Loneliness - social isolation and being alone

Loneliness is psychologically synonymous with social isolation, but at the same time it describes the feeling of suffering from social isolation. It is difficult ethymologically to distinguish between being alone in a positive way, in order to develop thoughts freely or to have “peace”. Some experts differentiate between positive "voluntary loneliness" and negative "involuntary loneliness".

What does social psychology say?

Social psychology regards loneliness as the subjective feeling of suffering from a lack of fulfilled social contacts. It has nothing to do with whether the people concerned have many contacts or not.

Loneliness feelings mean that a person becomes aware of his social isolation and feels it as negative. This is often accompanied by depression and the attempt to compensate for negative feelings through drugs or alcohol. Such misguided strategies to cope with loneliness in turn increase social isolation.

Definitions of loneliness

Peplau / Periman presented a definition of the term that is still valid today. Accordingly, it is a subjectively experienced state, a break between the social relationships that a person has and those that he wishes. So someone can be with people all the time and feel lonely at the same time. Conversely, a person who consciously turns away from other people and lives alone in the forest does not have to be lonely if this is exactly the condition he wants.

Reactive loneliness

The reactionary loneliness develops with upheavals in life: change of place of residence, having children, job loss, retirement, moving out of children, divorce, death of a partner, illnesses that bind a person to bed, accidents, but also old age. This form of loneliness is called reactionary because the people affected react to a changed life situation. Familiar relationships break or lose intensity.

This reactionary loneliness is usually not a permanent condition. It passes when those affected develop new social relationships that match the new life situation: find a new partner, spend time with couples who also have children, or pursue their hobbies together with other pensioners.

Reactional loneliness is generally not first of all a psychological problem for the person concerned, but rather external circumstances, with people who are in contact with each other overcoming these phases more quickly than people who are having trouble establishing new relationships.

Creeping loneliness

Unlike reactionary loneliness, creeping loneliness is only conditionally a result of external circumstances. Those affected have social contacts here, but they do not fulfill them. They complain that although they know many people superficially, they do not develop deep friendships or that old friends become estranged. The feeling of being socially isolated is getting stronger.

There are many reasons for this. For example, a person's interests, feelings, and goals change and he slowly develops away from his old friends. Or it works the other way round: a person stagnates in their development while the friends change. At the beginning they still meet, maybe still hold up the old rituals, but these increasingly feel empty. Now they are creeping away from each other. Those who cannot cope with this divergence and do not make new bonds feel isolated.

External circumstances can play into this. A classic example is a person who grows up in a small village and feels in his youth that he has potential that his environment does not understand and that he cannot implement it here. If he does not make the jump now and does not move into an environment where he could develop, he may creep up lonely.

The chronic loneliness

This condition lasts for years and decades and is often accompanied by psychological problems for those affected. These people lack the ability to make social contacts on their own and to maintain social relationships. People with a depressive illness suffer particularly from this.


The risk of loneliness is particularly great if the social environment perceives people as different. This applies, for example, to people who suffer from mental disorders such as Asperger's syndrome, attachment disorders, borderline syndrome, bipolarity or paranoid schizophrenia.
People without special needs have hardly any access to the thoughts and feelings of those affected and due to their unusual behavior, hardly anyone enters into deep friendships with these people.

People who do not have a mental disability, for example the highly gifted, are also different. If they do not have contact with people who understand their thoughts, this can, but does not have to, lead to a feeling of social isolation.

People who have had experiences that their surroundings cannot empathize also appear different. This applies, for example, to soldiers who return to civil society from the war.

Feeling isolation

Psychologist John T. Cacioppo saw feelings of loneliness as the social equivalent of physical pain, hunger and thirst. This feeling is so difficult to bear that those affected take actions to end the condition or not to let it arise at all. Such acts include, for example, the so-called relationship addiction, in which those affected plunge again and again into intimate relationships, even if they are destructive. They are driven by the fear of being alone. This also applies to some old people who deliberately delay their discharge from the hospital because they fear loneliness at home.

Feeling isolation, like anxiety, increases the level of stress, which increases the risk of diseases in which stress plays a role. This increases blood pressure and the risk of heart problems. According to Cacioppo, loneliness plays a role in suicides as well as in psychoses, cognitive disorders and Alzheimer's.

Sleep disorders

Those who suffer from loneliness sleep poorly, according to a study by Lianne Kurina from Chicago. According to this, lonely people do not sleep shorter, but wake up more often at night and regenerate only insufficiently through sleep. On the other hand, scientists from the University of California recently found that sleep disorders drive people to loneliness and isolation - an effect that could be observed after a sleepless night.

Loneliness - a dilemma

Once a person suffers from felt isolation, it usually becomes more and more difficult for them to establish social contacts through which they could escape this feeling. Due to its isolation, it becomes a “loner”. Due to the social isolation, his communication mostly refers to himself. At best, he seems strange to potential new friends. They quickly distance themselves because the lonely does not respond to the needs of the other person. He circles around himself and is trapped in this cage, even if he wants to go out.

As much as those affected suffer from their social isolation, it is the familiar state in which they move. They now behave towards other people as if they did not even exist as independent beings. Lonely people often develop behavior and represent attitudes that drive people away without this problem. They are cynical, destructive, sometimes even misanthropic. At the latest when the lonely construct a special feature out of their negative feelings, fellow human beings quickly distance themselves from them. For those who are not lonely, it then appears as if the lonely person snubs them, as if they are marginalizing - and not the one who feels marginalized.

The sufferers experience psychological pain and often direct it to the outside. Then they don't complain "I feel isolated", but "people are superficial". Some develop hatred and contempt for other people out of necessity.

The creative suffering

The Enlightenment in Europe also saw loneliness positively when people retired from everyday life to reflect and enlighten themselves about society by seeing it from the outside. Romanticism glorified loneliness as an introversion, in which people eluded a loveless outside world and visited the inner world of their dreams.

Goethe's Werther, for example, was unable to maintain social ties in the superficial bourgeoisie of his time and only developed his creative powers when he turned away from this society. He suffered from this at the same time and ended his life with suicide. Finally, at Nietzsche, loneliness is a core element of great spirits.

Social isolation and the consequences

Scientifically, feelings of loneliness are extremely vague. The situation is different with the complex consequences of social isolation. Those who are socially isolated increase the risk of various diseases. Family, friends, relatives, colleagues or neighbors are not only an emotional support, but also a practical one. Other people recognize better than we do whether we lack something. They see our blind spots and urge us to exercise or go to the doctor. A stable social environment automatically improves health. However, this is not about subjectively perceived loneliness, but about objective social isolation.

What can I do myself?

Regardless of whether I am "to blame" or not, I can change my own behavior to get rid of the negative feelings. Even if it sounds strange to the lonely: This does not begin with seeking (compulsive) social contacts, but with making it easier for yourself.
They can listen to their favorite music, go for a walk in the forest, visit a museum, rediscover hobbies, ride a bike, go to concerts or the theater, do things they love or once loved.

Your own four walls are also important: set up your apartment so that you feel comfortable there. Whether the pillows are new, a new wallpaper, new furniture, candles on a winter evening or bouquets of lavender in the kitchen is up to you. You can also take care of houseplants or buy pets. Go to a restaurant and eat your favorite food alone. Paint, read, pottery, create a garden.

These measures sound banal and are actually not suitable if the feeling of loneliness accompanies a serious mental illness such as depression. In such cases, you cannot rely on practical self-help, but must urgently go to psychiatric treatment. If this is not the case, then it has a positive effect to first design your own environment so that you feel comfortable in it. On the one hand, the negative feeling becomes more bearable for you and you may even find that the lack of social relationships also has an advantage - being able to pursue your own passions. On the other hand, you are preparing to build more and more intensive social relationships. Anyone who pursues their interests will sooner or later find people with similar inclinations, and they will immediately have a topic of conversation that will not bore them or their counterpart.

Separation loneliness

People who have had a long relationship, lived through all crises, tried all new beginnings and finally finally separated, often have problems dealing with the unfamiliar loneliness. This often leads to a negative feeling of loneliness. This danger is all the greater if the relationship was previously everything, life focused on the partner and old friends, colleagues or hobbies were left behind.

Many people still manage to get through this phase: they build on old friendships, go to parties, in cafes and bars, get to know new people. Some even enjoy being alone after the breakup to find themselves again and build a new self. Those who are socially popular, coveted by potential sex partners, and who also maintain private contacts in their job, can deal with the first phase of mourning more quickly. Such people usually get to know new relationship candidates, have one or the other casual affair or one-night stands, sometimes you are even happy to let off steam sexually and replay the old game of trial and error.

For others, however, being single turns into tribulation. They are desperately looking for the right person and are feeling more and more lonely because they cannot find anyone who meets their expectations. Or, conversely, you plunge from panic into changing bed acquaintances and feel more and more lonely, because they knew from the start that "this is nothing". For them, flirting is not a tingling sensation, it is compulsion. Doing something alone seems at best to be an escape. The more often they travel alone, the more they fear becoming nerds.

Feelings are now entering a negative spiral. Those affected believe that they are not lovable, the search for a partner seems to be in vain, they move to their apartment, become increasingly shy and get to know fewer and fewer people.

Relatives and friends

After a breakup, there is no one who can replace the lost partner. But that's what friends are for, and when all else fails and you have good contact with your family, parents and / or children. They hug you, do something with them, distract you.

Hasn't the feeling of loneliness turned into a depression that you don't dare leave the house? Then go outside. Jogging, hiking, swimming, cinema, pub, cafe not only improve the mood, you also meet people everywhere. And people get to know you best when you do something that gives them pleasure.

Is self-esteem the problem?

If we understand loneliness as a subjective feeling of social isolation, it can also result from the fact that we do not value ourselves and our interests. When I like myself, develop my own abilities, pursue my own passions, I do not find being alone objectively as tormenting - on the contrary.

It would be nice if someone shared my interests, but I prefer to pursue my interests alone than to share my time with someone who has no connection. Some people run away in panic from being alone because they would then be faced with themselves. But if you can't do anything with yourself, being alone means self-doubt, circles of thought, uncertainty and confusion.

Seek help

If you suffer from loneliness in the long term, seek help. As a first step, write to a self-help group. Little helps more against loneliness than contact with other victims who have the same problem. You can also go to an advice center or, if you have a chronic condition, psychotherapy.

A social task

Lonely people often suffer from the fact that individual responsibility is the guiding principle of late capitalism. In a society that supposedly offers many opportunities, they are then to blame for their condition. It is important to raise awareness here, to involve people who obviously feel excluded.

Do social media make you lonely?

According to his luridly written book "Digital Dementia", psychiatrist and internet enemy Manfred Spitzer makes social media essentially responsible for the loneliness that is rampant today.
However, this is very undifferentiated. For one thing, the accumulation of virtual FB friends can actually lead to fewer and fewer friendships in the real world. On the other hand, social contacts can also be deepened via the Internet, be it via chat with your best friend, Skype with your grandchildren or a short message with your buddies. Online forums are often the first step out of social isolation: If you have isolated yourself further and further, it is easier for you to start an exchange with the filter of the Internet and to meet with your chat partners later than you can to go to a group meeting.

Pressure to succeed

Young people today are under enormous pressure to succeed. At the age of 20, her apprenticeship, studies, and career should start. During their studies, they first meet countless peers; Seminars, shared apartments, parties, love affairs and new friends. Then supposedly the first stages of a successful job begin and in the early 30s family, children, home follow - so the neoliberal propaganda. The reality is usually different.

The young "self-optimizers" select their social contacts based on whether they benefit them professionally, real friendships can hardly be established, and intensive discussions about private issues are a waste of time. In addition, the "self-optimizers" are always busy, communities do not grow, neighbors change, relatives live far away. Without this connection to people who are close to us, the feeling of loneliness is a logical consequence.

What does politics say?

The SPD health politician Karl Lauterbach calls for a person responsible in the Ministry of Health for the topic of loneliness, the CDU politician Marcus Weinberg a "lobby for lonely people".
Diakonie president Ulrich Lilie says: "We need an alliance of politics and social groups such as churches, charities, sports clubs and cultural institutions."

What does science say?

The American Psychological Society concludes that people with many social contacts are 50% less at risk of dying early. According to an Australian meta-study, social isolation, loneliness and single life have a significant impact on an earlier death - comparable to being overweight and smoking.

The different risks are also related. Anne Böger from the German Center for Age Issues writes: "Lonely people smoke more often, are more at risk of being overweight and report less physical activity."

Just an individual feeling?

To consider loneliness as a subjective feeling excludes the social background of social isolation. Anyone who involuntarily lonely as a result of reduced social benefits, precarious working conditions, displacement from home because he or she cannot pay the rent is hardly helped with tips for individual crisis management. This is about political tasks such as social housing, tenant protection, social integration and improved social benefits.

It is not your fault

Whoever sees himself involuntarily in the loneliness trap is not guilty. Rather, it is a biochemical process in the brain. When we cooperate with other people, when someone hugs us, we successfully solve tasks in a team, the brain releases happiness hormones as "candies".

However, if a person feels marginalized and unloved, the brain activates the same centers as with physical pain. Suffering from loneliness is therefore a biologically meaningful mechanism to survive. Isolation and exile were historically logically extremely effective punishments for a social being like man.

Lonely in danger

Some people are more likely to experience involuntary loneliness than others. Those affected tend to be pessimistic about their environment, are shy and, above all, relate to themselves, find it difficult to listen to others and, above all, lack empathy. They talk little about their feelings and generally hardly tell what is going on in them.

People who like to be part of organized groups, whether in football, the fire brigade or a local political group, run little risk of becoming lonely. They also tend to make personal contacts, do not expect too much from them and are not disappointed if everything does not go perfectly. (Dr. Utz Anhalt)

Author and source information

This text corresponds to the specifications of the medical literature, medical guidelines and current studies and has been checked by medical doctors.


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Video: Loneliness and Borderline Personality Disorder (January 2022).