sense of purpose, social connection, and opportunities for personal growth and fulfillment. By giving back to their communities and supporting others in need, volunteers can find meaning, connection, and companionship, ultimately enhancing their overall well-being and reducing feelings of loneliness.

Can technology help?

While technology can facilitate connection and communication, it’s important to recognise its potential negative impacts on mental health and well-being. 

Here’s how technology can contribute to feelings of loneliness:

  1. Substitution for Real-Life Interaction: Spending excessive time on digital devices, particularly on social media, can lead to a substitution of real-life interactions with digital ones. While social media can provide a sense of connection, it often lacks the depth and authenticity of face-to-face interactions, leading to feelings of loneliness and isolation.
  2. Comparison and Envy: Social media platforms often present curated and idealized versions of people’s lives, showcasing their happiest moments and achievements. Constant exposure to these highly filtered and exaggerated representations can lead individuals to compare their own lives unfavorably, leading to feelings of inadequacy, envy, and loneliness.
  3. Reduced Quality of Communication: Digital communication, such as text messaging or online chatting, lacks the richness and nuances of face-to-face interaction. Misinterpretation of tone or intention, lack of nonverbal cues, and the potential for delayed responses can hinder the development of meaningful connections and lead to feelings of disconnect and loneliness.
  4. Social Comparison: Social media platforms facilitate constant social comparison, as individuals are exposed to the seemingly perfect lives of others. This comparison can lead to feelings of inferiority, loneliness, and a distorted perception of one’s own life in comparison to others.
  5. Decreased Social Skills: Excessive use of technology, particularly among younger generations, can lead to decreased opportunities for developing and practicing social skills in real-life interactions. This can result in difficulties forming and maintaining meaningful relationships offline, contributing to feelings of loneliness and social isolation.
  6. Cyberbullying and Harassment: Technology provides a platform for cyberbullying, harassment, and online abuse, which can have significant negative effects on mental health and well-being. Individuals who experience cyberbullying or harassment may withdraw from online interactions and feel isolated and lonely as a result.
  7. Erosion of Community and Social Bonds: Technology can contribute to the erosion of traditional community structures and social bonds. Increased reliance on digital communication and entertainment can lead to decreased face-to-face interaction and participation in community activities, resulting in feelings of disconnection and loneliness.
  8. Fear of Missing Out (FOMO): Social media often exacerbates feelings of FOMO, as individuals constantly compare their own experiences to the seemingly exciting and fulfilling experiences of others. This fear of missing out can lead to increased social anxiety, isolation, and loneliness.

Finding a balance between digital and offline interactions, practicing mindful technology use, and nurturing meaningful relationships in both virtual and real-life settings can help mitigate feelings of loneliness and isolation.

Click on the link above for my interview with Medcircle’s Kyle Kittleson on “the cure for loneliness”

How to tackle loneliness

In a nutshell, we need more connection. Feeling connected to others is essential for overall well-being. Technology can be a part of this: virtual meet up groups and forums, for example, but face-to-face meetings should be prioritised. 

 Here are some ways to foster and strengthen connections with others:

  1. Reach Out: Take the initiative to reach out to friends, family members, or acquaintances. Send a text message, make a phone call, or arrange to meet up for coffee or a meal. Expressing interest in others and showing that you care can strengthen your relationships and foster a sense of connection.
  2. Join Groups or Clubs: Participate in groups, clubs, or organizations based on your interests and hobbies. Whether it’s a sports team, book club, volunteer group, or hobbyist community, joining like-minded individuals can provide opportunities for social interaction and meaningful connections.
  3. Attend Social Events: Attend social gatherings, parties, or community events where you can meet new people and engage in conversations. Be open to meeting and connecting with individuals from diverse backgrounds and perspectives.
  4. Volunteer: Volunteer your time and skills to support causes or organizations you care about. Volunteering not only allows you to make a positive impact on your community but also provides opportunities to meet and connect with others who share your values and interests.
  5. Practice Active Listening: When engaging in conversations, practice active listening by giving your full attention to the other person, listening without judgment, and responding with empathy and understanding. Genuine listening fosters deeper connections and meaningful interactions.
  6. Share Vulnerabilities: Be willing to share your thoughts, feelings, and vulnerabilities with others in a safe and supportive environment. Opening up about your experiences and challenges can create opportunities for empathy, connection, and mutual support.
  7. Participate in Support Groups: Join support groups or therapy groups where you can connect with others who are experiencing similar challenges or life situations. Sharing experiences, offering support, and receiving validation from others can help alleviate feelings of isolation and loneliness.
  8. Stay Connected Digitally: Use social media, messaging apps, or video calls to stay connected with friends, family members, and acquaintances, especially if distance or other barriers prevent in-person interactions. However, be mindful of your social media usage and strive for meaningful connections rather than passive scrolling.
  9. Practice Gratitude: Cultivate an attitude of gratitude by expressing appreciation for the people in your life and the connections you have. Gratitude fosters positive emotions and strengthens relationships, leading to greater feelings of connection and well-being.
  10. Seek Professional Help: If feelings of loneliness persist despite your efforts to connect with others, consider seeking support from a mental health professional. Therapy can provide a safe and supportive space to explore underlying issues, develop coping strategies, and improve interpersonal skills.

Final thoughts

In conclusion, tackling loneliness requires a multifaceted approach that emphasizes building genuine connections and fostering a sense of belonging. Loneliness affects individuals across various age groups and life circumstances, from young adults transitioning to new environments to older adults facing changes in social networks. Addressing this issue involves understanding the unique factors that contribute to loneliness, such as life events, societal changes, and personal challenges.

To mitigate loneliness, it’s essential to take proactive steps towards social engagement. Reaching out to friends and family, joining interest-based groups or clubs, and participating in community activities can provide valuable opportunities for meaningful interactions. Volunteering offers a dual benefit by connecting individuals with others and providing a sense of purpose. Additionally, practicing active listening, sharing vulnerabilities, and seeking professional support when needed can help strengthen relationships and provide emotional support.

While technology offers tools for staying connected, it is crucial to use it mindfully to avoid potential negative impacts like social comparison and reduced quality of interactions. Balancing online and offline interactions, engaging in face-to-face meetings, and prioritizing real-life connections can enhance the depth and authenticity of relationships.

Ultimately, fostering a culture of inclusivity and empathy, where individuals feel seen and heard, is key to addressing the loneliness epidemic. By embracing diverse approaches tailored to individual needs and encouraging supportive communities, we can create an environment where everyone has the opportunity to thrive socially and emotionally.

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