Whenever I’m feeling blue and I don’t know why, I remember the words from American writer Max Ehrmann’s 1927 poem Desiderata: ‘Many fears are born of fatigue and loneliness.’

It’s true. I’m often at my most anxious when I’m knackered and have no one to calm me down again – and once I’ve had a good night’s sleep and/or a natter with a friend, I feel right as rain. But what happens if you never escape those feelings of loneliness?

New research from Chicago University has discovered that there’s a reason why some people who feel lonely often get into a self-perpetuating cycle of loneliness, avoiding social interaction so they won’t be rejected.

Dr John T. Cacioppo and his wife Stephanie carried out two studies, which showed that people suffering from chronic loneliness are hypersensitive to social threats, as their brains became more alert when shown socially negative words.

[Related story: Loneliness ‘a serious health issue’] 

What is loneliness?

The Campaign to End Loneliness defines it as “a subjective, unwelcome feeling of lack or loss of companionship” and says there are two different types: emotional loneliness, when we’re missing one particular person, and social loneliness, when we lack a larger group of friends. It can also be fleeting or, if we feel it most of the time, chronic.

In evolutionary terms, Dr Cacioppo says there are advantages to loneliness, explaining it as “an adverse biological signal to promote vigilance against social assaults that threaten your short-term survival”.

Lonely woman

And in the long-term it “promotes opportunities for social connection necessary for survival and the survival of your genes”.

But in the modern world, loneliness has become stigmatised by society, as Dr Cacioppo explains: “We think of loneliness as some kind of social defect or weakness rather than an inherent trait like hunger, thirst or pain. If hunger were so stigmatised, we’d have more anorexics.”

Are you lonely – or depressed?

Dr Sandra Wheatley, social psychologist (drsandrawheatley.com), points out that there’s a big difference between “being alone and being lonely” and says chronic loneliness can be a sign of depression.

“Being able to cope with being alone is something we have to do; sometimes you do just have to get on with it. The fact it’s a negative emotion spurs you on to find other people.

“But without social contact, you can start to feel you have nothing of value to add. If you start to internalise, you put yourself in a situation where you don’t feel you have anything to contribute.”

[Related story: How not to feel lonely]

She adds: “It can be a self-protective thing. [You feel] you’re not going to help anyone else, you’re depressed and, emotionally, you’ve nothing left to give – so the sensible thing is to avoid other people, to save the energy for yourself.

“Sadness is a perfectly normal, valid emotion – it’s something everyone feels. But when it gets into that downward spiral and you can’t get out of it, it’s depression. The clinical definition is when you’re feeling like that more than 50% of the time, so it’s worth going to see a professional who’s got the skills to help you.”

Do you have any advice for combatting loneliness? Share you thoughts and tips in the Comments below.