Loneliness and isolation

Coming to university and moving away from friends and family can be a big step and it is not unusual to feel lonely at times. This guide will help you understand and manage feelings you may be having.

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What loneliness and isolation are

Loneliness

Loneliness is an emotion we all experience from time to time. We each feel lonely for different reasons and varying durations.

As a student in a bustling University setting surrounded by peers who we might presume have similar interests and outlooks there may be an expectation that loneliness won’t be a problem. However, this is not always the case.

Anxiety, shyness, feeling awkward in public spaces, social situations or seminars are very real and common experiences which can contribute to feeling lonely. This can be particularly acute when accompanied with the urge to withdraw or escape.

Loneliness will often occur in the absence of rewarding and socially gratifying relationships. Already difficult feelings might be amplified when it “appears” as though everyone else is coping, making friends and connecting.

Loneliness is a complex emotional phenomenon that can be rooted in earlier experiences. At some point we have all experienced a degree of abandonment or rejection, if only for a brief period, and may be familiar with the scary and painful feelings associated with this.

Knowing how to navigate these powerful emotions is very important.   

Isolation

Isolation is intrinsically linked but slightly different to loneliness. It can be defined as feeling separated from others. This can manifest as a physical separation (such as moving away from family and friends) or a social/emotional separation (such as feeling excluded or removed from a specific community).

What is important to remember is that loneliness is not necessarily the same as being alone. For instance, some individuals may choose to live alone or actually need more time alone than others yet feel completely content, while other people prefer more social contact in order to enrich and enhance their wellbeing.

It is the same with isolation. It is intrinsically linked with your individual levels of satisfaction and contentedness while being alone or in isolation.  

It may be the case that you are in a relationship or have lots of people around you or maybe you have family in close proximity but still notice you feel lonely or isolated. This can be exacerbated when we do not feel heard or cared for by those around us.

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Other feelings you may experience

When we feel lonely and isolated we might start to feel a number of other emotions such as:

  • Helplessness
  • Hopelessness
  • Depression
  • Fear
  • Anxiety
  • Frustration
  • Shame

When we feel these strong emotions it can influence how we think, how we interpret and perceive our world and subsequently how we interact with it. The tendency to withdraw when feeling lonely and isolated can reinforce a vicious cycle where we become lonelier and even more isolated.

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Potential negative impact of loneliness

The lonelier and more isolated we become the more socially anxious we might feel about engaging with the external world. We may start to become more sensitive to perceived social rejections and become hyper-vigilant about social interactions.

Loneliness is not a mental health condition in its own right but there is a correlation. Mental health difficulties such as depression and anxiety can contribute to or even cause loneliness. This can become a feedback loop where loneliness can cause or exacerbate our mental health, as well as our physical health.

The negative effects can include:

  • Increase in alcohol and drug use
  • Decreased memory, attention and learning
  • Increase in depressive mood and suicidal risk
  • Increase in anxiety
  • Increased stress levels
  • Poor decision making
  • Sleep disturbance

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Factors that may cause loneliness

As mentioned earlier this can differ from one individual to the next. We all have different triggers for feeling lonely and isolated. This can range from universal life events such as bereavement to specific life choices such as starting at university.

Other factors are

  • The loss of a romantic relationship
  • A lack of support network (friends, peers, co-workers)
  • Changing your course
  • Financial circumstances
  • Mobility and access
  • Relocating (new town, city, country)
  • Being a young carer, carer or single parent
  • Being a victim of discrimination and exclusion
  • Being a victim of abuse making it (understandably) more challenging to build bonds of trust
  • Specific times of the year (anniversary of a loss or Christmas time)
  • Losing a job (and the subsequent loss of social contact)
  • Belonging to minority groups and living in an area without others from a similar background
  • Estrangement from family
  • A lack of confidence, low self-esteem and social anxiety

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Ways to manage loneliness and isolation

These general tips may help. They may even spark other ideas that appeal to you. Try to remember to take it slow as different things work for different people at different times.

Connection is the antidote to loneliness

Psychologists suggest there are several ways to deal with loneliness.

Two such ways include the development of social skills and cultivating opportunities for social interaction. Through these experiences we can start to develop new connections with others. While this may seem obvious and a significant challenge it is ultimately worth some fear and anxiety in the short term in order to create beneficial relationships in the long term.

It might be worth considering pushing beyond your comfort zone to meet new or different people.

  • Consider joining a university society
  • Sign up for a class or a group (outside of your own course). This could be niche and something you are interested in where you might meet like-minded people who share similar hobbies and interests
  • Join up to a book club or a sports team where the emphasis may not be entirely on you but rather the material or the team as a whole
  • Volunteering can be a great way of meeting new people. Research has shown that giving social support can improve confidence, self-esteem and mental health as a whole

Consider joining an online community

While social media can have a negative impact on our mental health there are online communities specifically set up to support individuals going through a difficult time. This can be a supportive aid and reduce the likelihood of loneliness and isolation.

  • Fika is an mental fitness app for supporting individuals with mental health difficulties
  • Elefriends is a supportive online community where you can talk about your mental health and connect with others who understand what you are going through
  • Togetherall is a safe and moderated online community for supporting mental health

Find a way of expressing how you feel

It can be a challenge to find the words to explain how we feel. Sometimes you might not feel comfortable enough to talk about it or close enough to an individual to share it.

In cases such as this maybe there is a way to express your feelings of loneliness or isolation through a creative activity. Examples of this could be through writing or drawing, taking photographs, dancing or playing an instrument.

If you do feel you can talk about it then consider identifying someone who you can talk to and share what you are going through. A member of your family or an old friend can be a great ally in fighting loneliness.

Sometimes people feel more comfortable talking to a professional. This might be your GP, a tutor or a mentor.

Talking therapies

Counselling and other talking therapies allow for a space to better understand and explore our thoughts and feelings. Taking time to reflect upon your feelings of isolation and loneliness may allow room for insight into ways of better managing these difficult emotions.

Talking therapies allow you to explore and understand your feelings of loneliness and can help you develop positive ways of dealing with them.

Anxiety can play a strong role in avoiding situations where connection may be possible.

Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) has a strong base of evidence for effectively dealing with problems such as generalised anxiety and social anxiety. When we start to recognise the vicious cycle of cognitions (thoughts), social beliefs and assumptions that impact our emotional experience and how this subsequently alters behaviours we are better positioned to consider alternative ways of thinking and ultimately coping.

Managing expectations

Happiness is reality minus expectation. When we put too much pressure on ourselves and expect too much too quickly we are often left disappointed.

Try to manage your expectations when it comes to making social connections. It might not happen right away or how you envisioned it. Plan some attainable goals and start off slowly.

Consider the following:

  • Visit an environment where there are other people. Perhaps a museum or a café. Go to the library. This is an opportunity to habituate yourself to the environment without an expectation to interact or engage with anyone
  • Rather than diving straight into a new class or group you might consider observing first. It is common to ask to observe something like a martial arts class or sitting in on a book club before committing to it
  • Treat each challenge as a “Win-win”. You have tried and that is positive in itself
  • Commit to trying new things again. Rinse and repeat. Acknowledge what you did well after each attempt

Be mindful of comparison to other people

Psychologists also suggest that recognising unhelpful social beliefs is part of the battle against loneliness. Linked with this is the unhelpful tendency we all have at times to compare ourselves with others. We all do it, but it can help to simply be aware that things are not always what they seem from the outside.

For example, when we scroll through social media we are often presented with the polished “highlight reels” of other people’s lives. This is cultivated and more often than not very far from reality.  However, seeing these highlights can make us feel unsuccessful, a failure or more isolated.

It might be useful to acknowledge the discrepancy between what is shared online and the reality and that we do not know what goes through the minds of others, how they feel or the struggles they might be going through. Suffering is universal after all. This is true of how we perceive people in real life too.

It might be more helpful to remind yourself to “compare yourself to who you were yesterday, not to who someone else is today”.

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General tips

Loneliness and isolation can be stressful and impactful on our immune systems. Therefore you might consider the following:

  • Sleep hygiene - ensure you are getting enough good quality sleep. Over or under sleeping can be highly disruptive to our mood. See our guide on insomnia and sleep problems
  • Diet - ensure you are eating well and regularly. Food is intrinsically linked with mood and can affect how we think, how we feel and what we are able to do
  • Exercise - ensure you are taking regular exercise. It can be difficult to get up and motivated when our mood is dysregulated but it is vitally important to our mental and physical health and can improve our self esteem and sense of confidence
  • Go outside - ensure you are leaving the environment you feel lonely and isolated in. Going for walks, visiting landmarks, spending time in parks or out in nature can have lasting benefits to our health. Try to make the effort to get out even if this is a real struggle for you
  • Drug and alcohol use - ensure you are mindful of what you are putting into your body. Try to track the connection between how you feel and what you use to cope with those feelings. Substances can exacerbate difficult thoughts and feelings and have longer term consequences
  • Meditation - learning to sit and be with our feelings and thoughts can be highly beneficial. There are apps such as Calm and Headspace which support as a guided way of delving into the practice of meditation

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Self Compassion

If we are spending time exclusively in our own company then it might be worth starting to notice how we are talking to ourselves and how we are treating ourselves.

When lonely and isolated our inner world may become more negative and judgemental or even a scary place to be. Try to be mindful of your inner dialogue and the scripts that play out during times of trouble. The last thing we want is our internal world becoming a bullying and harsh environment.

Compassionate self-talk

If you notice your thoughts becoming particularly negative or self-critical it might be helpful to ask yourself “Would I talk to someone I care about like this?”. You might even think “Would I talk to ANYONE like this?”. If the answer is no then perhaps cultivating a more compassionate inner dialogue would be useful.

  • How would you like this self-talk to sound? Warm, friendly, understanding, encouraging? Motivational perhaps?
  • Think about someone in your life who personifies this. It can be someone you know, someone you know of or even a fictitious person, a character from a show you like or a book you’ve read
  • What do you think they would say to you when you are feeling bad? How would they say it? What tone would they use? What do you need to hear from them? What words of reassurance will help?

Consider writing this down and try to remember it the next time you feel particularly lonely or isolated. Re-read it if you must.

Self-compassion activities

It is often at times of struggle that our tried-and-tested strategies go out of the window. It might be worth reflecting upon the activities you are (or aren’t) engaging with. What activity will be self-compassionate?

Consider breaking it down in the following areas:

  • Physical - consider what will soften the body (eg warm bath, cup of tea, massage)
  • Mental - consider what will reduce agitation (eg read a book, watch some comedy, meditate)
  • Emotional - consider what will soothe and comfort you emotionally (eg write/draw, cook)
  • Relational - consider connecting with someone (eg call/video call a friend, stroke a pet)
  • Spiritual - consider committing to your beliefs and values (eg walk in nature, pray, support someone else)

Getting help at Goldsmiths

We support students to cope with emotional difficulties while helping them to maintain good mental health through a variety of initiatives, including:

References