In college, it’s easy to feel like a little fish in a big pond. Even when you’re surrounded by people all the time, you may find yourself feeling lonely in college, especially if your semester is busy and stressful, your friends start to pair off during cuffing season, or your family is miles away. This school year also presents a unique challenge for students who are returning to campus while dealing with the ongoing pandemic, or those who are experiencing limited social interaction because of physical distancing.
At some point, we all experience moments of loneliness, but if you’re feeling lonely more often than not, or so alone that it’s getting in the way of your happiness and daily life, then you may need more than just a quick cuddle session with your BFF to turn those feelings around. I spoke with Lauren Kachorek, PhD, a clinical psychologist from Ann Arbor, Michigan, to learn how college students can overcome feelings of isolation during college.
Understand that it happens to everyone
Although your emotions are unique to your own experience, loneliness is a feeling everyone goes through at some point. According to a 2020 report from the American Psychological Association (APA), Gen Z was the most common group to report feelings of depression and loneliness over the past year. This comes as no surprise — especially given the implications of the pandemic — however, Dr. Kachorek tells Her Campus that it’s common for college students to feel lonely in general after leaving their homes and their comfort zones.
“[Loneliness is common], particularly for people who are either transitioning from a different college or a first-time student moving to campus away from home,” she tells Her Campus. “Typically, peoples’ support networks that they’ve established at their primary residence are no longer accessible, and as a result, that can add to feeling lonely.”
Dr. Kachorek says that the diverse and competitive nature of college can leave students feeling out of place as well. “Comparing yourself to a diverse range of people around you, particularly if you attend larger colleges, can result in students feeling more out of place, wondering if they belong there, if they deserve to be there or if anyone is like them,” she tells Her Campus.
Acknowledge what you’re feeling
Loneliness may be prevalent on college campuses, but it doesn’t have to define your entire college experience. “The first step is to recognize that you’re feeling that way and validate that it’s something that most people feel at some point during their college careers,” Dr. Kachorek says. “After identifying it, you want to think about in what ways you’re feeling lonely or out of place.” When you identify what’s making you feel lonely, it will become easier to address those feelings and focus your efforts.
Dr. Kachorek tells Her Campus, “the person has to come to understand more about what [the loneliness] means to them and why and how they feel that way. Exploring more about it is actually the best way to make the feeling go away.”
Also, don’t try to minimize what you’re going through or tell yourself, “it’s not that bad.” According to Dr. Kachorek, that can actually have the opposite effect, because you might feel more alienated or that your situation doesn’t deserve the attention or care that you do, in fact, deserve.
Instead of brushing your feelings of loneliness aside or trying to convince yourself it’s not a problem, acknowledge the fact that you’re feeling lonely and try to reflect on what is making you feel that way. You could do this by talking about it with a friend or a family member, or just by writing it down if you don’t feel comfortable sharing these feelings with others.
Shift your mindset
It’s easy to let your emotions overwhelm you and distort your perspective, especially when you’re feeling down. When this happens, loneliness can take a hold on your life and prevent you from being yourself. But what happens when you change your way of thinking, and start to shift your thought patterns?
For example, instead of feeling lonely then believing that you’re truly alone, try looking at it from a different angle. Maybe your distant friends are stressed with school and that’s why you haven’t heard from them. Maybe there are a ton of new people out there who would love to hang out with you, but you haven’t reached out to them yet because it feels nerve-wracking. Maybe everyone else just looks like they’re having more fun on Instagram, but in reality, they feel lonely sometimes, too.
When you start to feel like you’re the only person who feels the way that you do in college, take a step back and consider an alternative point of view. To help you change your perspective, it can help to reach out to friends — both old and new — and take a break from comparing yourself to others on social media. You can also try finding a way to relax (like yoga, meditation, or movement) to get some peace of mind.
Start meeting new people
If you’re a busy college student, chances are, you’re used to going through the motions: go to class, study, come home, sleep, and repeat. What if you mixed up your routine? Next time you sit down for a lecture, strike up a conversation with whoever’s sitting near you. Ask her about an upcoming assignment, how she thought the homework went, or anything else that comes to mind. You may find that you have something in common with someone who was previously a stranger, and it can help you feel less alone in your college experience, even if you only chat for a few minutes each day.
Opening up to new people helps lessen the sting of loneliness and reminds you that chances are, everyone else is battling the same thing. Grabbing coffee with a new friend from class is a perfect, low-pressure way of getting to know someone further.
“It can be anything as simple as saying hello to the mail carrier or the person serving your lunch,” says Morgan, a Boston College graduate. She tells Her Campus that striking up a conversation is the perfect outlet for connecting with another person, and that it can ultimately make you happier in college.
If you’re unhappy with your current extracurricular activities (or lack thereof), it’s time to get involved in something new! This is the best way to stay busy in college, keep your mind off of feeling unhappy, and meet new friends, all at the same time.
“My recommendation to students is to really try and find a group of people that they can obtain support from, whether it’s through a church group or a sport activity or just an interest group, so that they can try to connect with other like-minded individuals,” Dr. Kachorek tells Her Campus. Once you find an activity that you truly enjoy and you’re surrounded by people whom you get along with, you’ll be more satisfied, and the loneliness should pass.
Brooke, a junior from Middlebury College, says she overcame loneliness by finding activities that made her refocus negative thoughts. “I’ve struggled with loneliness since I got to college and it comes and goes in waves, but the best way I’ve found to keep it at bay is to get involved,” she says. “I find the more idle time I have to think about negative things, the worse I feel. Go for a run, take up an instrument, grab a sketchpad, go for a drive or even crack open the books—anything that occupies my mind makes me feel instantly better.”
Don’t be afraid to seek support & professional help
There’s a thin line between prolonged loneliness and depression, which is the most common mental health challenge in the world, according to the APA. You might think you can overcome feelings of loneliness without any help, but confiding in a therapist can make all the difference.
“At any point, if you feel like you’re at risk of harming yourself…and if you feel like your life is not regulated and you’re unable to do things that you’d like to do, it’s often a good time to consult for help,” Dr. Kachorek tells Her Campus. “A consultation doesn’t mean that you enter therapy right away, necessarily; it just means that you ask for objective, professional feedback as to whether or not the intensity of your symptoms is beyond what should be expected for the circumstances you’re in.”
She adds that you should explore different therapy options, because what works for one person might not help another. “Some [forms of therapy], such as cognitive behavioral, are quicker, but others, such as psychodynamic therapy or psychoanalysis, can help a person get an understanding of what is troubling them so that it is addressed at its core,” Dr. Kachorek tells Her Campus. “This will prevent a deeper issue from resurfacing via a different symptom or problem later in life.”
Briana, a senior at Georgia College & State University, says seeking professional help is important for addressing the gray area between loneliness and depression. “Having suffered from depression, I know that sometimes it’s hard to distinguish between it and loneliness,” she says. “It’s normal to feel lonely once in a while, but when that becomes the norm, you’re probably in trouble. I got to a point where I would feel lonely in a room full of people, and I often isolated myself on purpose. If you’re doing anything like that, you should seek professional help and treatment.”
Brooke also found that her loneliness stems from depression and separation anxiety. “For me, loneliness was definitely depression,” she says. “I’ve been diagnosed with depression and anxiety…so being alone not only makes me sad, but extremely anxious… it affected me in a lot of ways, particularly in that I struggle with getting out of bed if I feel really alone or depressed.”
A combination of clinical therapy and medication helps Brooke cope with feeling lonely. “I am on a low dose of anti-anxiety/depression medication and I also go to a counselor at school when I feel like I need to,” she says. “I have a counselor at home that I touch base with probably twice a year. Both have been incredibly helpful and I’ve noticed a big difference in my ability to cope with loneliness.”
If you’re interested in speaking with a professional, try looking into the local counseling options at your university. Most clinics are free for students and have staff members who are more than qualified and ready to help.
If you’re feeling lonely in college, it’s time to stop your loneliness in its tracks and realize that while you may feel lonely, you are not alone. Everyone feels lonely at some point or another, even if their smiling faces on your Instagram feed suggest otherwise. With these expert-approved suggestions, I hope that you’ll be able to conquer those feelings, because you deserve to be your happiest self — in college and beyond.
Experts Lauren Kachorek, PhD
Sources Morgan, Boston College Brooke, Middlebury College Briana, Georgia College & State University
Studies American Psychological Association. (2020). Stress in America 2020: a national mental health crisis. Diakses dari: apa. org/news/press/releases/stress.