MENTAL HEALTH | June 12

What High-Functioning Loneliness Feels Like 

14 People Share What Makes Them Lonely

Brianna Valleskey  

Are you lonely, perhaps, without even realizing it?

One on five people in the United States suffer from persistent loneliness, according to researchers, and loneliness has become an epidemic among both younger and older generations.

In fact, studies show that people who feel as if they are along in the world are at increased risk of early mortality. Research from the University of Utah and Brigham Young University suggests that social isolation could be more deadly than obesity.

Of course, loneliness is a natural response to events like an expected loss or outcome. Behavioral Associates therapist Anya Shumilina told me that from an evolutionary perspective, every emotion that we experience has a survival function.

“We feel lonely for similar reasons as to why we feel afraid, angry or happy: to survive,” she explained. “Loneliness motivates us to see connection and be around people.”

In ancient times, Shumilina added, not having a tribe meant you were doomed to struggle. Each individual person needed a community that would support and protect them - an aspect of being human that seems to still be true today.

“We’re able to observe a correlation between chronic loneliness and mental and physical health, if it induces symptoms of anxiety, stress and depression,” Shumilina said. “Prolonged stress weakens our immune system, exacerbates gastrointestinal problems and contributes to long-term issues for the heart and blood vessels.”

Some people simply prefer to be alone - a healthy choice that Shumilina emphasized should not be pathologized. But chronic or high-functioning loneliness is different. It takes many shapes, and can persist for weeks, months or even years. Many people experience it, but aren’t sure how or why.

How High-Functioning Loneliness Feels

Here are some common ways people describe high-functioning loneliness:

  • "I’m surrounded by friends, but I don’t feel engaged in the conversation. I talk about shallow things, but I don’t feel like my friends get me or really care to ask how I’ve been doing."
  • "I share something vulnerable and honest with someone, but they barely hear me or ask me follow-up questions or offer support."
  • "I’m in a loving relationship, but I feel like somehow they don’t fully understand or appreciate me."
  • "I have a wonderful family I’m grateful for, but I feel isolated from them. They don’t really know what I’m going through, and I don’t want to burden them with my struggles."
  • "I look successful in my career and my team looks up to me, but I'm more isolated because I need to be a role model; I can’t be a friend to my colleagues or the people who report to me."
  • "I’m living my dream, traveling the world and surrounded by so many new friends - but I miss my family and comfortable life at home. I miss my old friends. But something else calls me to step outside my comfort zone, even if it makes me feel more lonely at this point in time."
  • "I’m the class clown and very popular at school… If only they knew how lonely I feel at night. My life is not what they think it is."
  • "I was just dumped and feel like no one will ever love me."
  • "I’m hopelessly in love and have an inkling they might not love me as much back."
  • "I have an incredible husband, but the person I sleep beside every night is now a stranger. We grow further apart each year."
  • "I’m at my birthday party surrounded by hundreds of friends, but my "best friend" didn't show up, and I feel lonelier than ever before."
  • "I spent the entire weekend in my house doing what I love: reading, playing video games, cooking, and working. I love these things, but at the same time, they make me feel guilty for being antisocial and make me wonder if they’re just an escape from the outside world."
  • "I scroll through Instagram and each fun-filled picture makes me feel lonelier. The pressure to be social and look like I’m having fun all the time makes me feel lonelier than I actually am."
  • "I want to take the initiative to say “Hi” to someone and strike up a conversation, but I hold back because I want to seem cool.  I don't want to get rejected or seem socially awkward. And at the end of the day, worrying too much about what others think of me which keeps me from doing what I really want to do."

Do you experience any of these thoughts or feelings? If so, you may be suffering from high-functioning loneliness. But don’t fret. There are a number of steps you can take to tackle it.

What To Do About High-Functioning Loneliness

Shumilina recommends behavior activation as one of the most effective strategies to combat unwanted emotions of sadness and disrupt the cycle of isolation and avoidance.

“The first step is to figure out what your values are and what activities are aligned with maintaining those values,” she said. “Develop a routine that is in accord with your values and facilitates finding meaningful connection. This can help you find opportunities to develop a sense of belonging.”

Although today’s technology can sometimes prevent meaningful connections, it can also facilitate them. Hundreds of thousands of people find supportive communities and a sense of belonging through Stigma, the highest rated app for improving mental health and finding peer support. Stigma’s mission is to provide millions of people access to technology that helps them understand their mood and moderate behaviors to optimize their experience of life. Its creators envision a less lonely world that eliminates the stigma around mental health.

Stigma helps you combat loneliness by connecting you with PenPals and groups of people around the same age that share similar struggles. When you download the app, you’re anonymously matched with a small group of compassionate and supportive peers close to your age. In these support groups, you can message other users and respond to thoughtful prompts. You can also browse and match with digital penpals to have more intimate discussions and one-on-one support.

High-functioning loneliness can be difficult to talk about. There is often a stigma surrounding the topic, but know that you have nothing to be embarrassed about. Like all emotions, loneliness is a natural response to what’s happening in your world. Using Stigma helps you realize that you aren’t alone. Millions of people experience chronic loneliness, and Stigma brings together people who want to give and receive the same support as you do. And there’s thousands of 4- and 5-star app reviews that show it actually works.