Sometimes it is said that anyone can feel lonely even in a crowd.   It’s a cliché but it is one that is all too true and can be all too common. Students, surrounded by people of a similar age and, supposedly, with lots in common, can feel very isolated and awkward.   And those feelings are only made worse when you look around and it seems like everyone else is having a great time, has loads of friends and feels at home, while you feel excluded and on the margin of everything.

Looked at from another angle, however, it is hardly surprising that loneliness at University is common, especially amongst first years.   Coming to University is a major life change – it’s leaving home.   It may be the first time you have lived away from home as well as leaving behind friends that you have known for years.

Leaving home and coming to University means a lot of changes:  in lifestyle, work patterns and degree of independence.   These can all take a toll and leave you feeling uncertain about what to do or even how to be.   Social insecurities can then creep in, even to people who normally feel quite socially adept.   So, for some (maybe you), loneliness is a new and unsettling experience, while for others loneliness is more familiar but may now be accompanied by disappointment that coming to University hasn’t brought about any changes to the feelings of loneliness.

Loneliness is common at University for many reasons including:-
  • You are away from friends and family
  • It may be the first time in years – maybe even since Primary School – that you have had to start from scratch making friends
  • You may miss your old friends and find it hard to replace them – or maybe a feeling of not wanting to replace them anyway
  • You may have high expectations of University as a place where you will meet lots of new and interesting people, but the reality is different because of the first people you meet
  • You may have a relationship with someone at home and, because of that, feel torn between your social life here and there
  • You may be anxious about your studies and worry about getting the balance between study and social right

You can feel lonely when:-

  • You are alone and have no choice about the matter
  • You do not feel part of a group or event
  • There is no one you feel you can share your feelings and experiences with
  • You feel disconnected and alienated from your surroundings
  • There is no one you can tell about how miserable and lonely you are feeling

Loneliness can make you feel:-

  • Unloved and unwanted
  • Socially inadequate
  • Convinced that there is something wrong with you
  • Self-conscious and ill-at-ease with others
  • Angry and critical of others

And then these feelings can result in things getting worse.   You feel no self-worth;  you believe (without real cause) that no one wants you around;  you feel there is no point in making an effort to make friends or take part in any social activities;  you can’t bring yourself to assert yourself and say ‘no’ to things you do not want to do;  and that then leaves you feeling exploited.   A downward spiral.

So what can you do about feeling lonely?

  • Remember that feeling lonely is very common.   Almost everyone feels it at some point.   And it is something that can be changed.   It is a sign that important needs are not being met.   Changing the situation may involve finding and developing a circle of friends, but it may also mean finding ways of learning to enjoy your own company – to use that time more constructively and pleasurably.
  • Do not wait for other people to speak to you and get in touch with you.   Try to talk to people you sit next to in class.   Say hello, or even just smile, at people you pass on the stair or elsewhere in your Hall or your classes.   Suggest going for a coffee with the person who sits next to you at class or at breakfast in Hall.
  • Try to make yourself go to new situations where you will meet people with interests in common – anything happening in the Students’ Association that appeals to you?  Choose activities that you are genuinely interested in and try to enjoy them – whether it is a Society, sport or perhaps even some voluntary work.   Do not, however, push yourself too much – don’t go the other way and end up filling your time with too many things just to avoid being alone.
  • Do not deprive yourself of doing something you want to do just because you have no one to go with you, like going to a movie or a concert.
  • Try not to be too critical of yourself and your efforts.   Remind yourself that long lasting and fulfilling friendships do not happen overnight.   And don’t turn down any chance of friendship because you are waiting on a romantic relationship, which you think will completely relieve your loneliness; give you confidence and social status. 
  • Build that friendship which you want for yourself by being a good friend to other people.  Respond to others and their interests (but do not pretend an interest that you do not truly feel).
  • Some people are more at ease in groups, and others in one-to-one situations.   Think about what you prefer.   Find others with similar outlooks and interests.  Remember that, despite what it might seem, not everyone is interested in sport or in going to pubs.

The other thing to remember is Student Services.   You might want to go in and talk to someone at Student Services who will try to help you as you try to conquer your loneliness and the feelings that it brings.   Talking to someone in Student Services could help you understand and accept yourself.   They could help you change your patterns of thought (and the expectation that you will be rejected), and will help you develop a more relaxed way of being with other people, which in turn will boost your confidence and self-esteem.  There are many techniques that Student Services can help you understand which, in turn, will help you combat the anxiety surrounding social activities and help you change any negative thought patterns which are holding you back from making friends and having a great social life.

For more help and information about this or about anything else, why not speak to Student services?  Email theasc@st-andrews.ac.uk

The University of St Andrews would like to acknowledge the contribution of the University of Cambridge (2003)for the content of much of this document.