Feel a little “blah” lately?

You don’t have much to do, and no one to do it with either. You’re home alone, again, when gloominess strikes, adding misery to your boredom.

Sadness is a very normal reaction when you want to spend time with other people and can’t.

Connecting with others isn’t just an enjoyable way to pass the time. It’s a pretty important aspect of well-being. Humans are social creatures after all, and not getting enough social interaction can have a serious impact on your health.

Loneliness can increase the amount of cortisol (you might know this as the stress hormone) in your body. This can affect your immune system and raise your risk for a range of health concerns, including:

Prolonged loneliness can affect mental health, too. It can make any symptoms you’re already dealing with worse, for one. But it can also factor into the development of serious mental health conditions, including depression.

Determining the cause of emotional distress is always a good first step toward managing unwanted feelings, so the short answer is yes: It does matter whether you’re dealing with loneliness or depression.

Loneliness and depression can involve similar feelings, so it’s not always easy to recognize where one ends and the other begins.

You might notice:

  • restlessness and irritability
  • mental fogginess
  • low energy
  • self-doubt
  • changes in appetite or sleep patterns
  • aches and pains

The main difference

The biggest distinction between loneliness and depression is that depression is a mental health condition, while loneliness is a feeling that tends to weigh you down as pervasively as depression does.

Loneliness may not feel very comfortable, but it’s a transient emotional state that specifically relates to your needs for connection and belonging. Once you meet those needs, you’ll probably feel less lonely.

Depression, on the other hand, doesn’t just relate to the need for connection. Without treatment from a trained mental health professional, depression symptoms can linger for years and become more serious.

What’s more, if you have depression, social interaction might temporarily distract you, but it won’t always help. Even when spending time with your partner or best friend, you might continue feeling listless, empty, and unable to engage.

One other key difference? Depression can affect your interest in social interaction, making it difficult to reach out. You might feel worthless, guilty, or believe other people don’t want to spend time with you.

It can also drain you, leaving you without the energy to try to connect.

Depression is a complex mental health condition that often develops from a combination of several factors. Still, feelings of social isolation or dissatisfaction with your relationships can absolutely play a part.

Social isolation doesn’t necessarily translate to loneliness, though.

Some people who live alone and don’t see people regularly may not feel lonely at all. Yet others might spend time with people every day and still feel overwhelmingly alone. These feelings of loneliness, when left unresolved, could eventually lead to depression and other mental health concerns.

Still, not everyone who experiences loneliness goes on to develop depression, so what gives? Why does loneliness only sometimes contribute to depression?

The role of self-image

Research from 2018 suggests self-disgust as a potential link between loneliness and depression. Here’s how that can play out.

Maybe your friends don’t have much time to hang out lately or seem disinterested when you do see them. Feeling lonely, perhaps a little vulnerable, you begin looking for answers, and self-disgust emerges to offer a handy scapegoat.

Self-disgust — which often relates to low self-worth — might involve negative feelings or harsh judgment toward specific actions or yourself as a whole. This could show up in thoughts like, “Why would anyone want to date me? I’m so ugly,” or, “I haven’t changed my clothes in 3 days… that’s disgusting.”

If you fixate on these thoughts and believe you don’t deserve love or friendship, you might act in ways that reinforce this belief.

You might, for example, turn down invitations, telling yourself, “They don’t really want to see me.” When you do see others, you might constantly worry about how they really feel toward you.

This can greatly diminish the value of your interactions, leaving you feeling isolated and miserable — even among people you care about. The end result is often a cycle of distress that reinforces loneliness. Eventually, you might begin to see yourself as hopeless and believe there’s nothing you can do to improve the situation.

You might arrive at the obvious solution first: You just need to get out more often and make more friends.

True, these steps certainly help increase your chances for meaningful connections. But remember: Being alone doesn’t have to result in loneliness.

To address loneliness effectively, you’ll typically need to dig a little deeper to uncover the underlying causes. Doing so can guide you toward a deeper understanding of what’s missing in your relationships, allowing you to build more fulfilling connections.

Examine your existing relationships

It really is possible to feel lonely in a crowd. If you already have plenty of people in your life and still feel lonely, you might want to consider the quality of those interactions.

What does the time you spend with others look like? If you simply exist together without really connecting, your interactions probably won’t fulfill your social needs.

Instead of simply sitting in the same room watching TV or looking at your phones, try creating a more meaningful connection:

  • Start a conversation about current events or other topics important to you.
  • Call or visit loved ones instead of sending a quick text.
  • Participate in activities that allow you to learn more about each other. Take up a sport, get out in nature, or work on a project together.
  • Practice random kindnesses. Leave flowers at a loved one’s door, take out your neighbor’s trash, or cook dinner for a friend who had a bad day.

Do things you enjoy

Spending your time on unfulfilling activities can contribute to unhappiness and boredom. These feelings may not directly cause loneliness, but they can certainly contribute to dissatisfaction with life, which can affect how you feel about spending time with others.

Think of devoting your free time to things you really enjoy doing as a form of self-respect.

Hobbies are an important aspect of self-care that help improve your outlook and give you more energy for meaningful connections. Your hobbies can also put you in touch with other people who enjoy similar activities, opening the door to more satisfying relationships.

Show yourself compassion and kindness

You might have some flaws, and you might make mistakes. But so does every other person on the planet. Yes, even that one person who seems to always have it together.

Reminding yourself of these facts can often help you treat yourself with kindness instead of disgust. Replacing self-criticism with positive self-talk can help you believe you deserve love and friendship and make it more likely you’ll actively seek these things out.

If you struggle with self-compassion, try imagining what you might say to a friend who’s judging themselves harshly. You’d probably remind them of their strengths and positive qualities, right?

Try affirming yourself in the same way to boost feelings of worthiness and positive self-regard — a stronger sense of self-worth can pave the way toward more meaningful relationships.

Work on emotional regulation

It’s totally normal to experience self-disgust, hopelessness, and other negative feelings from time to time. But how you deal with those feelings can make all the difference.

The researchers who explored the association between loneliness and depression suggest that reframing or suppressing (pushing away) unwanted thoughts can help reduce their impact and prevent the negative thought cycles that often trigger feelings of depression.

So, when a friend doesn’t pick up the phone, try reframing, “They don’t want to talk to me” to, “They’re probably busy, so I’ll try again later.”

If no one seems available, you might start to feel a little unwanted. But instead of letting these thoughts take over, try distracting yourself by thinking about something else or spending time on something that makes you happy.

Mindful acceptance can also help you get more comfortable with distressing thoughts. Mindfulness helps you learn to accept these thoughts and then let them go before they affect your perception of yourself.

Although depression may pose a more immediate cause for concern, loneliness can also have a serious health impact. Both issues increase risk not only for physical and mental health concerns but also thoughts of suicide.

It’s always wise to seek professional support if symptoms:

  • don’t improve after a week or two
  • persist even when you try to manage them alone
  • affect your ability to function or take care of daily tasks
  • cause problems in your relationships
  • leave you feeling hopeless or worthless

Therapy offers a safe space to get to the bottom of your symptoms, identify potential causes, and get some guidance and support on treatment and productive coping strategies, such as emotion regulation.

If you need help now

If you’re considering suicide or have thoughts of harming yourself, you can call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255.

The 24-7 hotline will connect you with mental health resources in your area. Trained specialists can also help you find your state’s resources for treatment if you don’t have health insurance.

Healthline

It’s normal to feel a little low when you lack social connection. But working to improve the quality of your relationships can help prevent future loneliness and distress while also offering some protection against depression.

No matter what you’re dealing with, you don’t have to handle it alone. Talking to loved ones about how you feel can be a great start.


Crystal Raypole has previously worked as a writer and editor for GoodTherapy. Her fields of interest include Asian languages and literature, Japanese translation, cooking, natural sciences, sex positivity, and mental health. In particular, she’s committed to helping decrease stigma around mental health issues.