BreatheUni: Friendships and Feeling Lonely at University

Bianca R., MSc Psychology Student and Volunteer


It has been one year since the first UK lockdown, and national restrictions are still in place. No university student could have foreseen what the past 12 months of their academic career and university experience have looked like. Whether you moved to campus and have been living in halls, or have been living at home with your parents, you have most likely been following (or trying to follow!) university online, and you have not been able to participate in many of the social activities, events, sports, societies that you were looking forward to. Therefore, it is only natural that you may be experiencing feelings of loneliness.

What impacts loneliness?

One major factor contributing to loneliness is the quality of social relationships in your life. Loneliness is not about the number of friends you have, but the qualities of the friendships you keep. We should note that there is a difference between being alone and feeling lonely. Being alone (i.e., in your own company) does not necessarily translate to loneliness and feeling lonely can occur even when you may be surrounded by others. You could have many friends still feel lonely; or have a few friends and not feel lonely. The difference may be between only having superficial interactions with people or sharing a level of mutual trust which allows you to feel more comfortable expressing your true emotions.

Another important factor is about the expectations you have for yourself with regards to your social interactions. Having been cooped up inside for so much of this past year, your expectations for your social interactions have likely not been met.

So, what can I do about it?

Make the Most of the Situation.

Although the pandemic has changed how we experience social interaction, we are lucky to have phones, messaging apps and video conferencing software such as Zoom that still make social connection possible. Also, as restrictions are progressively being lifted, you may soon be allowed to go back to a more ordinary-looking social life. Even if you do not feel like it right now, push yourself to make those plans for when you will be able to see people again, mark your calendar, and get excited. Having something to look forward to, and other people to keep you accountable to your plans, often helps.

When Things Don’t Match Your Expectations, Re-calibrate Your Expectations!

No one expects you to leave this university year with multiple new best friends, having founded a new society at university, picked up three new hobbies and made one of them into a productive side hustle. We are all in the same boat, and trust me, no one is judging you if you haven’t been a social butterfly this year. If you find that you are judging yourself or feeling disappointed, remind yourself of the objective limitations of living through a global pandemic, as well as of reasons why this year may have been challenging for you, and practise self-compassion.

Use Your Experience as an Opportunity to Connect with Others – Remember Other People Feel Too!

Often the most obvious but perhaps most challenging step to take when you are feeling lonely is to share. When you do, you might be surprised of the outcome: others may be feeling the same way, but not having the courage to share how they feel. Sadly, the stigma around mental health, and indeed loneliness, manifests as a difficulty for many people to be open with their emotions. But my guess is if someone shared how lonely they feel with you today, you would sigh a breath of relief and tell them how you can relate. So be brave and take the first step! Use it as a chance to deepen your existing friendships, or to test the boundaries with newer acquaintances. Chances are, no one will mock you for how you feel. Next time someone asks you how you are, tell them. They will be happy you let them in and gave them the chance to be there for you.

On a more personal note, I am coming to the end of my master’s degree having been to campus once and having barely met anyone on my course. Though this was not at all what I had anticipated, this time has taught me a lot about myself (for example that I am an in-person friend, and that I hate phone calls!), and also about what I need, expect, and value in friendships. I am also still learning how to better lean on my existing support network, and how to be more intentional about my relationships with friends and family – and becoming comfortable with being a work in progress!

Do not judge yourself for your feelings of loneliness or social disconnection – we have all been there, and it gets better.

If you do not believe me, come along to our next Zoom session on 15th April at 7PM, we would love to have you!

There is no pressure to share; you can just listen to other students talk and connect over their unique and shared experience, but it might just help you feel less alone. See you then!

Feel like learning a bit more about other people’s experiences and get a chance to share your own? Come join us at 7pm on Thursday 15th April at our BreatheUni café. And follow us on Instagram @breathe_uni!