Focus on the Family

The Loneliness Trap

loneliness trap - Illustration shows one person knitting a fabric of belonging under the eye of two other women
© Sarah Wilkins
Finding your place of belonging is often more difficult than you think.

Charlotte* is everybody’s favorite. As a star athlete, she plays multiple sports and somehow makes her packed schedule look easy. She’s rarely alone. Often, she’s accompanied by a band of giggling and almost rowdy teenage girls. Her family is solid, her grades are good and she’s always on the go. From her perfectly messy topknot to the laces of her Nike Air Force sneakers, Char—as her friends call her—has everything going for her. But when she goes home at the end of the day, the busyness subsides and the chatter fades. An ache of loneliness washes over Char. Deep down she’s sad—really sad. And she’s not sure why.

Char isn’t the only one experiencing these feelings. If you asked 1 million 15- and 16-year-old students from around the world about loneliness, particularly at school, what would you find? One study shows that more and more students feel lonely. Over a few years, the number of teenagers who experience loneliness nearly doubled! And, get this, more girls experience loneliness than boys. That tracks. It tracks for Char. Maybe it tracks for you too.

What makes us lonely?

It’s hard to say what makes someone lonely because there’s no single trigger that sends you or your friends careening into the abyss of loneliness. But after thousands of hours of talking with teenage girls like you in my counseling office, here are a few trends I’ve noticed:

Fitting in. You read that right—fitting in isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. There’s a difference between fitting in and belonging. Carly explained it to me this way: “Fitting in is like being in a herd of sheep. You look and act like all the other sheep. Belonging is being the unique sheep in the herd. You can be you and still belong even if you’re different from the group.”

Accessibility. While as a teenager you are your own person, you also have little control. Maybe your social calendar hinges on your parents’ availability to drive you to events. Or maybe you don’t have a phone like your friends do.

During the pandemic, Everly’s anxiety and sadness grew. She was trapped in loneliness, had limited screen time on her phone and no way to get together with her friends. She simply didn’t have access to the social connections that school and sports offered her.


Perception. The way you see situations and the stories you tell yourself are powerful—they can reinforce or lessen feelings of loneliness.

Lilly is a star soccer player who is seriously lonely. Even though she’s surrounded by teammates and family members who attend her games, she believes that she’s alone in her experiences and feelings. She doesn’t vocalize these emotions, so they’re trapped in her head. She frequently ponders on them, and the isolation intensifies.

Exclusion. We are all left out from time to time. Whether accidental or intentional, it’s a painful experience. Girls are especially susceptible to the loneliness that comes along with social media. Seeing pictures of your friends together without you is difficult. And let’s be real, it can wreck your self-esteem. Suddenly, you feel as though you’re not as smart, funny, popular or pretty as those girls.

Awkwardness. For some people, friendliness comes naturally, and they’re comfortable talking to strangers or asking for help. Starting conversations, making eye contact and showing interest in others are social skills I encourage my counseling clients to practice. Trust me on this: You can’t become good at being friendly when you’re by yourself.


Ashley went to summer camp. When other girls didn’t immediately include her, she turned to reading the books she had packed. Even though she was hungry for social connection, she found it easier to bury herself in a book than to start a conversation with another person. Her goal for this year’s camp is to leave her books at home.

Your phone. OK, before you throw this magazine on the floor, hear me out. Phones aren’t bad. Social media is not all bad. Some of the best wardrobe inspiration, fingernail-polish designs and cute puppy videos can be found on social media. What is bad are the statistics showing a growth in loneliness that tracks with a growth in smartphone use. Researchers found that as smartphone popularity has grown, loneliness has also grown. Maybe you get together less in real life because you’re online. The next time you’re at the mall, notice how many people are looking at their phones—nobody is making eye contact or saying hello to people as they pass. Do you remember the study of 1 million adolescents worldwide? Well, that study says, “Although digital media carries many advantages for communication, it favors shallow ties rather than deep ones, which may result in loneliness.”

Lonely or alone, which is it?

Loneliness and alone have quite similar definitions, yet they are different.

Being alone is just that—being in solitude. It can be uncomfortable or sad, but it isn’t always a bad thing. Solitude can be a positive experience. Maybe your best ideas come to you when you’re still, quiet and alone. Or maybe you find time to pray or connect with God in solitude. That, my friends, makes solitude worth it.

Loneliness has a different vibe. U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy noticed, “There is this deep stigma around loneliness. The shame that comes with loneliness . . . makes us think that if we are lonely that we’re not likable, that we’re broken in some way.” Loneliness wraps us in feelings of isolation that keep us from connecting with others. It’s a heavy burden.

Have you experienced the difference between loneliness and being alone?

Why so serious?

Loneliness has a tremendous impact on your whole being—we’re talking about your physical, mental, emotional and spiritual health. Loneliness can harm your immune system, setting you up to catch a lot of the bugs that are making the rounds. It can make you more likely to use poor coping skills (think pints of ice cream) to numb the pain of isolation. Loneliness disrupts sleep patterns; sleep patterns impact mental health; and mental health impacts physical health, which then impacts—you see where this is going, don’t you?

Let’s have a quick science lesson—neuroscience, that is. There are chemicals in your brain that are power players in the game of emotion: One is cortisol. Like so many things in your world, cortisol is unsteady and fluctuates throughout the day. But here’s what makes cortisol spike: negative emotions. Anxiety, stress, fear, rage and loneliness are all contributors. These are the feelings that send cortisol soaring. According to neuroscientist Frances E. Jensen, “In late adolescence, and especially in girls, cortisol levels are slightly higher than in the normal adult population.” To summarize, your teenage brain has adult-sized stress when it comes to emotions like loneliness.

The uptick of cortisol caused by the stress of loneliness goes hand in hand with depression. Loneliness can even make you feel foggy. In fact, it tangles up our cognitive abilities—think of it like your favorite necklace that gets a thousand kinks. That’s what loneliness does to your mind. It jumbles your thoughts, and suddenly you can’t remember what you had for dinner last night, much less what you studied the night before a test.

Send loneliness packing.

If it seems impossible to find your way through loneliness, you’re not alone. Often, it’s helpful to tell yourself the truth. And here’s the truth: God will not leave you (Matthew 28:20). And even more, Jesus understands loneliness and experienced it on a deep level. He said, “Behold, the hour is coming, indeed it has come, when you will be scattered, each to his own home, and will leave me alone. Yet I am not alone, for the Father is with me” (John 16:32). Even though it’s comforting to know that God sees you and is well-acquainted with your pain, maybe you also need some practical help. Here are a few tips:

Talk about it. Remember the part about perception? You may think you’re the only person feeling lonely, so you’ll be shocked when you find out who else is.

“Real life” connections are essential. Whether it’s a hobby, a volunteer gig, a new sport, a club at school or a youth group, being with other people is critical to your emotional well-being and health. As scary as it may be, putting yourself out there is essential to making friends.

Practice stepping out of isolation through conversation. My middle school groups have a motto: “Go fast, and go first. Keep going.” When they are in a new situation and need to start a conversation, they do the following: They say hello fast, they say it first, and they keep going by asking questions to keep the conversation moving forward.

Find a fur companion. My dog, Jeff, is a pet therapist who works alongside me and hangs out with girls like you every day. While he doesn’t have much to say, his presence is a gift. Companionship is an important element in fighting loneliness, even if the companion has fur.

Dig a little deeper

Maybe it’s time to talk to a counselor and gather some strategies for feeling better. Or maybe there’s a trusted youth leader or teacher you can confide in.

My all-time favorite coach said it best: “There is something worse out there than being sad—that’s being alone and being sad. Ain’t no one in this room alone.” Poor grammar aside, there’s an incredible amount of truth in those words. People are the antidote for loneliness. Not just people, but belonging to people.

You belong somewhere—whether it’s to a team, school, family, club or group of friends. As you search for your place, know that you can rely on the love God has for you. Psalm 86:15 says that God is “abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness.” Above all, you belong to God. With Him, you are never alone.

Amy Jacobs, M.MFT, is a therapist in Nashville, Tennessee, where she and her goldendoodle, Jeff, hang out with girls each and every day.

*Names have been changed for privacy


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