Find a therapist Search articles

Isolation, loneliness, and mental health

Reviewed by Stephanie Steinman, PhD, CSAC

A teenage boy sits in the curve of a stone wall looking lonely and thoughtful

Isolation vs. loneliness

Isolation and loneliness are often experienced together, but they aren’t the same.

“Isolation” refers to a lack of interactions, relationships, or human contact. “Loneliness” is the feeling that occurs when your interactions with others don’t fulfill your need for connection.

While isolation can lead to loneliness, it’s also possible to feel lonely even when surrounded by people. Loneliness has more to do with the quality and depth of social connections, rather than the number.

What is social isolation?

Social isolation is when you have minimal contact with others or lack friends, family, or community members to engage with regularly. Although spending time alone can give you a chance to relax and recharge, too much time alone can harm your mental health.

Some common signs of social isolation include:

  • Turning down opportunities to socialize
  • Agreeing to plans, then canceling them at the last minute
  • Not having anyone you’d identify as a close friend
  • Experiencing extreme anxiety when you’re socializing or preparing to socialize
  • Feeling down or depressed when you’re alone
  • Having low self-esteem
  • Interacting with people only when required (such as with coworkers or roommates)

What causes isolation?

Social isolation can happen to anyone. Some common circumstances that can increase your risk include:

  • Age: Older people tend to have more risk factors for isolation. Some common factors include living alone, losing a partner, having hearing loss, and developing dementia.
  • Family disconnection: Divorce, estrangement, or other family relationship issues can contribute to isolation.
  • Distance: Living far away from friends and family, or moving to a remote location, can lead to isolation.
  • Job or school changes: Losing a job, switching jobs, or switching schools can cause loneliness and make it hard to meet new people.
  • Lack of income: Financial struggle can reduce our access to education, social networks, and family stability.
  • Prejudice and marginalization: People who are excluded or discriminated against because of their race, sexual orientation, gender identity, and other factors are more likely to experience social isolation.
  • Physical disabilities: Vision loss, hearing loss, and physical impairments that limit mobility can contribute to social isolation.
  • Lack of accessibility: Language barriers, cultural challenges, and economic difficulties can fuel isolation.
  • Loss of community: Retirement, moving away to school, and other life transitions can lead to isolation.
  • Domestic violence: Abusers often try to isolate their victims as a way to control them. Fear of retaliation may prevent victims from reaching out for help.
  • Trauma and grief: Isolation can occur after a traumatic event or after the loss of a friend or family member.
  • Mental illnesses: Isolation can be a symptom of certain mental illnesses, such as anxiety or depression, which make it harder to be around others.
  • Mental health stigma: Stigma around mental illness can make it difficult for people struggling with their mental health to reach out to friends and family.

Social isolation and the COVID-19 pandemic

During the COVID-19 pandemic, staying home and social distancing were often necessary for everyone’s safety. Events and gatherings of all kinds were canceled. The pandemic also changed the way we work, receive education, and socialize with others. While some people were able to transition into working from home, others lost their jobs. 

These changes caused people to spend much more time alone than they were used to, leading to an uptick in mental health concerns. The effects of isolation on mental health were easy to see. In addition to feeling lonely and isolated, about four in 10 adults were experiencing symptoms of anxiety and depression by early 2021.1 

If you’re experiencing loneliness, anxiety, or depression, it may be helpful to speak with a licensed mental health professional.

What is loneliness?

When social isolation leads to loneliness, it can signify a problem. Loneliness is the absence of meaningful relationships that make people feel connected. Mental health and loneliness can be closely linked. Loneliness could worsen existing mental health conditions including:

How to identify loneliness

Some people can spend lots of time alone and not feel lonely. Others may appear to have many friends and socialize constantly, yet feel lonely despite it. Because of this, it can be hard to tell from the outside whether someone else is experiencing loneliness.

However, there are some physical signs you can watch out for that may signal when a person feels lonely or isolated. These include:

  • Fatigue: One study found that loneliness is associated with poor sleep quality.2 Because of this, lonely people may experience fatigue.
  • Social media use: People who feel socially isolated have been shown to spend more time on social media sites than others.3
  • Less “smiling back”: People who feel lonely may put on a good show. But one interesting study found that the automatic instinct to return a smile tends to lessen when a person feels isolated or lonely.4

Why do I feel lonely?

Even if a person has family and friends, they may still feel lonely. Or a person may have always struggled to make social connections, leading to a long history of loneliness.

There are many valid reasons that a person may feel lonely, including:

  • Having a circle of friends and family, but no romantic partner
  • Being friendly with people at work or school, but having few people they see outside of those settings
  • Having people in their life, but no one who shares their interests or identities

Everyone feels lonely at times. But if loneliness is frequent, constant, or negatively impacts your mental health, a licensed therapist can help you find out why.

How loneliness affects our physical health

Isolation and loneliness don’t only affect our mental health—they can compromise our physical health as well. For instance, lonely people tend to have certain co-occurring conditions, including cardiovascular issues and insomnia.5

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the effects of loneliness may be just as deadly as the health risks posed by smoking, obesity, and physical inactivity.6 An analysis of 70 studies showed that lonely people had a 26% higher risk of early death compared to people who didn’t feel lonely.7 

Overcoming loneliness

Loneliness can be a distressing feeling, but there are some things you can do to feel better. They include:

  • Practicing relaxation: Experiment with ways to relax yourself both physically and mentally. Gentle exercise, yoga, and walks outside can get your body moving and calm your mind.
  • Maintaining self-care: Eating a healthy, balanced diet and getting enough sleep and physical activity each day can help improve your mental health.
  • Creating a routine: A regular routine can help establish a sense of normalcy and give purpose to the day.
  • Celebrating self-discovery: Loneliness can be seen as an opportunity to discover yourself, new ideas, and personal strengths. 
  • Being mindful of numbing behaviors: We sometimes use activities like overeating, shopping, excessive social media use, or daydreaming to numb our feelings, which can worsen our mental health concerns.
  • Staying connected: Invest in your existing relationships or make new, meaningful connections by joining groups and communities who share your interests. 

Seek professional help

Loneliness may cause, worsen, or be a symptom of certain mental health issues. Not everyone who’s lonely needs therapy, but a therapist can address feelings of loneliness with tools like:

  • Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT): CBT is a form of talk therapy that can help you change unhelpful thinking patterns. A CBT therapist can help you address negative thoughts you may have about yourself and how others perceive you. Cognitive behavioral therapy can also treat depression, anxiety, or other concerns that may contribute to your feelings of loneliness.
  • Exposure therapy: Exposure therapy helps you confront and accept your fears in a safe environment. Using exposure therapy, a therapist can help gradually reintroduce you to social situations you may avoid due to anxiety.
  • Mindfulness-based therapy: Mindfulness involves bringing your nonjudgmental awareness to your thoughts and feelings. It can involve practices like meditation, deep breathing, and yoga. Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy, acceptance and commitment therapy, and other techniques can help you build your acceptance skills, learn to be more open with the present moment, and reduce feelings of anxiety. All of these things can combat loneliness and improve your social functioning.
  • Medication: Certain medications can help treat underlying mental health concerns that may be causing your isolation, such as anxiety or depression.

If you’re struggling with loneliness or symptoms of social isolation, help is available. A professional therapist can help you address the root cause of your symptoms and manage feelings of loneliness. Browse our provider directory to find a clinician in your area.

Get help now

If you’re in crisis, help is available now. For free, confidential 24/7 support, please call the Suicide & Crisis Lifeline at 988 or text HOME to 741741.

About the author

The editorial team at works with the world’s leading clinical experts to bring you accessible, insightful information about mental health topics and trends.