Overcoming loneliness

Woman talking to young woman who may be lonely
Do not be afraid to reach out to someone you trust.

Loneliness is not a personal failing. Loneliness is an emotional signal that tells you to go find someone to talk to.

Dartmouth Health Psychologist Andrew J. Smith, PhD

You may feel lonely, but you are not alone.

According to a health advisory released by U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy last May, one in two adults is now lonely.

“Our connection to one another is a foundation on which we build a healthy society. As that foundation has crumbled and weakened, we’ve seen that we’re suffering across the board,” noted Surgeon General Vivek Murthy when speaking at a Dartmouth College symposium in Hanover, New Hampshire, last fall.

"If you are among those suffering, the antidote to your loneliness could be closer and more accessible than you think,” says Dartmouth Health psychologist Andrew J. Smith, PhD

You just might have to step a bit outside your comfort zone to address it.

“No doubt, loneliness can have far-reaching effects on a person’s life,” says Smith, who recently co-authored a study on how social connectedness can help improve health. “But loneliness is not a personal failing. Loneliness is an emotional signal that tells you to go find someone to talk to, engage in your community, and serve otherseven if you think it will be hard.” 

Loneliness can impact your health

If you are suffering from loneliness, there is good reason to take action. By all measures, loneliness can have a significant negative impact on your health.

Studies show that the impact of prolonged loneliness and social isolation on our health can be marked, leading to increased risk for cardiovascular disease, immune dysfunction, insomnia, stroke, dementia, depression, anxiety, and even earlier death.

Loneliness can not only impact your emotional wellbeing, it can make you feel worse about yourself and your perceived prospects for a meaningful life.

“That may have to do with comparing ourselves to the seemingly ideal lives of others through social media or other ways. But when we are feeling lonely, we can get intimidated by the prospect of interacting with others or fear those interactions will not live up to expectations and that can make us even less inclined to go out and participate in those relationships,” says Smith.

Being alone does not have to mean being lonely

That said, being aloneworking remotely, commuting solo, or even living by ourselvesdoes not have to translate into being lonely.

Nor does it always necessitate intervention. “It’s healthy and necessary to spend some time alone, to recharge, to develop and maintain a sense of who we are,” says Smith.

The American Psychological Association (APA) defines loneliness as “discomfort or uneasiness from being or perceiving oneself to be alone.”

“When we start to feel that our aloneness is impacting our ability to operate in the world or that we are suffering due to a state of isolation or feelings of loneliness, making a concerted effort to reach out and forge connections is an essential first step toward healing,” says Smith. “Often, when we connect with others, depression or other mental health symptoms improve.”

What you can do

On a policy level, much is being done to redress loneliness. At the fall Dartmouth symposium, participating surgeon generals discussed a broad array of solutions that included encouraging more doctors to go into primary care and better training primary care physicians to identify and address mild behavioral health issues that can coexist with feelings of loneliness and isolation.

In addition, mental health screening is now common practice among clinicians. Accessibility to in-person and virtual mental health treatment from therapists, psychologists, psychiatrists, and counselors has grown substantially over recent years.

“Intervention from a health practitioner can be transformative with any mental health condition,” says Smith. “But most of our opportunities to be healthy occur through our natural social networksamong our friends, families, co-workers, significant others, and within our communities. That’s where the accessible and impactful sources of meaning and healing reside. Those relationships can help us heal from injury, adjust to serious illness, stick to medical treatments, or achieve better mental health outcomes during treatment. Relationships also can help us experience more meaning and purpose.”

Where to start

While treatment is never a one-size-fits-all solution, one place to begin if you feel you are suffering from loneliness is to ask yourself some questions:

      Are you having trouble in your relationship with loved ones?

      Do you feel disconnected from the wider world?

      Are you avoiding friends?

      Do you feel ‘less than’ others?

      Are you afraid of feeling judged or rejected?

      Are you avoiding social situations?

If you answer in the affirmative to any of these questions, you will benefit from taking proactive measures to forge or strengthen your relationships. As you do, it's vital to remember is that loneliness is universal. 

“Loneliness is not a mark of special social incompetence, unworthiness, or some kind of pathetic-ness. Even your doctors, pastors, partners, and friends feel lonely sometimes. What loneliness does mean is that you and the people in your life could benefit from you finding someone to serve, talk to, say a kind word to, or share space with. The more active you are the better,” says Smith.

Where to go next

You can start by going to those you know and trust. 

“Go ahead and risk being vulnerable by reaching out to one person in your network whom you trust, and tell them that you feel lonely or depressed. My bet is that the response will be positive. Pretty quickly you will feel less lonely by getting out of your own head and into the lives and support of others,” says Smith.  

If your loneliness emanates from more specific concerns, do not be afraid to address those directly and specifically. If, for example, you feel that you and your partner are not showing one another enough love and that is alienating, take it upon yourself to make a concerted effort to express your appreciation and love for them.

Engaging with community organizationswhether nonprofit support programs, arts organizations, or public social service agenciesalso can help you feel more connected. Find one that aligns with your interests and on which you can bring your strengths and knowledge to bear. Research shows that helping others helps our own sense of well-being and ability to cope.

Support groups, too, can help address challenges that might be contributing to your loneliness. These challenges may include coping with grief, dealing with mental health conditions, or recovering from physical illness. Many of these support groups are free and available online. 

As you make these efforts at engagement, resist being harsh on yourself. Catch yourself negatively predicting or evaluating yourself, and comparing yourself to others. Remember you are worthy. Practice self-care and allow others to care for you.  

Concludes Smith: “At the end of the day, overcoming loneliness is all about feeling connected, being willing to let others serve and love you, reaching out, and recognizing you have something worthwhile to contribute to the world and to those around you.”

And remember, if you feel you need immediate help, contact a hotline. The 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline is 988 or 1.800.273.8255.

Additional Resources

  Foundation for Social Connection – A nonprofit charitable organization promoting evidence-based research and interventions

  Coalition to End Social Isolation and Loneliness (CESIL) – An advocacy group supporting policy changes aimed at reducing loneliness and associated negative health effects

  Project UnLonely – This national initiative by the Foundation for Art and Healing raises awareness about the negative effects of loneliness and empowers people to connect with each other through the arts

●  Aging Resource Center - A useful Dartmouth Hitchcock Medical Center resource that provides older adults, families, and community members with information, education, and support