Feeling lonely at university

Gareth Hughes

Gareth Hughes is the Clinical Lead for Student Space and is a psychotherapist, researcher and writer on student wellbeing, including the book Be Well, Learn Well

Loneliness is a common experience that can feel unpleasant and affect your thinking - but it can be overcome.

The pandemic has disrupted our social lives and left many people feeling lonely. This is entirely understandable. We are social creatures who benefit from being around others.

What is loneliness?

Loneliness can feel painful and troubling. It can bring other emotions with it, like sadness, frustration and anxiety. You might be annoyed with yourself, or feel like you should be able to manage better.

In reality, loneliness is a normal human response to the absence of something we need. It’s like feeling hungry as a response to needing food. Loneliness is simply a warning sign that we need to act to improve our social connections.

Ways to find connection

Loneliness appears to be caused by a lack of quality social connections. You can spend a lot of time around other people and still feel lonely.

The key to overcoming loneliness is to focus on spending time, with others, that feels meaningful and enjoyable.

Meaningful time with others

One way to find meaningful time with others is to focus on helping other people. When we help other people, we connect with them and their needs and that connection is positive for us.

You might try to find ways to help friends or family, or you could join a volunteering scheme.

Or you may want to discuss how you’ve been feeling with someone you trust. Sharing your feelings with others can help to build more of a sense of connection and a belief that there are people around who care about you.

Enjoyable time with others

To find enjoyable time with others, it may help to arrange something fun with current friends or to join a Students’ Union society or club.

You could try:

  • arranging a group picnic or meal – eating together can be a close bonding experience.
  • an online activity you can all join in, like a quiz.

How loneliness can affect your thinking

Be aware that loneliness can influence how we evaluate our social interactions. You may feel that you aren’t enjoying time with others. You may find yourself replaying interactions in your mind, looking for things you did or said wrong or that others did that you didn’t like.

Try to accept that these responses are an effect of how you are feeling - but don’t let them control what you do. Even if you used to enjoy time with friends more, it’s still better to have a little bit of pleasurable company than none at all.

In time, you will find that your ability to enjoy social situations will increase again.

What to do if loneliness persists

Finally, if loneliness persists and you are finding it difficult to move forward, use the support available at your university.

Loneliness is unpleasant, but there are ways to address it and you can feel socially connected again.

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