Loneliness and social isolation
23 November 2022
Loneliness is that negative feeling that arises when our social needs are not met. As social beings, we rely on safe, secure social surroundings to survive and thrive. When we begin to feel lonely, we feel vulnerable, which can take a toll on both our physical and mental health.
Loneliness is a function of our need for companionship and belonging, and left unaddressed, it can detrimentally affect our self-worth. The presence of loneliness reflects the absence of connection, not the absence of people. That’s why we can feel lonely even in a crowd. In fact, being in the middle of a crowd can make us feel even lonelier if none of the members of our known support network are present, and we feel unable to connect with others around us. We can also experience loneliness when we feel that our support network isn’t providing the support that we need at a given moment in time. Loneliness can leave us questioning our value to others and where we belong.
Feeling lonely isn't a mental health problem, but the two are strongly linked. Having a mental health problem can increase the chance of feeling lonely and isolated. This can be due to stigma and a lack of understanding by others, which makes it hard to build relationships based on acceptance and trust. Also mental health issues such as social anxiety can make it harder to interact with others. Feeling lonely can also have a negative impact on mental health, especially if these feelings have lasted a long time. Some research suggests that loneliness is associated with an increased risk of certain mental health problems, including depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, sleep problems and increased stress.
There are three types of loneliness:
Existential loneliness is related to the nature of existence and particularly, a lack of meaning in life. It is a sense of personal incompleteness. Loneliness tends to stir up negative feelings, and while those can be helpful in terms of self-exploration, they are also something to which we are averse and want to avoid as much as we can.
This type of loneliness arises from a feeling that we lack relationships or attachments. For example, when everyone has a romantic partner in our group except us. Emotional loneliness can be felt when we need someone to talk to about something going on in our lives, but feel that there is no-one available to contact. We might feel lonely for a partner who has moved out of our lives. We might be lonely for a close friend, a parent, a sibling, or a partner who is absent.
This type of loneliness occurs when we don’t feel a sense of belonging to a group beyond ourselves. We might even feel social loneliness even when we have a romantic relationship with a partner we treasure. If we don’t have a wider circle of social support, we may feel that we don’t have a group with whom to belong. When we walk into a party and don’t recognise anyone familiar, a feeling of social loneliness may wash over us if we don’t typically feel comfortable approaching new people. If we don’t feel that our presence is valued in a wider circle, we might experience social loneliness.
Doctors and medical students are more likely to feel lonely in the following circumstances:
- Starting out at university, after leaving a secure school environment.
- If you are older than your peers or at a different stage of life or have caring responsibilities, such as children, when your peers do not.
- On a rotation away from usual supports such as family and friends.
- After failing an exam if everyone you know has passed.
- When relocating for work, especially when you have to move house to unfamiliar locations and leave behind your usual contacts and supports.
- If you experience discrimination and stigma because of your gender, race or sexual orientation, especially if you are in a minority group.
- When experiencing bullying or bad behaviour.
- After an error or incident if you do not have someone you feel safe with to talk about the event.
- When working from home.
- When retiring and losing the social contacts you had at work
- When experiencing loss and bereavement.
Loneliness tends to stir up negative feelings, and while those can be helpful in terms of self-exploration, they are also something to which we are averse and want to avoid as much as we can.
Existential fears, including the fears of isolation, death, meaninglessness, and freedom, are experienced by virtually all of us at some point in time. Recognising the fear and using it as a motivator to live more fully and more in the moment can help us immerse ourselves in the present, which might help us recognise that we are among a vast sea of individuals struggling against these fears just as we are.
The lasting solution to emotional loneliness is to establish and maintain a healthy support system of friends and family. While we can’t make “instant friendship” happen or find a “soulmate” overnight, we can maximise our chances of deepening a friendship by reaching out to friends and being willing to be the one to suggest a meet-up or get together. Accepting invitations to socialise in a group is a good way to broaden our network exponentially as group members will introduce us to others.
Letting someone know we "need to talk" can open the door to a deeper bond, so long as we don't overburden others with our needs. Showing interest in others and asking them about their interests is essential to develop rapport.
Other ways to reduce loneliness are to be open to socialising with a range of people of different backgrounds and life experiences and having broader interests and hobbies outside work or study and joining clubs or activities with others with those interests. Pets can be great companions too and if a pet requires regular walks or obedience classes this will provide opportunities to meet other pet owners.
AMA Victoria offers the Peer Visitor Program providing companionship to older doctors who may be feeling isolated after retiring or when moving into an aged care facility The volunteer companions are medical students or doctors who will visit once a fortnight for social conversation and interaction. If you know an older doctor who may benefit from this program or you are feeling isolated and would enjoy a regular visitor for companionship, please contact Kay Dunkley at AMA Victoria on firstname.lastname@example.org.
AMA Victoria doctor wellbeing and mentoring
Further reading and resources
- The 3 Types of Loneliness and How to Combat Them | Psychology Today
- About loneliness | Mind
- What is loneliness and how can we overcome it during these times? | Black Dog Institute
- A guide to measuring loneliness for community organisations | Ending Loneliness Together