The health impacts of loneliness

Mental Health

How to overcome loneliness

Everything you need to know about how social isolation can affect you, and how to deal with loneliness.

We’re living in an age where it seems almost impossible to be alone. Texts, tweets, email, Messenger, FaceTime, WhatsApp, Instagram and TikTok. The list of ways people can reach out to us goes on and on. So why do 1 in 4 Australians admit to feeling lonely?

Loneliness has very little to do with how many friends you have, how popular you are at work or how many likes you get on a Facebook or Instagram post.

“Loneliness is about not having quality, meaningful relationships,” explains clinical psychologist at Swinburne University of Technology, Dr Michelle Lim.

“You may have 1 relationship that fulfils your needs, so you don’t feel lonely. Another person may have 5 relationships, but still feels lonely.”

In short, it’s about quality, not quantity.

To overcome loneliness, and live healthier and more connected lives, we need to understand it and the risks it can pose to our physical and mental health.

Why do we feel lonely?

At different life stages, or after a specific change in circumstance - like losing a job, a relationship ending or moving house - we can all experience feelings of loneliness.

Research tells us that age can also be a factor. Young Australians, aged 16-25, report high levels of loneliness that coincide with big transitions – leaving school, starting a first job, and moving away from family and friends.

People aged 55-64 years report a drop in social support and increased levels of loneliness, perhaps as they retire or become less active.

According to Relationships Australia, women are most likely to feel lonely between the ages of 25-29, also the average age they’re most likely to become a parent.

Relationship status can also be a factor in how lonely you feel.

Married people are less likely to be lonely than those people who are single, separated or divorced, and single parents report high levels of loneliness.

How loneliness can affect our health

If someone feels lonely it’s unlikely they would go to the GP to ask for help or advice. There is a stigma in admitting we feel lonely, and people find it hard to see loneliness as a serious issue. But, research into just how big an impact loneliness can have on our physical health, says something very different.

Studies suggest that feeling lonely poses the same risks as smoking 15 cigarettes a day or being morbidly obese. According to Dr Lim, people who are lonely are “…twice as likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease”.

Other physical symptoms connected to loneliness can include:

  • high blood pressure
  • cardiovascular disease
  • obesity.

Not surprisingly loneliness also has an effect on our mental health and wellbeing and people who feel lonely may also experience symptoms of anxiety and depression.

How to overcome loneliness

While the physical effects of feeling lonely might be surprising, it makes sense building strong social relationships can increase your wellbeing by more than 50%.

Here are 7 useful tips to help us stop feeling lonely in our day to day lives.

1. Acknowledge how you’re feeling

Admitting you’re lonely can be tough. It’s not an easy thing to say out loud. But trying to understand how you feel and give your feelings the attention they deserve is a good place to start.

2. Talk to a professional

Talking to a counsellor about how you feel can help you find ways to cope with loneliness. It can also help identify any underlying issues that might be making it hard for you to engage or connect with others. Talk to your GP who can refer you to the right heath care professional or service and can get you set up with a mental healthcare plan.

3. Make some small talk

A simple “good morning” to someone at the bus stop, chatting to another dog walker, or learning the name of your local barista, can help you feel seen, and help build confidence in talking to others. Even small connections can make us feel less lonely.

5. Find something you enjoy

Think about something that brings you joy – like gardening, chess, quilting, walking, etc – and find a local group that can connect you to other people with the same passion. While joining a new group can feel intimidating, sharing an interest can help make socialising easier.

6. Get a pet

Pet owners report feeling less lonely, and new dog owners say they feel less lonely within 3 months of getting a dog. Walking a dog is also a good way of meeting others and gives you something to talk about and focus on, taking the pressure off you.

7. Look after yourself

Eat a healthy diet, do regular exercise and develop a regular sleep pattern. Taking the time to be kind to yourself is also a way of saying ‘I feel worthy of good things and happiness’.

Getting help with loneliness

We're trying to make it as easy and fast as possible for you to access the mental wellbeing support you need. PSYCH2U mental wellbeing services are unique to HCF, offering eligible HCF members* access to online video support and navigation to other mental health services as needed.

GP2U allows users to speak to a doctor through video, giving access to information about mental or physical health without having to visit a clinic. GP2U allows you to speak to a doctor through video, giving access to information about mental or physical health without having to visit a clinic. All HCF members with health cover can access a standard GP consultation (up to 10 minutes) for a fee of $50. See for more information. 

HCF members can also access a range of online programs through This Way Up⁺, a not-for-profit initiative developed by experienced psychiatrists and clinical psychologists, to help you take control of your mental wellbeing. Clinically proven to help, the programs understand and improve mental challenges like stress, insomnia, worry, anxiety and depression.

If you're struggling with depression or anxiety, and need to speak to someone now, call Lifeline on 13 11 14.

Where to find more mental health help:

First published in Health Agenda magazine
Updated May 2021

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