The Loneliness Loop: Why We Get Stuck in Isolation (and 3 Ways to Break Free)

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In early 2022, I found myself in a strange situation.

I had just moved to Portugal, trying to make a living from full-time writing. Behind me lay months of isolation due to the pandemic and years of frustration due to a career I didn’t enjoy. Portugal was my ticket to salvation, connection, and happiness. It was the answer. The secret sauce.

Except… it wasn’t.

I vastly underestimated the situation. As it turned out, writing is a lonely profession. Moving to a foreign country is difficult. And physically relocating your body doesn’t cure the mental repercussions of a pandemic. I experienced unprecedented depths of loneliness.

But you know what was strange? Most of the time, I was around people. I found countless new connections through learning Portuguese, taking surfing lessons, sharing a house with ten other people, joining a co-working space, and rekindling friendships with locals. The door to social connection was wide open. But I couldn’t enter.

One night, particularly, turbo-charged my loneliness.

I met this girl — let’s call her Carla — and immediately fancied her. Carla was from Brazil and had also recently moved to Portugal. We skipped most of the talking and went straight to making out — which I could only embrace since the pandemic had band-aided my need for human warmth with soulless Zoom meetings. I can’t remember when Carla and I parted that night. But on my way home, I watched the sun climb over the red-tiled roofs of Porto. Maybe this isn’t so bad, I thought. Maybe this is the first of many new connections. I got my hopes up. I started dreaming of what it would be like to have a partner, a community, friends.

But here’s what I didn’t know yet: I was about to get stuck in a hellish loneliness loop.

I never saw Carla again.

The Loneliness Loop: What It Is and How It Traps Us

From the outside, this situation may seem oh-so-simple. I was just having a bit of a moment and should’ve doubled down on my friendships, put myself “out there,” and embraced solitude.

Easy-peasy. Loneliness solved.

But if you’ve ever been in a remotely similar situation, you know that all these things become difficult when you feel lonely. Heck, they become almost impossible. And so, our loneliness can quickly turn into a frustrating experience. After all, we want those relationships. We crave to connect. But alas, we can’t.

Why is that?

The underlying reason is what researchers call the loneliness loop. What is the loneliness loop? Essentially, it’s the self-fulfilling prophecy that perceived social isolation leads to actual seclusion. This may sound pretty straightforward. But if we want to break this vicious cycle, we must first fully understand it.

In the graphic below, you can see how the loneliness loop plays out in detail. (Don’t worry — we’re going to un-pretzel all the mechanisms bit by bit.)

The loneliness loop. (Graphic created by the author based on: Perceived social isolation: social threat vigilance and its implications for health & Loneliness matters: a theoretical and empirical review of consequences and mechanisms)

The loneliness loop typically starts with things out of our control. It might be a major incident like a breakup or losing a loved one. But it could also be a series of subtle rejections, untended relationship problems, or general life dissatisfaction. Predispositions based on genes or culture also have a role to play. In other words, loneliness can enter our lives, no matter how hard we try to avoid it.

Starting from these initial triggers of loneliness, a series of negative biases and social experiences can turn the situation from a snowball into an avalanche:

  • Segment 1: We experience feelings of social isolation, rejection, and low self-esteem.
  • Segment 2: To avoid further social pain, we become more careful in social settings, feeling less safe than before.
  • Segment 3: We enter a state of hypervigilance. This is an evolutionary response to detect social threats, anticipate the worst, and remember more negative social information.
  • Segment 4: Because of our cynical and doubtful behaviors, others now find it harder to connect with us.
  • Segment 5: Social interactions become trickier for everyone involved. As the lonely party, we tend to withdraw or blame others.
  • Segment 6: We start experiencing feelings of helpless, hostility, stress, pessimism, anxiety, and low self-esteem. All these feelings lead us back to segment one, closing the loneliness loop.

The longer we’re stuck in the loneliness loop, the higher the chances that our loneliness becomes chronic. Which, as I’ve detailed in this article, slowly abrades our minds and bodies. We experience more stress, are more likely to get depressed, sleep worse, and engage in unwise behaviors (fast food, binge-watching, drinking, et cetera).

Sounds gloomy? Well, yes.

That’s because the loneliness loop really is an agonizing experience. But still: there are ways out, even if that seems impossible while you’re stuck in the vicious vortex.

Here’s how I experienced and coped with the loneliness loop.

How the Loneliness Loop Turns Minor Setbacks into Despair

The day after meeting Carla, I drafted a text message saying that I enjoyed the night and that we should do something next week. I stared at it for hours until, finally, I hit send. My anxiety skyrocketed as I waited for her reply.

A few days later, my phone lit up with her name. “I’m really busy at the moment,” read the text. “But maybe next month.”

Yes, I know: I could’ve taken that message as a sign that this thing between us wasn’t meant to be. But regrettably, my loneliness made me starve for social connection and human warmth. At this point, I had stopped caring about the quality of my relationships because I felt like I wasn’t experiencing them in the first place. And so, a few weeks later, I texted Carla again. This time, her response was a punch in the face: “Honestly, I’m dating someone else and would like to focus on that.” 

Ouch.

Maybe it was the fact that the pandemic had already massaged loneliness into my brain. Maybe it was my bruised ego. But either way, Carla’s rejection was so painful that I started projecting the experience onto everyone else I met from then on. It was the trigger that catapulted me into a vicious loneliness vortex. And before I knew it, the gears and grinds of the loneliness loop devoured my mind, body, and soul.

But that was only the beginning.

How the Loneliness Loop Makes the World Evil

After Carla’s rejection, negative biases manifested my loneliness — slowly, sneakily. Soon, the signs seemed written in the stars: I have no friends, no one likes me, and there’s no one I could possibly talk to. 

And it got worse.

One day, my Portuguese teacher sent me a long text message. She told me she didn’t want to continue our Portuguese lessons. That I wasn’t worth her time. That I was a terrible student. That I should never contact her again.

Of course, it didn’t happen like this.

It was only how I perceived the message back then, amidst my loneliness loop from hell. My hypervigilance-fueled mind squeezed every drop of negativity out of that message, mixed it with poison, and served me the final concoction with an olive.

It’s funny how loneliness can deceive us. Just now, I re-read the message (while feeling less lonely), and this time, I was overwhelmed by my teacher’s kindness. The hostility I once saw had vanished. All I could read now was how much she enjoyed our lessons. That she was very sorry we couldn’t continue. And that she wished me all the best. In case of any questions or problems, I could always contact her.

I never responded.

Instead, I started withdrawing myself at the time. Heck, I didn’t even bother looking for a new Portuguese teacher. They’ll all reject me anyway, I thought. And even if they were willing to teach me: soon, they’ll abandon me again.

Without realizing it, I had become the puppet of a puppeteer called Loneliness, cooped up in the dramatic script of the loneliness loop.

Why It’s so Hard to Escape The Loneliness Loop

Small incidents tightened the loneliness loop around my neck. It started feeling like a gallows rope. When friends told me they were busy, I thought they had canceled our friendship. When one of my many housemates greeted me, I only registered hostility. Occasionally, I met some nice people in my co-working space, but the prospect of genuine connection seemed out of reach.

Everywhere I went, I felt alienated.

Of course, I never considered that I had a part to play in this kerfuffle. It was always just them. Evil roommates, evil teachers, evil dates, evil world. Why is it so tough to escape the loneliness loop? Because our minds constantly feed us the information that we’re stuck in it. Forever. And that people won’t like us.

Ever again.

Soon, my loneliness felt insurmountable. Which, of course, was perfect firewood for my pyre of loneliness. Because of my pessimism and helplessness, I felt more lonely. Because I felt more lonely, I could only see the bad in social interactions. Because I could only see the bad in social interactions, others started distancing themselves from me.

And on and on the cycle went.

A few weeks later, I returned to my home country, Germany.

How to Break the Vicious Cycle

I wish there was a happy ending to this story. I wish I could tell you the one antidote to break the loneliness loop and find eternal happiness. But that’d miss the point. Loneliness is an infinitely individual experience, and life is too complex to prescribe one-dimensional solutions.

However, I did gain some closure and insight when I returned to Porto seven months after my departure. Although I was just visiting the city for a few days, I meandered in nostalgia. My mind went to weird places. Suddenly, I was desperate to find out how Carla was doing and how things might have turned out between us. So I made a mistake.

I texted her.

My phone buzzed immediately with Carla’s response. No, she’s not too busy. Yes, Saturday would be lovely. She would let me know the exact time. But when Saturday came around she didn’t let me know. And when I asked her if she still wanted to meet, she asked if we could reschedule (never mind the fact that I had told her this was my last night in Porto).

So I finally did what I should’ve done all along:

I said no.

The whole shebang got too complicated for me. Following her ever-changing mind and schedule stressed me out, and I was sick of being mistreated. So that’s what I told her. And it was the last text message I sent to her.

How do we break the loneliness loop? The answer is simple but not easy: we must stop feeding into it. The loop can only continue if we let it continue to the next stage, allowing it to grow into an avalanche of destruction.

My predicament with Carla made me so lonely because I was always being conducted. I was always making myself dependent on her decisions, her mood, her schedule. The key was to take back control.

On a larger scale, taking back control means becoming aware of each segment of the loneliness loop, seeing it clearly, and not buying into it. Of course, this is tricky because negative social biases are our reality when we’re lonely. Our minds try to convince us that everything and everyone around us is hostile. And yes, in rare cases, this is true. But most of the time, people are kind. Most humans are willing to build healthy relationships because the human soul is hard-wired for connection.

So, how exactly can we take back control when we’re stuck in the loneliness loop?

Three Ways Out of the Loneliness Loop

In the vicious cycle of loneliness, there are three main spokes we can try to break. If we succeed, we disrupt the loneliness loop in its most critical transitions. The cycle loses momentum, and we feel a sense of relief which helps us reconnect.

The three escape routes are creating a sense of safety, scrutinizing negative biases, and becoming proactive.

Three ways to escape the loneliness loop. (Graphic created by the author)

Let’s look at them individually.

  1. From hypervigilance to safety — Loneliness often triggers our sympathetic nervous system (fight-or-flight response), which, obviously, doesn’t help us make social connections. However, if we can activate our parasympathetic nervous system (rest-and-digest response), we signal our brains that we’re safe. This reduces stress. Which quiets the alarm bells of loneliness. One of my favorite ways to achieve this is to experience the overview effect. Other evidence-based ways include exercise, controlled breathing, and experiencing nature.
  2. From negative biases to scrutiny — This isn’t necessarily about giving people the benefit of the doubt. Again, it’s more about taking back control. So, whatever negative thoughts you might have, try to zoom out and question them like a curious scientist. Studies show that therapy is among the most powerful ways to achieve this. Another proven remedy is to journal about the thought/situation. (To learn more about this, check out this article where I included some prompts and further context.)
  3. From blame and withdrawal to proactivity — The one thing that all your failed relationships have in common is, well, you. When we feel lonely, we tend to underestimate this. Not in the sense that it’s all our fault but that we have more power than we might’ve thought. Every day, there are thousands of chances to connect with people that can help us feel less lonely. The trick, according to a meta-study, is to engage in altruism without overwhelming ourselves. For me, helpful, evidence-based approaches have included small acts of kindness and sending one tiny text message.

Just to be clear: none of this is easy. Especially not when you feel lonely. But often, just becoming aware that you’re stuck in the loneliness loop is a great start. And if, beyond that, you can also manage to disrupt the cycle in the right places, marvelous things are bound to happen.

The Connection Loop

Finally, some good news: once we break out of the loneliness loop and take steps toward reconnection, we can enter an upward spiral of positive social interactions. We regain our self-control, allowing us to do more things that are genuinely good for us. When we do things that are good for us, our mood improves. When our mood improves, this transfers onto others. And when we sense that others feel jolly, this, in turn, makes us feel great.

Win-win-win.

It’s a positive feedback loop of connection.

So yes, the loneliness loop is a terrorizing experience. The lonelier we feel, the lonelier we become. But this vicious cycle can only dictate our lives as long as we forget that a) there are ways out and b) it’s just as possible to lounge in the resonance loop of connection.

Prolonged loneliness may feel paralyzing. But one moment of connection may be all it takes to break the chains.