Loneliness and Social Isolation: Risk Factors and How to Overcome

All the lonely people 

Where do they all come from?

All the lonely people

Where do they all belong?

You may recognize these lyrics from The Beatles’ 1966 song Eleanor Rigby. Its haunting harmonies tell the stories of Eleanor and Father McKenzie, both older people who exist in a state of solitude and loneliness. However, the lyrics never answer the question posed by the chorus: where do the lonely people come from, and where do they belong?

causes of loneliness 

Who Are The Lonely People?

Several recent studies have focused on the phenomenon of loneliness, with similar results. A 2018 international survey conducted by the Kaiser Family Foundation (KFF) and The Economist found that 22% of U.S. adults report a feeling of loneliness or social isolation, compared to 23% in the U.K. and 9% in Japan. Health services and life insurance company Cigna’s 2018 survey showed that 46% of Americans report they sometimes or always experience loneliness, while 53% said they have meaningful in-person social interaction.

You might think that in today’s ever-expanding hyperconnected society, loneliness will become a thing of the past. How can anyone feel lonely when the average Facebook user has 338 “friends” in their social network?” Social media may have magnified our digital connectedness, but having online access to someone doesn’t offer the intimacy of real-life social interaction and true friendship. Some experts believe social media may contribute to loneliness, although the Cigna study found similar loneliness scores in social media users (43.5%) as in non-users (41.7%).

You might assume that older adults suffer from more chronic loneliness than younger people. That might have been true in the past. A 2005 study by the University of Michigan found that nearly 60% of seniors felt lonely. The deaths of friends or a spouse, retirement, and isolating long-term illnesses like dementia or Alzheimer’s all contribute to feelings of loneliness in old age. However, a different age group has recently earned a sad distinction as the loneliest: Generation Z. According to the Cigna study, young adults ages 18 to 22 in the United States suffer from feelings of isolation and loneliness as well as more health problems than other generations.

Types Of Loneliness 

Loneliness isn’t restricted to seniors and young adults, though. Any human being, at any age or life stage, may feel lonely or isolated at any time. The different types of loneliness stem from various situations you may encounter during your life journey.

Situational loneliness occurs when you are separated from close friends and family members due to a new life situation, like starting a new job or relocating to a new location. Young children and adolescents often feel lonely when starting a new school full of unfamiliar kids. This loneliness usually subsides when you begin to develop new relationships.

Developmental loneliness is the feeling of being excluded or left behind. Your friends are getting engaged or receiving promotions, but you’re still single and in a dead-end job. Your roommate is making all A’s, but you’re struggling to maintain a C average. You become a lonely person even though your relationships with the people in your life haven’t changed.

Internal loneliness is the perception of being alone, even when you’re around other people. Perhaps you feel that you lack social skills to interact with others, so you don’t try. Or maybe you’re friends with lots of people, but they aren’t really friends. Supportive social relationships rely on trust and deeper social connections than just casual acquaintances. More casual or superficial relationships happen to a lot of people who become leaders or gain fame and lose the trusting relationships that they once had with others — thus the saying, “it’s lonely at the top.”

 There are other causes of loneliness, too. The KFF study found that loneliness is closely tied to real-life problems such as the death of a loved one, a severe injury, or an adverse change in financial status. Both KFF and Cigna found lower levels of loneliness among individuals who lived with partners than those who were single, divorced or widowed.

Ready for an appointment?

Risks Of Loneliness

As mental health conditions, loneliness and isolation are often associated with sadness, unhappiness, and even depression. However, loneliness can have a significant effect on your physical health. The late Dr. John Cacioppo, who wrote the book on loneliness, was the first to describe the state of mind as a disease that is contagious, inheritable, and physically damaging. In his 2008 book Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection, Dr. Cacioppo, a psychologist and University of Chicago professor, found that “chronic loneliness increases the odds of early death by 20%,” which is about as much as obesity.  

Feelings of isolation and loneliness can be a risk factor for heart disease, arthritis, Type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, sleep problems, and weight gain. Chronic loneliness can compromise your immune system, leaving you more vulnerable to illness. Dr. Cacioppo and other psychologists at the University of Chicago also found a correlation with inflammation due to stronger responses to stress hormones in lonely people. Physical pain and aches like headaches or stomach aches are also common.

The worst result of isolation and pervasive loneliness is suicide. The KFF study found a significant percentage of sufferers had suicidal thoughts or thoughts of hurting others, with 31% thinking about harming themselves or taking their own lives and 15% thinking about committing a violent act. 

Overcoming Chronic Loneliness

There are many ways to overcome short-term or chronic loneliness, but the first step is to admit that you’re lonely. Many people feel there’s a stigma associated with loneliness, and that “lonely” is associated with “loner” or even “loser.” Sharing your loneliness with close friends or family members for the first time can be anxiety-provoking, but it can be helpful to your recovery.

Experts also recommend taking stock of your existing social connections to discern which of your friends’ behaviors make you feel lonely or disconnected from them. They may show that they care about you in different ways than those you expect. For example, if someone doesn’t “like” every one of your social network posts but takes the time to help you move to a new place, they most likely care about you.

There is anecdotal evidence that pet ownership can reduce feelings of loneliness. Pet owners also report lower blood pressure and levels of cholesterol. In addition to the relationship to the pet itself, owners also found comfort by creating social networks with other pet owners. Finding a group of people with whom you share interests or hobbies can decrease feelings of loneliness and alienation.

Getting Professional Help

The symptoms of loneliness are internal; you are the only person who can truly determine if you feel lonely or isolated. If you’re not sure, consider using the UCLA Loneliness Scale, a short survey that was developed by psychologists in the 1980s to help people and their health care providers determine levels of loneliness.

If you believe you’re suffering from loneliness or social isolation, consider seeking help from a therapist or other mental health professional. A good therapist can help you to build a truer understanding of yourself. With cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) or psychodynamic therapy, you can explore what exactly has led to your feelings of loneliness and learn new behaviors and ways of thinking to overcome them.

If you’re looking for the best therapists in the D.C. area, reach out to the Therapy Group of D.C. Our approach is personalized, professional, and always confidential.

Get Personalized Therapy

You want to feel better and make lasting change. We aim to make that happen.


Find the right therapist in DC

Life in DC can be complicated. Finding and connecting with a therapist should not be.


Not in DC?

We're part of a trusted therapist network, and can help you search outside of DC.

Explore Related Articles

What is Summer Seasonal Affective Disorder?
Discover the symptoms, causes, and treatments for Summer Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). Learn how to cope...
Brad Brenner, Ph.D.
Navigating Modern Love: Understanding and Overcoming New Challenges in...
Explore how modern couples can tackle new challenges with insights from timeless themes, and practical strategies...
Brad Brenner, Ph.D.
5 Ways to Lower Stress Levels
Did you know that long-term stress can lead to health issues? Here are five ways to...
Brad Brenner, Ph.D.