The first time I really thought about loneliness, I was 18. I had started university in a foreign country, which meant lots of exciting independent time to do what I wanted – but an equal amount of unexciting alone time, to think about how much I missed my family and friends from home.
This was a feeling that made me extremely uncomfortable, because, as we have all heard it before,
”Your 20s are the best years of your life!”
In conversations with others around me, I learned that I wasn’t alone in feeling lonely, and surprisingly, there was comfort in sharing this feeling. This blog starts to delve into what the research tells us about loneliness in young adulthood, and provides some proactive takeaways that can make you feel more connected.
Are we lonelier in our 20s-30s?
Erikson (1959) theorised that social relationships in early adulthood lay the foundation for strong social relationships later in our lives. A study looking at whether social relationships in young adulthood predicted social connection and psychological outcomes in midlife, concluded that the quantity of social connections in your 20s, and the quality of connections in your 30s, were the most important predictors of outcomes.
This plays a purpose of meeting different developmental goals. Our 20s are a time for learning social skills that are significant in navigating future social situations, whereas our 30s focus on creating deeper connections with others. This begins to highlight a developmental need for frequent socialising with others in young adulthood that, if not met, can lead to feelings of loneliness.
Research also tells us that loneliness can be impacted by a range of factors. One study investigating loneliness in relation to age, gender, and disability found higher levels of loneliness for those aged 16-29 than those 30-49, with higher levels of loneliness for males with severe disability at this age group. Additionally, being single or living in a different household from a partner also contributed to loneliness.
Another study of Polish university students aged 19-25 similarly found that those who were single reported higher levels of romantic and family loneliness, and less perceived social support. The duration of being single also predicted loneliness outcomes, which were also found to be improved by high family support.
Additionally, the pandemic exacerbated or created new feelings of distance and disconnection with others. Students starting university missed out on crucial opportunities to meet their peers, and those early in their careers were left at a strange in between stage of leaving behind their previous support networks and working remotely, and so on.
One study of loneliness among people with severe mental illness during the pandemic found that 29-35% of participants reported being lonely, and loneliness was also linked to being younger, living alone, and deterioration of mental health.
This tells us that there are a broad range of factors that can contribute to the experience of loneliness in young adulthood, but also reiterates that this is a common experience in this age group.
Symptoms of loneliness in young adults
Loneliness can manifest in various ways in young adults, both emotionally and behaviourally. Different individuals may experience and express loneliness differently and it's important to treat their particular manifestations with compassion. Some common symptoms of loneliness in young adults to look out for include (but are not limited to):
- Feelings of sadness, emptiness, or hopelessness.
- Low self-esteem and self-worth.
- Increased anxiety or stress.
- Irritability or mood swings.
- Lack of motivation or interest in activities.
- Withdrawing from social interactions and spending excessive time alone.
- Difficulty initiating or maintaining conversations with others.
- Avoidance of social situations, gatherings, or events.
- Fatigue or low energy levels.
- Sleep disturbances, such as insomnia or oversleeping.
- Changes in appetite, leading to weight loss or gain.
- Comparing oneself unfavourably to others.
- Belief that others do not care or are not interested in them.
- Feeling like an outsider or not belonging.
- Excessive use of social media or the internet as a substitute for real-world social connections.
- Seeking validation or a sense of connection through online interactions.
Difficulty Forming Relationships:
- Struggles with making and maintaining friendships or romantic relationships.
- Feeling socially awkward or anxious in social situations.
Decreased Academic or Work Performance:
- Difficulty concentrating on tasks or responsibilities.
- Decline in academic performance, attendance, or work productivity.
- Weakened immune system due to chronic stress, leading to increased susceptibility to illnesses.
- Higher levels of inflammation and potential negative effects on overall health.
It's important to remember that experiencing some of these symptoms doesn't necessarily mean someone is lonely, but they’re signs to look out for. Loneliness becomes a concern when these feelings and behaviours persist over time and significantly impact a person's well-being and functioning.
How can you reduce feelings of loneliness?
There is no single remedy to cure loneliness, but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t things you can do to help you manage feelings of loneliness and feel more connected to others. The five tips below reflect research and suggestions from individuals with experiences of loneliness to help manage personal feelings of isolation and increase connection with others.
1. Explore the feeling
Like all our feelings, our mind plays an important role in how we respond to the experience of loneliness. It can be helpful to explore situations where you felt disconnected from others to understand, and challenge, the thoughts and behaviours connected to the feeling.
Maybe a friend cutting a phone call short made you feel like they weren’t interested in speaking with you, but they may have been feeling tired or had to attend to responsibilities at home. By breaking down and reflecting on these experiences, you can build more self-understanding and move away from self-blame connected to feelings of loneliness.
2. Create a regular social schedule that works for you
As an introvert, I will be the first to internally scream at a packed social calendar, but I also know how important it is for my wellbeing to feel connected to others. Having a regular social schedule, and importantly one that works with your preferences and responsibilities, can help prevent long periods of alone time in which you may feel more disconnected from others.
It can be something as simple as scheduling a weekly call with a family member, going on a monthly hike with a friend, or more frequent like making plans to have lunch with a colleague daily. Nourishing your relationships can also make those around you feel less lonely, so it’s a win-win!
Volunteering can be a very self-enriching experience, and a great opportunity to meet new people! Working with others with similar values and passions can facilitate social connection. It can also be a structured way to create more opportunities for socialising in your life if you prefer meeting people more regularly and work towards a common goal.
4. Reach out
Sometimes the best thing to do is to reach out to a trusted person to get the feeling off your chest. Telling someone you are feeling lonely can be a vulnerable experience, but if you feel comfortable, naming the feeling can be a big step in opening the conversation and feeling more connected to the other person.
Another benefit is that you may be helping another person by reaching out and creating a space where this topic can be openly discussed!
Young adulthood is often a period of constant change, which can make us feel disconnected from those around us. Loneliness is a feeling that we shouldn’t carry alone, and there are different ways you can connect with others and start conversations to destigmatise loneliness.
Most importantly, if you feel like you are struggling, reach out to someone you trust, or your GP, who may be able to suggest services or treatments to support you.
Read more from Maudsley Learning
- Young Minds Guide for Young People on Loneliness
- Conversations around Loneliness and Mental Health: What helps and what doesn’t Booklet
Hear from other Young People in the Lonely not Alone Campaign.