Publish date: 15 March 2021

What is loneliness?

Loneliness is one word that encompasses many feelings. Loneliness could manifest in you feeling alone, disconnected or isolated from others and the outside world. It can grow into feeling of intense sadness, depression, and physical illness. One important thing to note about loneliness is that you can feel lonely even if you have people all around you.

Loneliness can happen to anyone at any time, no matter their age or circumstances. Almost everyone gets lonely at some point in their life. The Office of National Statistics states that 7.4 million adults have had their wellbeing affected through feeling lonely in the UK. It can be especially hard to deal with loneliness after a cancer diagnosis.

What are the different types of loneliness?

Researchers de Jong-Gierveld and Raadschelders, summarised that there are 2 main types of loneliness: chronic and transient.

Chronic loneliness can last for many years and is present no matter the situation; rather it is an internal cause. People who experience chronic loneliness may experience varying levels of intensity of loneliness, but there is always an underlying feeling that loneliness is always present.

Transient loneliness, on the other hand, is experienced for short periods of time, and can come and go. It is usually the result of a particular situation, such as bad news.

What can trigger loneliness?

Receiving a cancer diagnosis can be a very difficult time. It can be frightening and overwhelming, and everyone reacts differently. You may find that you have pulled away from the people you care about. It can be challenging to those around you and they may go quiet as they don’t know what to say or do to help. A cancer diagnosis can also make you consider what is, and who are, important in your life. This may result in relationships and friendships that weren’t quite right ending.

The practicalities of receiving cancer treatment and the side effects can also affect your social life. You may find that the many appointments clash with your normal social life and/or the side effects make you feel too weary or poorly to participate in activities you normally would. Side effects of some treatments such as hair loss or nausea can also sap your strength and confidence, leaving you feeling less inclined to socialise.

The restrictions put in place during the covid-19 pandemic can also add to peoples' loneliness. Some may be shielding and so social interactions are scarce. During lockdown, when we are all staying at home, the chance to meet up with friends and family is limited.

How long will it last?

These feelings can occur at any time of your illness, from diagnosis onwards. Many people struggle after the treatment has ended. The feeling of loneliness has no time scale, it could be fleeting or it could stay with you for a long time. Everyone is different and it is completely normal to feel lonely. It is important to not compare yourself to others or put pressure on yourself, everyone is unique.

No matter why you feel lonely there are lots of resources out there to help you feel more like yourself.

What are the first steps to overcoming loneliness?

In her blog, psychologist, Leslie Becker-Phelps, cites three steps for overcoming loneliness:

Awareness: This is the first step in addressing how you really feel. It is very hard to change a feeling if at first you do not recognise it and admit to yourself how you are really feeling. Although this seems easy to do it is in fact the hardest step to take. It can be very difficult to admit to yourself that you feel lonely.

Acceptance: Acceptance means to embrace the feeling of loneliness. It is no one’s fault and no one is to blame, it simply is.

Compassion: Be kind to yourself. Practice reminding yourself that others feel lonely, too. It is part of the human experience that most people share at some time or other. Treat yourself as you would treat someone else who felt lonely. Take care of yourself, and tell yourself that it’s ok to feel sad.

Tools and tips

1. Structure your day

This is especially helpful if you are shielding and have to stay indoors. Write a list of what you will do every day. For example, cooking breakfast or watering the plants. Having a structured day can help to make you feel more comfortable and your thoughts more ordered since you have a routine.

2. Mindfulness

Mindfulness is the practice of taking time to pay attention to you and your thoughts and feelings. There are many different ways to practice mindfulness such as meditation, yoga, breathing exercises and writing down or thinking about good things in your life. A study conducted by United Health Care concluded that mindfulness can help alleviate the feelings of loneliness in adults, improve sleep and reduce stress.

3. Do something you enjoy doing every day

This goes hand in hand with mindfulness. Doing something you enjoy every day such as painting, reading or walking in the garden can inspire feelings of joy and optimism.

4. Join a group

Not only is joining a group a great way to meet like-minded people and build new relationships, they are also a fantastic way to feel connected to the world around you. Groups can be face to face, an internet forum or even Zoom (video) meetings. Dr Kellie Payne, Research and Policy Manager from Campaign to End Loneliness says in her article on the website that 'While there is something to be said about face-to-face contact, a lot of the feelings of connectedness can continue to flourish if you nurture those relationships virtually. Part of feeling connected is feeling understood and appreciated, and opening up about how you are feeling with others will help you to connect,’ 

We currently run online support groups, a creative writing group and origami class. At the groups you'll have the chance to meet others and share experiences. For more information about our groups visit our wellbeing programme and support groups pages.

5. Counselling

Some people find it extremely difficult to talk about their feelings, even to their loved ones. Counselling can be a great tool to use if you are struggling with past, present, or future situations and negative thoughts and feelings. It can help you feel connected with someone and supported. By talking to a professional therapist, you can experience validation - it’s OK to feel this way, it’s not your fault and support is available. For more information about this visit our psychological and emotional care page.

6. Reach out to people

Reaching out to people can be a very intimidating thing to do. However reaching out to someone via text, phone, email, or letter can be a really effective tool. It can help to maintain relationships but also ignite the spark of past or new relationships.

Reaching out when you’re feeling lonely doesn’t mean you have to pour your heart out and go into details; it just means acknowledging how you’re feeling and leaning in to that need for human connection.

All of these steps and tips can be daunting to think about and act upon. The best thing to do is to start off slowly. Take each day as it comes and note, recognise and congratulate yourself on any achievements. Sending a text to an old friend or joining a forum might not seem like a big deal but it is important to acknowledge that it was a big and brave step to take. Remember to always be kind to yourself.

Further information and support

Pop into the Macmillan Support and Information Service, on the ground floor of the UCH Macmillan Cancer Centre, or visit our web pages for information on our wellbeing programme, support groups, complementary therapy, welfare and benefits, psychological support and practical advice. We are open 9am to 5pm, Monday to Friday. Our service is run by healthcare professionals, such as cancer nurses and radiotherapists, who can offer for advice. It is also a great place to come and relax with a cup of tea and an informal chat.

Helplines: Talk to someone about how you are feeling
  • UCLH Support and Information helpline: 020 3447 3816 open 10am-4pm. For practical advice, information or emotional support from health care professionals.
  • Samaritans: Call 116 123 for free or email at for emotional support.
  • Silverline: for people aged  55 and over, call 0800 4 70 80 90. This is a free helpline and friendship service.
  • The Mix provides free, confidential help for under 25s online and via a helpline. Call 0808 808 4494, text THEMIX to 85258 or use their online chat service on the website
  • Try a befriender service. Various charities offer telephone and face-to-face befriender servicers, which put volunteer befrienders in touch with people feeling lonely
  • Join an online community like Side by Side. These communities can provide a place to listen and share with others who have similar experiences. They are available 24/7, most are free and you can access them wherever you are.
  • Contact Mind's Infoline on 0300 123 3393 or a local Mind to see what other types of peer support there may be in your area.