The Link Between Childhood Trauma and Adult Loneliness


By Denise K. Ambre, LCSW

Chronic loneliness among adults has reached epidemic proportions. And it’s posing serious health risks.

“Loneliness has the same impact on mortality as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, making it even more dangerous than obesity,” according to Douglas Nemecek, MD, Cigna’s chief medical officer for behavioral health.

Crossing socioeconomic and geographic boundaries, loneliness doesn’t discriminate. It’s not linked to any specific personality type or lifestyle. Anyone can feel its pain.

However, when all other factors are equal, individuals who’ve experienced significant childhood trauma are at a higher risk of experiencing chronic loneliness in adulthood.

Because loneliness is linked to feelings of shame and inadequacy, people who suffer tend to hide it from others. They can be skilled at masking these feelings in their social interactions. By all outward appearances, they seem “fine.” But inside, their loneliness hurts.

What Is Loneliness? 

Loneliness isn’t about being alone; rather, it reflects a lack of meaningful connection to others.

You can have a wide circle of friends — or an impressive number of social media followers — and still feel lonely. You can be in a long-term relationship or married — and still feel lonely.  You can be outgoing, gregarious and the life of the party — and still feel lonely.

Just as having a ton of interaction with other people doesn’t ward off loneliness, being alone doesn’t necessarily equate to feeling lonely. Introverts, especially, recharge their emotional energy by spending time alone.

The statistics showing the prevalence of loneliness are startling.

In a 2018 study conducted for Cigna, 46 percent of the respondents reported feeling “lonely always or sometimes,” 43 percent reported feeling isolated from others and 27 percent reported feeling as though no one understands them.

On the flip side, only 53 percent of the survey respondents reported having meaningful, face-to-face social interactions on a daily basis.

How Childhood Trauma Contributes to Loneliness

Childhood trauma is closely correlated with depression and anxiety (including social anxiety) in adulthood, inhibiting an individual’s ability to socialize effectively — and to form meaningful long-term relationships.

The types of childhood trauma that put people at the highest risk of suffering from significant loneliness in adulthood include:

  • Early life attachment issues between a child and their parent or primary caregiver;

  • Lack of unconditional love, including constant criticism;

  • Neglect or abuse—physical, sexual or emotional; and/or

  • Loss of parent or primary caregiver, whether through addiction, incarceration, abandonment or death.

It makes sense. These traumatic experiences frequently result in emotional dysregulation, contributing to volatile, unstable relationships. Individuals who have difficulty forming healthy emotional connections are, therefore, more likely to feel chronic and/or intensified feelings of loneliness.

Sound familiar? Learn more about our Trauma and PTSD Therapy Services.

They also tend to suffer from identity issues, which makes it harder for them to figure out where they fit in society.

Self-esteem is often an issue for adults who endured childhood trauma. Their intense and pervasive feelings of shame can lead to isolation, driven by the belief that any attempts to be social will be futile.

Viewing themselves as unlovable, unlikable and unworthy of affection, they expect rejection. This flawed belief system can become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

8 Ways to Cope With Loneliness

Enduring trauma doesn’t mean you’re destined to live with loneliness. These strategies can help you cope with — and ward off — feelings of loneliness:

1. Identify and validate it. Denial and shame only perpetuate the problem.

2. Take stock of the connections you already have. Think about all the people that care about you —and that you care about. It can be easy to forget how wide your circle actually extends, especially if you’re in a negative emotional spiral.

3. Realize you aren’t alone in feeling lonely. Loneliness is a more common struggle — affecting more people — than you might realize. Sometimes knowing that can help.

4. Slow down. Use your alone time to connect with yourself, whatever that means to you. Journal. Take a walk. Light a candle. Sip a cup of tea. Meditate.

5. Get out every day. Have some sort of face-to-face interaction with someone — even if it’s a stranger.  Research shows that even weak bonds strengthen your immunity and overall wellbeing.

6. Join something. Encourage yourself to join a meetup, group or club where you actually interact with other people. You never know where you’ll make a meaningful connection!

7. Limit your use of social media. Don’t let it replace human interaction. Instead of texting, pick up the phone and have a conversation. Better yet, make plans to meet up with an old (or new) friend.

8. Seek professional help — especially if you’ve experienced trauma. If you have difficulty connecting with people, it might take more than leaving your comfort zone or engaging in social skills training.  A trained psychotherapist can help your process — and heal from — your childhood trauma, paving the way to healthy, fulfilling relationships in adulthood.

It’s time to live the life you deserve.

*In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, we continue to offer telemental health sessions.*

No matter what you’ve experienced in the past, the good news is that there is hope. You can feel better. To learn more about treatment with one of our qualified trauma therapists, please contact us by submitting this form, or by phone at 847-729-3034. We’ll be happy to answer any questions you might have.


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