LONELINESS &
SOCIAL ISOLATION 101

What is loneliness?

Loneliness is the feeling or perception of being alone, regardless of the amount of social contacts an individual may actually have. Being stigmatized, left out, or discriminated against by others can increase the risk of loneliness.


What is social isolation?

Social isolation can be defined as the lack or limited extent of social contact with others. It is important to note that someone who is socially isolated may not be lonely, but social isolation does increase the risk of loneliness.

Is this loneliness?

What is loneliness?

Loneliness is the feeling or perception of being alone, regardless of the amount of social contacts an individual may actually have. Being stigmatized, left out, or discriminated against by others can increase the risk of loneliness.


What is social isolation?

Social isolation can be defined as the lack or limited extent of social contact with others. It is important to note that someone who is socially isolated may not be lonely, but social isolation does increase the risk of loneliness.

Who is at risk?

Although loneliness was previously considered a problem associated with older adults, new research suggests that loneliness is increasingly affecting younger adults, with adults ranging from 18-22 years old reporting the highest levels of loneliness (Cigna, 2018). Factors that increase the risk of struggling with loneliness or social isolation include:

  • Depression/Anxiety disorders
  • Cognitive deficits/Dementia
  • Living alone or lacking adequate social supports
  • Difficulty connecting with others
  • Caregiver burnout
  • Disruptive life events or significant transitions
  • Bereavement or loss
  • Illness or poor health
  • Issues related to self-esteem

How common is it?

Although everyone experiences the feeling of loneliness from time to time, recent research suggests that almost half of Americans surveyed report that they sometimes or always feel alone (46%) or left out (47%) (Cigna, 2018). Given the increasing rates of social isolation and loneliness, and their impact on overall health and wellbeing, it is a growing public health concern in our society. Some have even coined it a “Loneliness epidemic” (Health Affairs, 2020).

How will it affect my health?

Pervasive and chronic loneliness and social isolation can cause significant mental and physical health problems. The more intense and long lasting the experiences of loneliness are, the more toxic they can be. Loneliness and social isolation have been linked to an increased risk of premature death by nearly 30% (Health Affairs, 2020). Social isolation and loneliness have also been found to be associated with increased risk of:

  • Coronary artery disease and stroke
  • Hospital readmission and mortality
  • Higher rates of depression and anxiety
  • Suicide for all ages
  • Suicidal ideation and self-harm in older adults
  • Poor quality of life
  • Adverse lifestyle and/or health-related behaviors [poor diet, substance use, physical inactivity]
  • Acute and chronic elevations in blood pressure and heart rate
  • Sleep disorders
  • Substance abuse
  • Excessive weight gain
  • Cognitive decline
  • Inflammation

Common beliefs

There is no one way to experience loneliness. For people who deeply value a sense of belonging, community, and relationships, loneliness can feel even more emotionally draining. Once you can put what’s bothering you into words, you can start to talk about it with others. From there, hopefully you can get ideas and encouragement that motivate you to take small steps towards what you need or want. Some common beliefs about loneliness that can keep you feeling stuck are:

  • No one understands what I’m going through.
  • If I put myself out there, people will judge or reject me.
  • People will eventually let me down or betray me.
  • I’m lonely because there’s something wrong with me.
  • I’m always going to be alone.
  • I’m not good at making friends.
  • I shouldn’t feel the way I do.
  • I should be over this by now.
  • If people knew what I was going through they’d just feel sorry for me.
  • I’m no good at small talk.

Loneliness traps

There are a handful of traps that can keep you stuck in a state of loneliness. Let’s go through those, as well as the cycle that keeps you trapped, and some tips to help you break out of it. 

Judging yourself and your loneliness trap.

Loneliness is a natural human emotion. But if you judge yourself for feeling it, that can trap you in a cycle of not feeling good enough, which can then lead you to isolate, and leave you feeling more lonely. If this cycle feels recognizable, it’s because most of us have been there at one point or another. The trick to breaking out of the cycle is catching yourself when you’re just starting to get caught up in it.


Perfectionism and impression management trap.

This trap looks different because while you might be suffering or feeling disconnected on the inside, on the outside you’re giving the impression that you are just fine. You might still socialize, speak up in meetings, go out with friends, or appear generally happy. But you are hiding your true self from others, which can leave your relationships feeling hollow, superficial, or unfulfilling. Over time, you might find it increasingly difficult to open up to people—this cycle is what traps you in impression management, rather than meeting your own needs for deep, authentic, social connection.


Emotional Numbing Trap.

There are a lot of ways people numb their emotions to avoid having to feel the painful ones. The trap here is that cutting yourself off from painful emotions means disconnecting from the joyous and meaningful ones too. Using food, substances, spending, video games, or other distractions as a way to avoid your feelings of loneliness can get you caught in the trap of needing more of those things to cope, rather than actually satisfying your true needs.


Isolating Habits Trap.

You might not even realize when you’re caught in habits that are keeping you isolated away from meaningful social connections. For example, you might have gotten used to turning down invitations or not answering phone calls. In turn, people may have stopped reaching out, and before you knew it, it felt too uncomfortable to reach back out to them when you were ready for more company.


Negative Social Comparison Trap.

Comparing yourself to other people will almost always leave you feeling like you want to disconnect or separate from others. Once you get started comparing yourself to others, you’ll find yourself doing it more and more, which makes it harder and harder to view yourself objectively, just as you are. Breaking out of this cycle requires you to remember that even if someone looks like they have it all together, you don’t know how they got there, or the private details of their lives (including their sacrifices, sorrows, or personal issues).

What can I do?

Soothing yourself can be a great way to start coping with the loneliness you experience. Some tips for this include:

  • Practice accepting your emotions
  • Start sharing the real you with people you care about
  • Treat yourself like you are your own best friend
  • Schedule pleasurable activities with others or even on your own
  • Make time for self-connection with journaling, prayer, meditation, or other self-care
  • Connect to something larger than you like a social cause or group that is meaningful to you
  • Start a daily gratitude practice to help you discover things that bring you satisfaction or happiness regularly

Connecting With Others

Remember, human beings are generally social by nature, and positive relationships can help promote healthier lives. Some strategies that may help decrease social isolation and loneliness and provide opportunities to connect with others are:

  • Join a peer/support group in person or online
  • Volunteer for causes that matter to you
  • Make a goal to reach out to existing supports, like family, friends, or groups, if available
  • Engage in physical activity
  • Explore community agencies, groups, programs, or resources that focus on building connections
  • Attend virtual groups or communities of interest
  • Reach out to your Crossover Health care team when you need support

How Crossover can help

As an integrated healthcare team, we work collaboratively and consider all aspects of your health and wellbeing in an effort to support you as you reach for your goals. We take a biopsychosocial approach—which means that we take into account how your physical, mental, and social functioning interact when working with you to develop a treatment plan. Our programs are meant to help you build skills in an interactive, engaging, and customized way that meets your individual needs.

Next steps from here

If you have been struggling with loneliness or social isolation, there are multiple ways you can move forward with addressing these issues. Talk to your primary care physician, mental health therapist, health coach—or any of us here at Crossover—to learn more about ways we can support you in your journey towards greater social connection and wellbeing.