What is loneliness?

Some experts say we're living through a loneliness epidemic*, but it’s something we still don’t talk about. Loneliness expert Dr Michelle Lim breaks down some of the mystery and stigma surrounding loneliness.

New research from Medibank recently revealed more than half of Australians surveyed feel lonely on one or more days during a typical week. On top of this, the report revealed 1-in-3 were classified with a high level of loneliness^, an increase from 1-in-4 in 2020.

Young and single people were the most likely to report feeling lonely. 

Despite how common it is, stigma around loneliness persists. Loneliness expert and Scientific Chair of Ending Loneliness Together, Dr Michelle Lim says the discussion around loneliness is something we need to change.

“There is a societal and cultural lens that paints over this issue. That loneliness itself is somehow your fault – it’s your problem.”

“We need to talk a little bit more about loneliness. At the same time we need to equip people to actually learn to connect with people who are lonely.”

Alone or lonely?

Understanding the difference between social isolation and loneliness is one of the first steps to understanding the issue.

You can be socially isolated and not feel lonely; some people may only need a few meaningful connections to feel satisfied. Conversely, others can be surrounded by a large group of family and friends and still feel lonely if they don’t feel connected or understood.

What does loneliness feel like?

While we know loneliness is common, many people still don’t admit to, nor speak openly about it. In fact, many people may not even recognise that what they are feeling is loneliness.

“If you feel like you are in conversations where you are just not in tune with other people, you feel misunderstood, you feel like even though you have people around you, you still have no one to talk to or turn to. Those kinds of feelings signal loneliness,” says Michelle.

“One critical thing is having that confidante – without that person you can go to and talk to in your life, it can very easily become lonely.”

Who is most at risk of feeling lonely?

According to recent research, loneliness can be triggered by life events, such as moving house, changing jobs, becoming a parent, retirement, losing a friend or a loved one.#

These triggers interplay with personal risk factors - things like our age, living alone, having fewer financial resources, or having migrated from a different country. Even how and why you use social media can increase your risk of experiencing loneliness.

Those most vulnerable to chronic loneliness are the ones facing structural barriers, says Michelle.

For instance, health can also be a significant structural barrier for people experiencing loneliness. Mental health conditions like social anxiety disorder can prevent people from connecting for fear of social situations, creating a cycle of loneliness. Physical health issues, for example, those that may cause problems with mobility or ongoing pain, can prevent people from getting out and connecting with others.

When does loneliness become a problem?

It's well documented that loneliness has an impact on both your physical and mental health.

In fact, says Michelle, some of the most robust evidence is around the association between loneliness and poor heart health. There is also evidence around mental health issues like anxiety and depression, sleep quality and cognitive decline.

But we all experience loneliness from time to time. How much loneliness is bad for you? We don’t really know, but Michelle suspects that it is the duration of loneliness that matters.

“What I suspect I can see in my data is – even if loneliness is experienced in a small amount, but long term it actually leads to more detrimental outcomes in the long term.”

“We can take the best guess. If loneliness is neglected, if it’s ignored, if it’s something that we don’t intervene early, we know that it can lead to poorer health outcomes.”

What should you do if you feel lonely?

According to Michelle, it is important we use the feeling of loneliness as a driver and a motivator to make a change.

“The best first step is to ask what you need. Social needs are very complex. What you might need, may not be what I need. Maybe you thrive in groups and you want to do a shared interest group – but that might be terrifying for me,” she says.

“There are many options. There are things that the person themselves needs to assess. What works for one person will not work for the other.”

If you are feeling particularly isolated or distressed, there are mental health heath services to support you. Medibank members with hospital cover can call the 24/7 Mental Health Phone Support Service on 1800 644 325~. And anyone can access services like Lifeline on 13 11 14, and the Beyond Blue Support Service on 1300 224 636.

Ways to start feeling more connected

Putting yourself out there can feel scary, but there are small things you can do to feel more connected.

  • Reach out to someone you have felt close to in the past for a coffee, meal or phone call. You could start with a simple text message or email to say hi and get the conversation started.
  • Set up regular catch ups. If you’re physically distant from friends or loved ones, try setting up a regular time for a call or check in.  
  • Do something you enjoy. Perhaps it’s a walk in nature, playing music or cooking something. You can ask someone who shares your interest to join you. Even if you’re only comfortable doing it alone for now, it will help to boost your mood.
  • Ease into a group activity at your own pace. A good start could be something like parkrun (free community running and walking events), where you can interact as much or as little as you like with others. Connecting with others may come more easily than you expected, once you’re there.
  • Build up to meaningful conversations. If you’d like to get close to people, but you don’t feel you know them, opening up about your feelings may help. By reaching out, you can build up to more meaningful conversations over time.

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*Ending loneliness together, 2020, Ending loneliness together in Australia White Paper.

^High-level loneliness is categorised as a person who scores 52 points+ on the UCLA scale.

#Lim et al., 2020, Understanding loneliness in the twenty‑first century: an update on correlates, risk factors, and potential solutions.

~OSHC members should call the Student Health and Support Line on 1800 887 283.

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