Loneliness types, symptoms, and definitions — and how you can help
Loneliness is one of those words that is used to describe a range of mental states or feelings, but normally it’s an emotional state that comes from feeling isolated from a certain situation. The key emphasis here is feeling — you can easily feel isolated from a situation or community even if you aren’t technically alone. It’s the perception of being alone that matters. Let’s look at a few different ways loneliness can show up, and how you can show up for yourself and others who may be feeling isolated.
Currently, there’s no DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual) classification for loneliness, meaning that there are no definitive criteria to “diagnose” a state of loneliness or clinical loneliness. The Mayo Clinic describes it as “a discrepancy between desired and perceived social connection,” which once again focuses on the sense of perception.
Types of loneliness
Research around loneliness has grown exponentially in the last 40 years, and medical researchers have classified this feeling of isolation into 3 main categories:
Situational Loneliness: Loneliness that arises from situational changes or norms in your life — this loneliness may change as you adapt to the situation or as the situation changes.
Developmental Loneliness: While being connected to others is essential for our development as humans, we also feel a need to be individuals. It can be hard to balance these two all the time.
Internal Loneliness: Loneliness that comes from our perception of being alone, regardless of the situation or our development.
While it’s by no means clinical, we also refer to author Gretchen Rubin’s breakdown of 7 types of loneliness:
New situation loneliness: Loneliness that comes from starting a new job, moving to a new town, or beginning at a new school.
“I’m different” loneliness: Whether this is outward difference (e.g., going to a foreign country and experiencing culture shock) or inward (e.g., you’re an art student in a school full of pre-med majors), this is the feeling that you can’t connect with the environment around you.
“No sweetheart” loneliness: Even if you have a circle of friends and family members, it’s possible to still feel lonely without a romantic partner — it’s even possible to feel lonely if you’re with a romantic partner but don’t feel an intimate connection.
No animal loneliness: Living without an animal in your life (especially if you have for most of your life) can be another lack of connection that leaves you feeling alone.
“No time for me” loneliness: You make time for everyone else — your friends, your family, your partner, your school, work, etc., but you don’t make time for yourself.
Untrustworthy friends loneliness: You may be in an unhealthy relationship (even if it’s not a romantic one!) with a friend or multiple friends if you feel like you can’t communicate with them openly and honestly.
“Quiet presence” loneliness: Are you living alone for the first time, perhaps after growing up with your family, having college roommates, and now setting off on your own with a solo apartment? Sometimes you don’t realize the “quiet comfort” that was felt by simply knowing that someone was in the other room.
Symptoms of loneliness
Simply spending time alone doesn’t necessarily mean that you are lonely — we all need some time to ourselves to recharge (see “No time for me” loneliness, above). That said, some ways (both familiar and surprising) that loneliness may present itself in subtle ways can include:
Low energy or brain fog
Loss of appetite
Increased substance misuse
Feeling hopeless, worthless, or increased feelings of depression
Increased feelings of anxiety
Getting sick more often: UCLA and University of Chicago researchers have linked loneliness to immune system function.
Physical aches and pains including headaches, migraines, stomach aches, or muscle tension
Excess shopping or increased attachment to material things: A study from the University of Chicago suggests that those who are lonely may try to substitute that space with material goods
Binge-watching television: The University of Texas at Austin has linked loneliness and depression to constantly hitting “next episode”
Craving warm things such as baths or hot cocoa: Researchers from Yale have found that we may crave literal warmth when we don’t feel a sense of interpersonal “warmth”
Causes of loneliness
Many of the types of loneliness described above can also be seen as causes of loneliness. If you’re experiencing any of the symptoms of isolation, consider whether any of the following events have also taken place recently in your life (these are adapted from the Australian Lifeline):
You’ve recently moved away from close friends or family
You recently lost a friend or loved one
You made the switch to living alone after living with family/roommates
You’re having difficulties with meeting new people due to access issues
You’ve been in poor physical or mental health
You’ve avoided social situations because you fear being rejected
You’ve recently retired, quit your job, or lost your job
You’re living in a country where they don’t speak your native language or you’re experiencing another form of culture shock
You live in an area that is geographically cut-off from the rest of the world
You’ve been spending an inordinate amount of time on social media (more and more studies show the links between social media and isolation)
What can help with loneliness?
If you or a loved one are experiencing a sense of loneliness, some simple next steps to take can be:
Talking to friends and family
Even if you’re not in the same city or country, a text or phone call (or, better still, face to face meeting) will help you to rekindle the sense of human connection.
Have you been ordering Seamless and having your groceries and other essentials delivered? Go out to run those errands. The simple interactions at the store counters go a long way. Simply taking a walk around the block or through the park can help, too.
Find a group in your community using an app like MeetUp, or partner with a classmate or coworker to organize a casual happy hour.
Helping others is a two-in-one — and we’re all about making human connections here at Crisis Text Line. Volunteering as a Crisis Counselor means being part of our big, happy, global family.
Get a pet or a plant
Taking care of another living thing helps with remembering that we’re all connected to one another.
Find more help if you need it
Talk to your doctor to see if your feelings of loneliness or isolation are part of something bigger.