How to Overcome Loneliness According to Psychology

The psychology of lonelinessAs human beings, we are hardwired for social connection and interaction.

Our ancestors survived by depending on the collective for food, shelter, physical caregiving, reproduction, and the exchange of goods and services.

In today’s world, we still need social connection for emotional wellbeing, a sense of community and support. Despite this psychological need for connection, loneliness is a common experience.

As many as 80% of individuals under the age of 18 and 40% of those over the age of 65 report being lonely (Pinquart & Sorensen, 2001).

With such overwhelming numbers, a solution must be found. But to solve a problem, the best place to start is by understanding the psychology behind it.

In this article, we will look at the psychology of loneliness and how it can be overcome, and we provide excellent resources and books.

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What Is Loneliness? 4 Symptoms

Loneliness can be defined as a feeling of uneasiness or discomfort from either being alone or perceiving oneself to be alone (Rubenstein & Shaver, 1982). It is associated with perceived social isolation, rather than objective isolation.

Symptoms of loneliness range from psychological to physical. Adjectives such as boredom, self-pity, sadness, empty, and ashamed have been used to describe the feeling of loneliness.

Rubenstein and Shaver (1982) have categorized behavioral symptoms of loneliness into four areas:

  1. Sad passivity, which includes crying, sleeping, doing nothing, overeating, taking tranquilizers, and excessive drinking and drug use
  2. Active solitude activities, which involve writing, listening to music, exercising, working on a hobby, studying, and working to avoid loneliness
  3. Spending money through excessive shopping or buying unnecessary items
  4. Social contact by reaching out to friends, engaging in social activities, and doing things to avoid being alone

Psychology of Loneliness: Theories and Research

The psychology of lonelinessResearchers have categorized loneliness into chronic and transient loneliness (Choi et al., 2012).

Chronic loneliness is a persistent, internal experience that often extends over a period of many years, regardless of the situation. Chronic loneliness may vary in intensity over time (Choi et al., 2012).

Transient loneliness is experienced for shorter periods of time and is usually the result of a particular situation or environmental factor (Choi et al., 2012).

From a psychological perspective, loneliness includes affective, cognitive, and subjective components. These components can be represented by the psychodynamic, cognitive, and existential approaches in psychology.

The psychodynamic approach to loneliness was first described by Fromm-Reichmann (1959), who based loneliness on early childhood experiences arising from a separation between parent and child and a lack of physical contact and loving intimacy.

Similarly, John Bowlby argued that the mechanisms of loneliness were a response pattern for survival of the species and that the bond between mother and infant is based on biological needs (Hojat, 1989).

According to the cognitive approach, loneliness results from thought processes. Loneliness results when an individual’s perception and evaluation of social networks are not congruent (Heinrich & Cullone, 2006). Many of today’s definitions of loneliness are based on this subjective experience of connection and internal need for relationship.

The existential approach to loneliness is based on a phenomenological outlook, the feelings of loneliness, and the human condition with regard to others (Jones, 1989).

Existentialism is a philosophical approach and looks at loneliness as a starting point. This approach attempts to understand what that experience is like for the client rather than trying to treat the symptoms.

The effects of loneliness on the brain

Research has demonstrated significant effects of loneliness on the brain and cognitive function. Feeling socially isolated is a large predictor of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease (Wilson et al., 2007).

Alzheimer’s disease has been predicted by the degree of loneliness, where those in the top decile of loneliness scores were 2.1 times as likely to develop Alzheimer’s than those in the bottom decile (Wilson et al., 2007).

Additionally, loneliness was inversely associated with performance on cognitive measures among 823 dementia-free older adults (Wilson et al., 2007). Loneliness was also associated with a faster decline in cognitive performance on a majority of cognitive measures over a four-year follow-up (Findlay, 2004).

Intelligence test results are also influenced by loneliness (Baumeister et al., 2005). In one study, researchers divided university students into three groups and provided false feedback after completing a personality profile and mood assessment.

Participants were told one of the following: that they had a personality profile indicating they would have rewarding relationships, that they would have a future alone, or that they were accident prone (Baumeister et al., 2005). Researchers concluded that the decline in cognitive ability was based solely on the idea or fear of being alone.

Similar research has shown that loneliness decreases cognitive performance skills and logical reasoning tasks. Baumeister et al. (2002) also found that telling individuals they would have a lonely future impaired self-restraint.

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How Does It Affect Mental Health? 5 Effects

Loneliness is linked to a variety of mental health disorders including anxiety, depression, suicidal behavior, poor self-regulation, alcohol abuse, addiction, and eating disorders (Heinrick & Cullone, 2006).

Loneliness, depression, and grief

Loneliness and depression are both common emotions associated with grief, loss, and bereavement.

Research has found a greater intensity and frequency of loneliness among bereaved individuals, and it also plays a key role in levels of depression after someone has lost a partner (Vedder et al., 2021).

Symptoms of loneliness and depression are closely linked, and both are part of a normal grieving process.

Can loneliness cause anxiety?

There is a direct correlation between symptoms of loneliness and anxiety, particularly generalized anxiety disorder. However, the question of cause and effect is not clearly understood.

A longitudinal study of over 75,000 individuals found a direct association between both generalized anxiety disorder and major depressive disorder during the COVID-19 pandemic (Steen et al., 2022).

Feeling lonely can heighten anxiety since humans have a basic need for social connection, belonging, and protection from others.

4 Effects on physical health

  1. Loneliness does not just affect an individual’s psychological and emotional health; its effects appear to accelerate physiological aging and predict morbidity and mortality (Shiovitz-Ezra & Ayalon, 2010).

Research shows that there is a correlation between loneliness scores and mortality. Additionally, the length of time spent feeling lonely (in years) influenced signs of physiological aging (Shiovitz-Ezra & Ayalon, 2010).

  1. Loneliness also impacts cardiovascular health in both young and older adults. It has been linked to higher levels of HDL, cholesterol, hemoglobin concentration, maximum oxygen consumption, systolic blood pressure, and coronary heart disease (Thurston & Kubzansky, 2009).
  2. Quality of sleep and daytime functioning can be affected by loneliness (Cacioppo et al., 2002). Sleep is important for restorative effects, and quality of sleep is important for physical and intellectual functioning, mental health, and engaging in healthy lifestyle behaviors.
  3. Immune function is associated with loneliness. Loneliness is related to poorer antibody responses to vaccines, impaired cellular immunity, and lower natural killer cell activity (Pressman et al., 2005).

4 Loneliness Tests, Scales, and Questionnaires

Overcome lonelinessKnowing the prevalence and detrimental effects loneliness can have on the general population, it has become increasingly important to find methods of measurement and assessment.

Tests, scales, and questionnaires can provide education and training for healthcare workers and practitioners. The following scales have been used in both research and practice and create an effective base for creating interventions and treatment for loneliness.

1. The UCLA Loneliness Scale (UCLA-LS)

The UCLA-LS is a well-established measure of loneliness that has been used in research studies for decades (Russell, 1996).

The scale is based on a subjective perception of loneliness where respondents rate items on a four-point scale from “never feeling this way” to “often feeling this way.”

While it is a valid and reliable measure of loneliness, it does not specifically address how long the participant has felt loneliness, so it does not distinguish between trait and state loneliness.

2. The De Jong Gierveld Loneliness Scale (DJG-LS)

The DJG-LS has also demonstrated reliability and validity in research studies (de Jong Gierveld & van Tilburg, 1999).

The 11-item scale is scored based on statements that participants select. It assesses emotional and social loneliness with a broader scope of questions compared to the UCLA-LS.

3. Steptoe Social Isolation Index

Steptoe et al. (2013) created an index of social isolation. Social isolation can be an indication of loneliness. This index involves a five-point scale, with one point assigned for each of the following factors:

  • Unmarried/not cohabiting
  • Less than monthly contact (including face-to-face, by telephone, or in writing/email) with children
  • Less than monthly contact (including face-to-face, by telephone, or in writing/email) with other family
  • Less than monthly contact (including face-to-face, by telephone, or in writing/email) with friends
  • No participation in social clubs, resident groups, religious groups, or committees

People with a score of 2 or more were defined as being socially isolated.

4. The Lubben Social Network Scale (LSNS)

The LSNS is a short instrument designed to assess social isolation in older adults. It generally takes five to 10 minutes to complete and measures perceived social support from family and friends.

It has been used in research and in practical settings such as community hospitals, adult day care centers, assisted living facilities, and medical practices. The 10-item scale can guide caregivers as they monitor the needs of aging adults.

Permission to use the scale can be obtained through the Boston College School of Social Work.

How to Overcome Loneliness With Therapy

From a therapeutic approach, reducing feelings of loneliness involves fostering a sense of connectedness as well as modifying perceptions of social isolation.

Symptoms of loneliness, depression, anxiety, and emotional distress can be treated, but it is critical to address the root cause: cognitive biases, underlying concepts of social threat, hypervigilance, and individual need for social relationships.

Therapists, counselors, and support groups can help individuals identify the negative thinking patterns and core values that lead to loneliness. Additionally, therapy can provide resources to cope with loneliness, improve social connections and communication, and give a safe space for feelings of loneliness and other emotions.

Individuals can learn to move through grief, develop effective interpersonal skills, and build confidence to branch out and connect with others. Professionals can help clients overcome social anxiety, which is often an underlying cause of loneliness.

3 Interventions and Treatment Options

Loneliness interventionsInterventions for loneliness can be categorized into three different approaches: individual treatments, group interventions, and environmental approaches (Choi et al., 2012).

1. Individual treatments

Individual treatments for loneliness include Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy, psychodynamic therapies, and talk therapy to improve communication and solitary skills.

Therapists work with clients to identify anxious and avoidant thoughts and behaviors around social interactions to help them develop adaptive thought patterns and habits.

By learning appropriate coping skills, clients can interact and connect with others to develop healthy relationships.

2. Group interventions

Group interventions include group therapy to teach and practice social skills, communication, and emotional regulation in a group environment.

Groups can provide clients with immediate feedback in a safe environment and help normalize any social anxiety that may be the root cause of loneliness.

Group therapy may also include bereavement groups that allow individuals who are struggling with similar losses (causing loneliness) to connect.

3. Communities

Environmental treatment options explore interactions at the community level. They involve community awareness programs and restructuring social settings.

Things such as community events, block parties, game nights, and planned activities can help reduce social isolation.

Encouraging clients to get involved in volunteer activities and participate in community activities can create connections and help them develop relationships surrounding shared interests.

3 Counseling Worksheets and Activities

Worksheets and activities are wonderful ways to address loneliness in and out of therapy sessions. Providing individuals with tools allows them to take control of their own emotional wellbeing.

1. Three-Step Mindfulness

This Three-Step Mindfulness Worksheet helps lonely individuals shift their attention from the past or future (grief or anxiety about not having connection) to the present moment. By developing this internal awareness, clients can tolerate the waves of loneliness whenever they hit.

2. Self-Care Checkup

One of the best ways to overcome loneliness is to care for oneself. The Self-Care Checkup can guide individuals toward mental, physical, emotional, and social ways to care for themselves.

3. Emotional Wellness Worksheet

The National Institutes of Health provide wonderful Emotional Wellness worksheets that can address issues with and related to loneliness. From coping with loss to improving sleep and developing resilience through challenges, these tools can aid a variety of issues that cause loneliness.

Can Meditation Help? 3 Tips and Strategies

Meditation for lonelinessMeditation and mindfulness are helpful in dealing with a variety of negative and distressing emotions associated with loneliness.

These practices can help individuals learn to tolerate uncomfortable feelings and avoid turning to maladaptive coping behaviors.

Below you will find a helpful selection of options with which to establish a meditation practice.

1. Learn mindful compassion

Loving-kindness meditations are specifically useful to help with loneliness, as they teach self-compassion and increase the ability to develop social connection.

Make use of these loving-kindness meditation scripts, which encourage individuals to extend kindness to themselves and let go of fear and anxiety to embrace happiness and acceptance.

2. Pick a specific time and location

Our article on mindfulness meditation provides a multitude of videos and scripts to help individuals begin a mindful meditation practice.

Meditation is most effective for loneliness if it is done regularly and with consistency. Picking a specific location and time of day to spend five to 10 minutes of uninterrupted practice is a great way to start.

3. Radical acceptance

The most powerful aspect of meditation is its ability to help individuals observe and even embrace the negative feelings associated with loneliness.

By recognizing the emotions and accepting them in a nonjudgmental way (not thinking of them as good or bad), the negative sensations become less intrusive and controlling, allowing the lonely person to find space for more joy and connection. Follow this guided meditation to find a happier space:

A guided meditation for loneliness - Live Sonima

3 Books on the Topic

There is a wealth of resources that address the issue of loneliness. These books provide a wonderful mix of practical guidance and professional experience to help readers live more emotionally fulfilled lives.

1. A Practical Guide to Overcoming Loneliness – Sally Alter

Practical Guide to Overcoming Loneliness

A Practical Guide to Overcoming Loneliness takes an informal approach to address a variety of issues that are associated with loneliness.

This mix of personal experience, self-help, and comforting advice is balanced with expert information and answers to living a happy life.

No matter what the root cause of loneliness is, this book can provide guidance and advice to assist with a multitude of problems.

Find the book on Amazon.

2. The Loneliness Cure: Six Strategies for Finding Real Connections in Your Life – Kory Floyd

The Loneliness Cure

In our digital world, many people have lost the ability to socialize in person as we focus on connecting through technology.

With a personalized approach to loneliness, this book helps readers assess their unique need for connection and socialization.

It teaches communication techniques and ways to develop more intimacy and meaning in the relationships people have.

Find the book on Amazon.

3. About the Art of Being Alone: How to Overcome Loneliness and the Fear of Being Alone While Learning to Love Yourself – Janett Menzel

About the Art of Being AloneThis book examines the fear of being alone and guides readers to a place of self-discovery and acceptance.

Often, it is not a lack of social interaction that causes loneliness, but the unhealthy relationship we have with ourselves.

Becoming more comfortable being alone with our thoughts, emotions, and sense of self can ease the distressful emotions associated with loneliness.

Find the book on Amazon.

Resources From

The aim of positive psychology is to help people flourish. In some countries, it is a constitutional right to be happy, and here at, we have many resources to share to assist in quests for happiness.

Skills for Regulating Emotions is a worksheet to help individuals regulate and cope with the distressful emotions associated with loneliness. It provides practical ideas for creating healthy habits and a guide to fact-checking negative thoughts that can stand in the way.

Writing a Love Letter to Myself is a great way to reflect on personal strengths and qualities. This can help build security in the absence of community as well as build confidence to make new connections with others.

Creating hope can be a powerful antidote to loneliness. Hope can help clients after suffering loss or provide a way out of the feelings of isolation, sadness, and depression that lack of connection provides.

Should your loneliness stem from a breakup, you might find our breakup therapy article an interesting read, while grief meditation and yoga could guide you on a path of healing.

If you’re looking for more science-based ways to help others build healthy relationships, this collection contains 17 validated positive relationships tools for practitioners.  Use them to help others form healthier, more nurturing, and life-enriching relationships.

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Empower others with the skills to cultivate fulfilling, rewarding relationships and enhance their social wellbeing with these 17 Positive Relationships Exercises [PDF].

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A Take-Home Message

Human beings are thoroughly social creatures and depend on connection for survival. Loneliness can have a dramatic impact on social, emotional, cognitive, and physical wellbeing.

With the prevalence of loneliness across the globe, understanding the psychology and the detrimental consequences it can have is an important first step. Learning the symptoms, signs, and ways to assess loneliness can guide individuals to the most appropriate treatment options.

There is hope for healing loneliness and finding connection, purpose, and meaningful relationships.

We hope you enjoyed reading this article. Don’t forget to download our three Positive Relationships Exercises for free.

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