Is It Loneliness or Is It Depression?

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It may seem strange to pose this question: is it loneliness or is it depression? After all, many people feel loneliness at the loss or weakening of close relationships because of depression, and most of us who’ve lived with the condition over a lifetime experience those broken connections as some of its worst effects.

On the other hand, lots of lonely people are not depressed – sad, most likely, but not necessarily experiencing the classic symptoms. The two are different but often occur together. Getting straight about the difference isn’t a matter of hair-splitting for me. It’s been an important part of learning how to take my life back from depression.

The recent book, Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection reminds me of the way I got started in recovery and also offers new and helpful insights about the differences between loneliness and depression.

The authors explore why social connection is an essential part of human nature and what the effects of loneliness are, including long-term physical deterioration. They cite many cultures in which the worst punishment is not death but banishment, because it cuts a person off from every connection that gives them a meaningful place in the world. Deprived of that, they begin a collapse on many levels – from neurological to spiritual.

But this study also describes the importance of the pain of loneliness in the broad trend of human evolution as a possible warning sign. It can help sustain the bonds that hold a community together by reminding an individual of the central importance of human connection to survival. That impels a lonely person to restore the lost relationships. There is a pull to return.

We have all known the long loneliness and we have learned that the only solution is love and that love comes with community. – Dorothy Day

Depression, on the other hand, serves as a different kind of warning. Stress and other causes have created such harm that an individual can no longer be a helpful part of the community and must retreat from contact in order to heal. Depression impels a person away from social bonds, at least for a time.

The concept of this contrasting pull-push is a good description of what I’ve gone through.

Isolation and Loneliness

When I’m in the depths of depression I’m completely isolated from people. I can hardly focus on what they might be telling me or bear to make a gesture in their direction. My feelings aren’t there – I can’t respond. People sense I’m not really in their presence at all. Trying to be with others is painful, and I need to retreat to deal with my own sense of despair, worthlessness and the rest of the charming attributes of depression. I need to start healing and to do that I have to be alone and get into whatever treatment might help.

It isn’t until I’m coming out of depression and can see the damage I’ve done to my relationships – even if unintentionally – that I can begin to feel that loss. Then I’m deeply lonely and hope I can rebuild and restore the closeness and trust I’ve undermined. In our culture, though, that’s hard. There are no ceremonies to celebrate a return. I may more likely be greeted with mistrust, anger and distance.

No soul is desolate as long as there is a human being for whom it can feel trust and reverence. What loneliness is more lonely than distrust? – George Eliot

Connection

When I was putting this blog together, the first topic that came to mind as essential to recovery was connecting. It was a main theme that ran through the journals that were my first source for these posts. Connecting meant that, first, I had to reconnect with my own feelings, always so remote and unreachable during the worst periods of depression. I had to be able to feel again, and to do that I had to open doors shut firmly against even sense impressions of the world around me. Most fundamentally I had to accept myself again as a whole person.

I had to feel the strength come back to my own body, see the colors in things, hear the words people spoke, and laugh, grieve, feel lonely, want to be part of my family again, want to go to work. Reconnecting with my own feelings, responding to daily life, I could begin to restore deeper connections with my wife and children. I often went through all this quite quickly, sometimes waking up one morning and feeling human again. At other times, I had to use all the tricks I’d learned just to get started.

Hard as most of those periods of recovery were, they were lost in depression before long, and the whole process had to start over again. What has encouraged me more recently is that the pull from loneliness back into connection has been so much fuller and more complete than ever before.

This push-pull idea is a useful reframing of experience, partly because it suggests that there are forces moving in depression and loneliness that go far beyond my own boundaries. That is another reminder that I’m not so alone as I imagine when isolation seems most complete.

………..

I know the experience of loneliness in relation to depression can differ widely in meaning for each person. What is it like for you?

Image: Some Rights Reserved by Alyssa L. Miller at Flickr

47 Responses to “Is It Loneliness or Is It Depression?”

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  1. Eileen says:

    Hi John, I’ve only just come upon your website quite by accident. I wanted to know the difference between loneliness and depression. I suppose I’m one of the lucky people in the community that has never suffered from either until now. Maybe that’s why I’m finding my loneliness so difficult, up to now I’ve had a very fulfilling life, but that was then and this is now and life is horrible for me now because I don’t have enough social contact. I put a notice up in my local supermarket to try and attract people to build a better community in my area, I had no response, who ever read it probably thought it was a bit pathetic, in the past I probably would have thought the same. How the table turns in life!!! Thank you for your blog, it has helped to know I’m not alone. Very sincerely yours, Eileen.

  2. Ann Louise says:

    Hi Guys and Girls. Same problems with SAD, depression and isolation. Have a hard time dealing with all these emotional issues. etc. Would it be possible to make Skype group or videochat online?

  3. robin says:

    I need help! I am dyslexia! I have coverd this for your years. I get by with it by hiding it. As long as I can remember. I have been mad, depress, anger, lonely and lost my marriage. Can’t read, write and no job. Nobody wants to hire stupid people. I can’t sleep, I feel the walls coming on me. Something happen to me as growing up. I sit down all day and think about sadness in my life. My mother perfer to be with my sister and het sons. I can’t remember anythink nice about my life. Just bad things. No money! No job, every time I start to write it’s about sadness, hurt, pain. I want to be smart and pretty. I want to trust and believe in people. I have two beautiful daughters I love very much and care for. I have holed job like receptionists. I can’t even take notes down the fear of Somebody finding out I am dyslexia. I am barassen about this. I live with somebody but he say I don’t make sentences half the time. Just sad and anger mad at the world.

    • beverly s says:

      Robin, please don’t be embarrassed. Dyslexia is something you did not choose and it doesn’t by any means equal stupid. I can’t imagine the resourcefulness and cleverness you have relied on all of your life to continue hiding your dyslexia. Did you know that whoopie goldberg is dyslexic? I am no expert…far from it. But I believe there is help out there. Try googling dyslexia and your town and maybe see what resources might pop up.
      And you probably are already smart and pretty, but just don’t see it. If you get help with coping and adapting with/to the dyslexia it might be a first step toward feeling better..best wishes to you.

  4. Jackson says:

    Hello John,

    I have lost a deeply meaningful relationship seven months ago, and have spiraled into depression and profound feelings of loneliness and hopelessness.

    I have a question I hope you, and others, may address. Do you think it is possible to advertise for companionship of another understanding person, who also is experiencing similar feelings of profound loneliness, and to offer them a place to live and to reduce, hopefully in time, eliminate, the deep sense of loneliness? I have a modest but nice home, and would welcome the company of another person to share my home with me. Rather than attempting to wait for the chance of bumping into another person, I have considered the idea of actively searching for someone who is lonely, like me, who is searching for a safe place to live, and be with another empathetic person who is also lonely. Is this idea realistic, or is it flawed somehow?
    I hope I have made myself somewhat clear, and hope you and others will give me your thoughts and insights.
    Sincerely yours….Jackson

    • gg says:

      Hi Jackson,
      First of all, I’m sorry for your loss, hope you’re recovering.
      I think your idea of advertising is, in theory, good, but unfortunately it could be a bit dangerous to open up this way, to show fragility upfront, because you could be an easy target to someone with bad intentions.. I think you should look for a good company to live with, if you feel it would help healing (and in my opinion online dating is a really amazing tool – in case you wanted someone to have a romantic relationship), but I guess it would be better if you’d start looking without opening your house right away to a strange.

      Best wishes!

      • Eileen says:

        John I agree with you to a certain extent, but I think Jackson’s idea is a very good one, one which I’ve thought of myself. I’m suffering terribly from loneliness at the moment. I lost my husband some time ago, my children were young, so bringing them up kept me very busy. Now they have all fled the nest and I’m finding it so difficult to cope with the loneliness. I have tried the internet to meet people, it’s not for me, I’m just after companionship, because, at the end of the day, that’s what its all about, so Jackson, if you are reading this I’m all for your idea, with the help of family a good candidate for the job could be found I’m sure.

  5. kathy says:

    I need help all I do is watch TV all day till I go to bed n do it all again the next day, am I just lazy or is something else all
    I know is I can’t do it anymore, I love my grandbabies, but do nothing about it,,, I miss them so much but do nothing to see them, I hate going out, what’s wrong with me, I just cry. M miss them n am jealous

    • beverly s says:

      Kathy, It sounds like you are depressed, I have been the same way and asked myself the same question. I can work hard but i lean towards lazy..but when I am depressed I can be frozen to the couch channel surfing and not even really enjoy anything on TV. I used to come home from work and do that for hours….way into the night and of course be late for work the next day and get home and do it all over again.
      I was the same way about my grandkids and what made matters worse was I was trying to hide my depression from my kids. We don’t live in the same towns. When I am with them it really lifts me. I have somehow been forcing myself to pick up the phone and call my family and do a little facebook so that I don’t disappear all together. I was very sad and cried a lot too. I still do but not as much. I am regularly seeing a therapist now. I hope you seek out some support to feel better.

  6. Greg Weber says:

    For me, it’s not loneliness or depression, it’s loneliness AND depression. The two are always present and interacting in a kind of dance. Sometimes the loneliness is the result of isolation brought on by depression. Sometimes the loneliness is the fundamental loneliness of the human condition. Even people who are completely depression-free feel lonely some of the time – because they’re still human beings. That kind of basic human loneliness is, I think, fundamentally healthy. Learning to sit with it is part of my journey of recovery.

    The profound isolation brought on by depression and the loneliness that ensues from that is, however, part of my disease. It’s THAT loneliness that requires action, requires me to reach out. That’s the challenge, because my depression doesn’t WANT me to reach out. It wants to kill me with the intolerable loneliness that comes from isolation. I just think it’s important to differentiate between the two.

  7. Elle says:

    It is like being in jail in my mind. Who am going to tell how lonely I am when they all just flick it off as take a pill you mental case. I know I am lonely and that I isolate I myself.` I am kind of scared that trying and failing would push me over the edge.
    Nobody can tell me that all of the Social Network and Facebook and 2 dimensional friendships are like emotional intimacy. I need a 3rd dimension outlet. One friend I do not care. I know I am a good person, I know that I am worth something. I know all of these things as surely as I know I have not spoken one word on a phone or to a living person in a week. Sometimes when I open my mouth to I cannot even talk. It sucks
    I did do one thing that may help you guys. but had to stop because I have to get my eyes operated on….No biggie just long wait.
    I knew that I am shy and have a hard time looking people in the eyes..so I started taking acting classes where YOU HAVE TO DO IT!!! The first night after class I could barely get to the car because it was very emotional…all those people being nice and supportive and I HAD to look them in the eye and had to be filmed. It was so out of my comfort zone . I really started crying it was one of the best things I have ever done for myself…it made me WANT to go somewhere. Then came the eyes..so I can’t see the scripts so figured why waste these guys time. I WILL BE BACK AFTER THEY ARE DONE THOUGH.

  8. The Real Answer says:

    It is always wonderful to be Blessed to find a Loved one to spend the rest of your Life with, instead of being Alone and having no one.

    • Stan says:

      My love goes out to you, you have found what you are looking for, but it is something you already had before you found love….

  9. Leslie says:

    I found this blog very interesting, I have struggled with isolation, loneliness, and depression in my life. I feel like they all go together. I read another blog on this subject which I found helpful, http://www.psychalive.org/2009/06/isolation-and-loneliness/. I particularly liked the part where it suggests the actions you can take to get out of the isolated state, especially looking outside yourself and looking for ways to help others.

  10. heloisa says:

    Andy,
    hope you can get this message.

  11. Violet Reid says:

    I’m just incredibly lonely, all the time, even when I’m with people. I feel unhappy everywhere and as though I don’t belong anywhere. I have nowhere to turn and nobody to talk to. I can’t even connect or look forward to connecting with people anymore. I just don’t know.

    • Seriously Speaking says:

      have to certainly agree with you very much on that, and being alone really sucks when it is very hard to meet the right person to connect with.

      • loyal says:

        Perhaps you could reconnect with someone who once made you happy–before the depression. I bet there are people from your life who miss your presence.

        • Seriously Speaking says:

          Not Really, and many of us serious men out there looking for a good woman to meet is very difficult since they are not that friendly to start a conversation with. the ones that were Very Blessed by God to have met the right woman for them and have a family, certainly do have a lot to be thankful for.

  12. Elysse says:

    There is life in you. I wonder if I’m hearing the description of deep deep loneliness and the sadness of not being connected to another person, or people. Finding people with whom we truly connect is hard…and rare. Being misunderstood compounds the feeling of loneliness. The void you describe breaks my heart and you are not the only person who has felt it or feels it. You are not alone. I will think about you and hope that you have a moment of joy. And that those moments increase. And I hope that feelings of hope return for you. No lectures from me or advice. I’m just a stranger who read your post and is feeling compassion for the feelings you’re describing. You are not death. You are living. I do hope you’ll feel alive again.

    • MM says:

      I dont know you but I care…please get help and don’t take your life.
      My son has Asperger’s. He is ten. It’s a struggle daily but your post moved me a great deal. Have you ever read “Look me in the eyes”–it’s a great book of a man’s account of growing up with Asperger’s…I found understanding in it and assume that someone with Asperger’s might find a connection in it . . . one man to another. Words and writers can connect with complete strangers but it’s still meaningful. I don’t think it will save you but it may help you feel like you are not so alone…do you have anyone you can talk to? A friend? Therapist?

  13. Heliconia says:

    It is really true that I am unbelievably, deliriously happy when I am volunteering, on mission somewhere. You know what its like to wake up everyday and be happier than you ever thought you could be? But I don’t have money to support myself that way – so I can only do it when I have enough money saved.

    Otherwise I don’t even want to describe myself to depress you and me both.

  14. janine says:

    Hi John

    I came abour your blog while searching the web for solutions for my current feelings. It helps a lot just to know that i am not the only one suffering from this condition.

    I am busy destroying all my close relationships because I feel i am not worthy, not good enough or there will always be someone better then me. I also have this jealous nature that causes me to resent what other people have, causing me rather to stand back as to be part of their happines.

    I do not know where to start with the healing process, i just know that i do not want to feel like this anymore.

    Regards
    Janine

    Sorry for my grammer, I am from south africa an english is not my home lanuage.

  15. Val says:

    This definition makes so much sense. Depression can include loneliness but is so much more. Loneliness, to me, is an overwhelming feeling of sadness. People with depression have described a total disconnection with people as well as feelings.

  16. TheTruth says:

    being by myself is very depressing and lonely, especially after a divorce. and what makes it worse is trying to meet a good woman is very hard for me. and after seeing so many very lucky men and women that were very fortunate to have met one another and have a family, makes it much worse for me. i always wanted to have a family since i am no different than the ones that have it today. i feel as if God is really punishing me from having a love life and i don’t know why, and with so many mean women that are out there today makes it even worse when many of them don’t want to be bothered when i am trying to start a conversation with the one that i would really like to meet.

  17. Maria Scally says:

    Good morning John

    I am sat here on this lovely morning realizing that I have lived longer than I will live, given my age now. I feel angry with myself for having depression. And I hate my weakness of character that creates a need for company. My children are all grown and I am so lonely. At the moment I go to bed so early because I have nothing else to do. I hate the thought of dying and when that time comes wanting to jump up and say stop this process I have not done such a thing yet. It will be too late then, so why can I not get better. Why are there people like me, who are kind human beings, but are just so lonely.
    I searched for articles on loneliness and depression and your blog came up. Thank you for writing it.

    • Judy says:

      Hi Maria,
      I understand. I am lonely, and I have depression. My children are grown, and I feel that life is meaningless. I had moments of happiness but I realize that I have been lonely all my life except for the years raising my family and when I had deep love and connection. A brief space of my life.
      There is no reason for it.
      Peace to you.

  18. Laura says:

    I love your writing style. It inspires me in learning and improving my English. Not only the way you write is wonderful, but also the things you say. It relaxes me and I learn a lot of things about ourselves at the same time.
    Maybe you got fed up with my posts, but I have to say that I no longer feel alone when I am expressing myself through writing and speaking to you. It makes me feel so good. That’s a connection.
    Thank you very much.

  19. Robin says:

    John, thanks so much for writing this post. My significant other suffers from severe depression and she sometimes need to withdraw and it was hard for me to understand why, so your post has been most beneficial. Your writing is wonderful, please keep it up!

    • john says:

      Thanks, Robin -

      I’m glad the post was helpful. And I hope your SO can find her way out of severe depression. It’s great she has your support.

      John

  20. Alyssa says:

    Hey John,

    Thanks for using my photograph for your article! I’m honored to have contributed, in some small sort of way, to the powerful essence of these original written works in your Blog. Truly, a compelling culmination of thoughts. Indeed, your message captures a huge part of the motivation behind this picture.

    My heart goes out to you and those who find a glimpses of themselves within the words of your article — keep writing! And
    Keep on keepin’ on.
    Best–

    Alyssa

    • john says:

      Alyssa!

      It’s great to hear from you. Your image is one of the most compelling I’ve found in the 2+ years I’ve been doing this blog. Thank you for making it available under Creative Commons. I’ve been looking again at your work on Flickr – there are so many brilliant images. Your studies of people have a special depth that I don’t often see.

      And thank you for that enormous ego-boost of encouragement.

      All my best -

      John

  21. Marlo Perez says:

    Hello..
    thanks for posting this blog. Sometihow everybody got depressed over something or someone that we have lost. Though I felt depression but not that severe, I really thank God as well my friends and yes the internet since it become my outlet of my loneliness and depression. By doing and writing and reading blogs, somehow I felt the connection that indeed I am not alone, indeed I am not the only one experiencing those moments.

    • john says:

      That’s very true. When I started blogging, I never suspected how important the exchange of comments around the mental health blogging world would become so important to my recovery. I’ve found so many wonderful connections.

      Thanks for coming by.

      John

  22. Rich says:

    John,

    Thanks for the words of encouragement. If it’s one thing I’m learning during all of this is that patience is a virtue that is most needed in my life. I’ve heard of Hayes’ ACT therapy and subscribe to the ACT forum – there’s a great deal of useful information from others who actively practice ACT. And, interestingly I am currently reading Storr’s book.

    And, yes I do keep trying each and every day.

    Rich

  23. Rich says:

    John,

    Thank you so much for writing this article and sharing your experience. I am currently reading the book you mentioned in your blog and have found it very insightful. I suffer from depression, social anxiety, and loneliness and have for many years. What is most profound for me is the sensation (and pains) of social isolation that come from loneliness. I completely understand the push-pull phenomenom mentioned in the book, which leads to learned helplessness. I struggle with the loneliness on a daily basis and I find it difficult at days to cope. My therapist encourages me that things will get better, but it will take time. I am keeping a positive attitude but I have to say there are days when I don’t feel that way.

    • john says:

      Hello, Rich -

      I know those are difficult feelings to put up with for so long – though the hopelessness you might feel at seeing no change is yet another symptom of depression. There is a newer form of therapy, which I’m going to write about soon, called Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT). It’s the one approach that most closely reflects the experiences I’ve been through, leading to a change in the way I experience the pain of these interrelated conditions. You might check with your therapist about it. Steven Hayes is a leading practitioner and writer in that field. His book is called Getting Out of Your Head and Into Your Life – it’s primarily a workbook but a very good one, unlike most I’ve seen. ACT is about changing the way you view and experience the pain you feel.

      Another good book presents the positive side of aloneness, as opposed to loneliness. That Anthony Storrs’ book called Solitude. May Sarton, the poet and novelist, wrote a lot about living alone. One book is Journal of a Solitude. They’ve been helpful to me – but each of us is so different.

      I hope you’ll keep trying. I figure if I could make a turnaround after decades, it must be possible for others as well.

      All my best — John

  24. Bobby Revell says:

    Hey John, one great thing about blogging is that if someone is depressed and lonely and perhaps doesn’t have many people in their daily lives, they can turn to the digital community. It’s certainly no substitute for real human contact, but it does help a lot. I know it’s helped me in my daily life. It gets the conversational juices flowing and often carries over into daily life. Very insightful article:)

    • john says:

      Hi, Bobby – That’s so true. I’m amazed at how meaningful these online relationships and conversations become. They’ve been really important for myt recovery as well.

      Thanks for coming by!

      John

  25. John,

    I have selected you for the Premio Dardos award. Info below.

    The Prémio Dardos is given for recognition of cultural, ethical, literary, and personal values transmitted in the form of creative and original writing. These stamps were created with the intention of promoting fraternization between bloggers, a way of showing affection and gratitude for work that adds value to the Web.

    http://onesickmother.typepad.com/my_weblog/2009/05/honoured.html

    OSM

    • john says:

      Thank you so much!

      The purpose you quote is especially beautiful, and I’m honored that you thought of me.

      Be well — John

  26. Ellen says:

    Hi John,
    It almost seems that loneliness is a sign of returning health – while in the depths of depression we don’t want people in any case, but once we get better, that lonely feeling hits.

    Because I suffer from social anxiety, which is a fear of people combined with a longing to be with them, I think my own depression may actually be caused by my troubles with relationships. Life doesn’t go well when just being with others is a source of anxiety. Then there is deep loneliness and frustration that life is so difficult. And bang, I’m in depression. Which like you say first has to be healed to some degree, before I’m ready to try with people again.

    I think too that loneliness is a feeling, though a painful one, while depression tends to be the absence of feeling and meaning.

    Cheers, Ellen

    • john says:

      Hi, Ellen -

      That’s interesting about social anxiety – I hadn’t thought that longing to be with people was part of it. But I think that’s been true for me as well – I’ve always imagined getting along splendidly with others – and wanting to be with them – but then felt acute, consuming anxiety that just drove me away.

      I guess feeling loneliness is a sign of recovery the way the ability to feel almost any emotion is. The connection with people is so basic it’s no wonder we get lonely and long for it when there are obstacles – invisible ones – blocking us off. It’s easy to see how depression can follow.

      Thanks for stopping by – I hope you’re well.

      John

  27. Kelly says:

    This is such a timely topic for me. I emerged from a deep depression a few months ago, and ever since I’ve been extra leery of any hint of depression. Just last night I questioned whether I was depressed because I’ve been feeling so lonely. But after reading your blog post, I realize that I can be lonely without being depressed. Loneliness isn’t necessarily an indicator of depression.

    I guess in figuring out whether you’re depressed or only lonely, you need to look at the whole picture — are you feeling hopeless, lack energy, isolating yourself, etc.

    • john says:

      Kelly – I’m so glad you’ve gotten past that period of depression. It’s true that looking at the big picture is important to get clear about what’s going on. I know the feeling you describe of being leery about depression returning. The problem I had to get around – and it only took me about 25 years! – was to change the assumption – belief – that depression was my norm, that sooner or later it would reassert itself, and I wouldn’t be able to stop it. Being as clear as I could about what I was experiencing has been so helpful. I’m no longer convincing myself that depression explains every aspect of my life. These changes in thinking and belief have been so important for me!

      I hope you keep on making progress -

      My very best to you — John

  28. la says:

    I feel depression would be much easier to bear if it wasn’t for the accompanying isolation. It’s like pneumonia in a way: it crops up on so many birth certificates but they always suffered from something else, pneumonia was just the thing that they couldn’t survive.

    • john says:

      Hi, la – I believe depression only comes prepackaged with isolation – the free bonus, like arsenic in the mail. It’s strange how the whole thing can come and go for no apparent reason – at least in my case. I’d rather not think about dying from it – but when deep into isolation I’m not sure there’s a whole lot else to think about. Thank God in a big way that I’ve been feeling basically OK for quite a while now – can’t say I miss the isolation ward.

      I hope you’re feeling better — John

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