What Is Chronic Loneliness?

Man sitting on a park bench


There’s a difference between being alone and chronically lonely. When you’re alone, it can be an active choice to be in solitude. You enjoy deep, fulfilling connections with others while having intentional time away on your own.

Chronic loneliness is a profound aloneness from being involuntarily isolated from meaningful relationships for a long period of time. You may be around others but still feel like you are an island of your own. 

What Does It Mean to Be Chronically Lonely? 

Developing a connection with others is an enduring desire that begins in infancy with our earliest caregivers. Before we know anything about the world, there’s already an innate yearning to attach to emotionally responsive individuals who can meet our fundamental need for closeness.

There’s a biological incentive to get along with others and thrive. Research shows that people who developed a healthy, secure attachment style with others reported having higher levels of happiness and well-being.

With loneliness, you may harbor strong feelings of socialization but go without satisfying human intimacy for days, weeks, months, or years. Being alone without a community can cause suffering, sadness, silence, and pain.

When you feel like you do not have anyone you can really confide in, it can leave you vulnerable to loneliness, negatively shift the way you approach the world, and have detrimental health outcomes.

Chronic loneliness isn’t considered a specific mental health condition but a psychological natural phenomenon and a public health epidemic. Loneliness can happen to people of all ages, gender, sexuality, races, and socioeconomic background at various points in life with serious mental and physical health consequences.

Signs Of Chronic Loneliness 

The biggest indicator of chronic loneliness is feeling like you don’t have any significant relationships to share your problems and experiences with. You may want to connect with a partner, friend, or family member and feel like you have no one.

If you are dealing with chronic loneliness, here are some of the other subtle symptoms you may experience:

  • Lack of affection and warmth
  • Low mood and energy
  • Cognitive decline 
  • Sleep problems 
  • Weight problems such as excess weight gain
  • Lack of physical activity
  • Poor physical health 
  • Pain in joints and body
  • Impulse control problems such as shopping 
  • Marathoning TV shows or movies 
  • Unhealthy diet 
  • Substance abuse
  • Cyclical thoughts 
  • Negative thinking and anxiousness
  • Depressive symptoms such as unhappiness, pessimism
  • Feelings of worthlessness and abandonment 

Causes of Chronic Loneliness

Chronic loneliness can happen for several reasons. Research outlines it as follows:

  • Situational loneliness occurs when you experience an event in the environment such as a personal conflict, significant move, career change, accident, disaster, or pandemic.
  • Developmental loneliness happens when you experience a physical or psychological event such as inconsistent home lifestyles, poverty, developmental problems, painful losses of someone important, or have a mental, physical, or intellectual disability.
  • Internal loneliness manifests when you experience an internal event such as anxiety, depression, low self-esteem, guilt, or faulty coping strategies.

A 2022 study found one-third of adults 45 and older feel lonely, and one-quarter of adults age 65 and older feel socially isolated from others. Older immigrants are more at-risk for chronic loneliness since moving countries can augment cultural differences such as a lack of community, fragmented social networks, and language barriers to connect with others.

Newer research has also recognized high rates of loneliness among older LGBTQ+ people. This population can be high risk because they’re already a stigmatized group who may not be connected to friends and family because they were rejected because of their sexuality. As a result, chronically lonely LGBTQ+ individuals find it difficult to pursue meaningful companionship because of anxiety, depression, health issues, and uncertainty engaging with others within the community.

While there’s been a perception that older populations are more vulnerable since the experience can surge with age, the experience doesn’t discriminate. A 2014 study reported 80% of adolescents and young children below the age of 18 reported feeling loneliness at one point in their life as well.

Researchers suggest that loneliness could be especially poignant for adolescents since they have not yet developed the skills to deal with isolation. The impacts of loneliness can be tough to feel when being seen, understood, accepted, and loved is essential to their growth.

Impacts of Loneliness 

Being chronically lonely is a distressing experience that can bring intense feelings of emptiness, pain, and emotional heaviness. Research from the Genomics Core Laboratory at UCLA found loneliness modifies and weakens cells in the immune system, promoting inflammation and escalating the risk of chronic diseases. The CDC also found loneliness can put you at risk for severe health conditions such as:

  • Dementia
  • Stress
  • Alzheimer’s disease 
  • High blood pressure
  • Heart disease
  • Stroke
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Obesity
  • Suicide
  • Substance use disorder
  • Personality disorders
  • Premature death

Other research echo similar findings about chronic loneliness and note that sufferers of chronic loneliness also have a higher chance of needing psychotropic medications.

Overcoming Loneliness

We live longer and we are more connected than ever, yet the current level of loneliness is unprecedented. It may feel insurmountable to get out of chronic loneliness but it’s far from impossible. It’s important to remember: loneliness is a totally normal and universal experience that happens to everyone.

The solution for chronic loneliness is connecting with others. However, that’s easier said than done. It takes courage to open yourself to others and risk rejection when you already feel so vulnerable.

There are easy, small, and effective steps you can take to increase care and affection in your life:

  • Give yourself grace. It’s critical to understand that chronic loneliness can create negative beliefs about yourself and your worth as an individual, preventing you from seeking connection. This may create a self-fulfilling prophecy and further isolate you from others. Try focusing on what you like about yourself and looking for good things in your interaction. It’s OK if this takes time too.
  • Build in self-care. To move out of loneliness, it’s important you believe you are worthy of connection. This can look like taking care of yourself with proper sleep, nutrition, and enjoying the outdoors. Joining a gym or community group can help with social isolation and your physical health while promoting social connectedness.
  • Open up to loved ones. Reach out to people in your life who can hold space with you. Don’t worry about being put together, happy, or perfect in order to see someone. Simply being yourself, in any emotional state, is enough for people to love and appreciate. Changing your approach can open your life up to heart-opening moments filled with joy and connection.
  • Find little moments. When you’re out at the store, strike up a conversation with the cashier. Build a connection with someone whenever you pick up your groceries. Or try out a new class or activity and engage with a friendly face. Over time, these small actions compound, which boosts your mood and sense of being seen. Connection doesn’t always have to be big. It can be incremental and with a variety of people to foster a sense of community.
  • Volunteer and caregive. Becoming a part of your neighborhood and mutual aid efforts can connect you with others who uphold your values and create a link you already know you have in common. It’ll give you a sense of broader perspective, identity, and accomplishment knowing you are doing good. 
  • Get a pet. Animal therapy can positively help with loneliness. Pets can provide you with human touch, consistency, affection, and help with social isolation since you’ll need to get out of the house to take care of them.
  • Seek a therapist. Talking to a therapist can help improve the perception of your loneliness and provide you with tools, techniques, accountability, and support as you connect with others. 

Craving connection is a powerful motivator to feel close to others. We are biologically wired to be around people, where we can share our stories, journeys, and perspectives. Being connected can give you a greater purpose, a deeper sense of self, and help you build your circle of loved ones.

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Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Julie Nguyen
Julie Nguyen is a freelance mental health and sexuality writer. Her writing explores themes around mental well-being, culture, psychology, trauma, and human intimacy.