9 Jan 2019
Loneliness at university… everything you need to know
Loneliness is a natural part of life at times, writes University counsellor Diddy Elliott, so it is not surprising that loneliness is a common experience at university as well.
As part of the University's Christmas and New Year Campaign, here is some information about what support is available if you're feeling isolated, as well as some information about feeling lonely.
- we may feel lonely when we are separated from family and friends (pets too) and we are missing them, which is the grief of loss we sometimes call homesickness
- we may feel lonely when we are not part of any group and we are feeling unknown and awkward, particularly when others around us appear to be getting along easily with one another
- even if we have a good social network, we may experience the loneliness of not having the intimacy of a close relationship with a special friend or lover
- also, we can easily feel lonely in unfamiliar and impersonal surroundings, such as anonymous lecture halls or group accommodation areas
- We may have felt lonely before or we may be feeling lonely for the first time
Equally, although we're alone when no-one is with us, we may feel lonely "in a crowd" - loneliness can be as much about being cut off from our own inner resources, as about being isolated from others.
Whatever the circumstances, these feelings of loneliness can damage our self-esteem and confidence and cause us great unhappiness, even despair.
Loneliness can make you feel:
- like an "outsider"
- invisible and unknown
- disliked and unacceptable
- self-conscious and ill-at-ease
- self-blame: that it's your fault because of the imagined failings you see in yourself
- hurt, powerless and despairing
- angry and critical of others, sometimes vengeful too
- lead to feelings of worthlessness
- cause you to withdraw from social contact and the outside world
- result in disappointed expectations and spoil your enjoyment of university
- adversely affect your physical and emotional health
- result in the excessive use of tobacco, alcohol and other drugs
- lead to depression and suicidal thoughts.
The Catch 22 of loneliness
Loneliness is often seen as taboo and this creates a vicious circle:
I feel lonely ... I cannot tell anyone ... I feel lonelier ...
There are times during university life when you may be more likely to feel lonely:
The first week - everything may feel new and unfamiliar; you may not know anyone, nor where anything is; and this may leave you feeling lost and lonely.
The first term - you may be feeling unsupported: uncertain about your work and what you are meant to be doing; or unused to looking after yourself, in terms of cooking or washing clothes or organising your personal finances. This can generate feelings of anxiety and isolation.
Returning after Christmas - after spending time at home again celebrating with old friends and family, it can feel unexpectedly lonely to be back in your room at university.
Exam periods - the pressures of revision and the competitive nature of exams can reduce normal social contact and isolate you from friends, at the same time as increasing any anxieties you may have about personal worth and ability; and this can leave you feeling exposed and alone.
Loneliness is a normal part of human experience. It can even have positive effects, if it doesn't last for too long - for example, it can lead to the discovery and development of personal resources and, therefore, to a greater sense of your own independence; it can encourage sociability; and it can act as an inoculation against future periods of potential loneliness.
If it becomes long-lasting, however, it can cause great distress and hurt. Here are some suggestions for ways you may find helpful in breaking the pattern of your loneliness:
Self-acceptance - you may blame yourself for your loneliness wishing you were different ("If only I were ..."); it can be helpful to break the vicious circle of such negative thoughts by realising it may be your situation you need to change, rather than your personality or appearance. You are all right, the situation isn't - and you can do something about that.
Making friends - it may be easier to find and develop friendships, if you can:
- accept your own preferences: you may prefer one-to-one friendships to group contact; you may prefer quieter meeting places to pubs or clubs
- be realistic in your assessment of the relationships of others: are the apparent friendships you see around you as warm and certain as you imagine?
- be patient with yourself: remember that friendships take time to develop
- choose activities you are genuinely interested in: whatever these are (societies, sport, voluntary work, arts, crafts etc.), you will meet people there with whom you have something in common. (See Community Action)
- risk taking the initiative: your reticence can be misunderstood by others as aloofness or unfriendliness - for example, if you are feeling lonely in a lecture, avoiding eye-contact and pretending you're fine by absorbing yourself in a book or paper, you may be putting others off from contacting you. When we're feeling lonely, we can sink into ourselves and stop seeing the reality of the world around us. So, next time you're in a lecture, feeling that everyone around you has friends and that you are the only one alone, if you stop and look around you, you may well find others sitting on their own, who would welcome a smile from you and, perhaps, an offer of coffee in the break
- risk, also, self-disclosure: if you can be in touch with your own feelings and experience and talk about these to the other person, you may make it easier for them to do the same in return; this process can lead to mutual understanding and trust
- build upon your relationship by being a good friend: listening carefully, being responsive, showing understanding and even challenging sometimes, if it feels appropriate. (nb. Deepening a few relationships can be more rewarding than pursuing many casual ones.)
- avoid missing out on the warmth and support of close friendships, through exclusively seeking romantic relationships
Alone, Not Lonely - take time to do the things you enjoy, even if on your own: for example, going to a film or concert or for a walk.
If you feel you need some additional support, contact:
Often people with depression and anxiety report feeling lonely, if you are not feeling yourself you will not want to socialise with others. If you feel that your loneliness has a deeper impact on your day to day life, then consider contacting:
Mental health support team