Feeling lonely at uni? You’re not alone

Some advice for dealing with loneliness, by Rachel Harvey

We prepare for cooking by buying plates and cups, we prepare for paying accommodation fees by budgeting and we prepare for workloads by organising events in a diary. But no one tells us how to prepare for loneliness.

“University will be the best years of your life!”

“You’re most likely going to meet your husband or wife at uni!”

“All the friends I talk to now are ones I met at university!”

From the time we are accepted into university, we are bombarded with optimistic praises from post- graduates and adults that it was the best years of their lives and that we have so much to look forward to. Hollywood films project a harmful stereotype about teenagers finding their romantic soulmate and being the life of the party at a different club every night, drilling unrealistic expectations into our minds about a utopian lifestyle that we ultimately can’t achieve. In reality, most first years will spend hundreds of pounds and waste hours of precious time attending overrated and overpriced events in the hopes of meeting their lifelong friends in the first week. Unfortunately, what actually happens is that they will most likely never see any of the people they meet at freshers’ events again. I’m part of that group.

Personal experience

Before starting university, I was filled with excitement and fear about what was to come. From one sibling, I was told stories of how she met her current best friends and husband within her first two years of study at university. There’s hope.

From another sibling I was told stories of how he hated the entire experience and didn’t think much of it. Less hopeful.

So, I was afraid. Socially, sixth form was insufferable for me as, although I was part of a large friendship group, there was such little social diversity that I struggled to find people that were truly like me and I felt incredibly isolated. I didn’t want the same for university, so I waited, laptop open, eyes fixed to the screen, waiting for tickets to drop for Freshers’ week events. The price of expensive wristbands that were supposed to guarantee entry to all these events was enough to make a man cry (tip – they’re a waste of money unless you’re financially wealthy enough to not worry about being frugal) so I opted for individual tickets to as many events as I could get.

As a commuter, I felt extra pressure to attend SU nights, and student Facebook pages were flooded with London commuters with the same worry but no comforting words to say since none of us knew what would be coming.

Here is how my Freshers’ experience went in a nutshell: I didn’t recognise anyone who was performing at any of the RnB nights and when people shouted lyrics to drill music in my face I just awkwardly danced and did gun hand signs until they stopped. I soon learned that there is a time and place for twerking – not at pop or drum and bass nights. I hung out with countless people and followed them all on Instagram to stay in touch but never heard from them again – at this point I’m not sure if half of them even go to the university. I have a ‘Lauren’ and an ‘Isabelle’ saved in my phone. I do not know anyone called Lauren or Isabelle.

The tickets allowed me to socialise with different types of people and enjoy (some of) the nights out, but my life would be no different if I hadn’t bought a single one. There is NO pressure to go out every night during Freshers’ week and the only thing I gained from going was the knowledge of why it’s not worth it.

Fast forward a couple of weeks and I found myself walking home after a day of lectures, upset and with a pain in my chest. I’d spent the day with my newest set of friends but didn’t feel like I fit in with them. As soon as I got home, I wrote in my journal to reflect and unpack where these feelings may be coming from. My thoughts went something like this:

“I’m upset and feel lonely… like the odd one out. My friends always talk about memories I’m not involved in and I hate fake laughing at their jokes. I never fit in because I’m weird”.

This is, of course, the wrong perspective to have on a situation like this, yet it is one we find ourselves initially reacting with. Maybe you’re in lockdown on campus and don’t like your flatmates, or you find it hard to approach people, especially now that everything’s online. We blame ourselves and call ourselves names which makes us feel bad, so we hide, which makes us feel even worse, leading to a vicious cycle.

But we can break this with a shifted perspective.

One reason why we may feel lonely is because although there are people like us that we can bond with, there are often hoards of others that aren’t, and it can take a while to filter through the latter to find those who end up being great friends. It sucks, I know, but we must put in the work to make ourselves available to meet people by engaging on online university pages and attending virtual society events. Even if we don’t, simply having the courage to strike up conversations with strangers online or anonymously post “Are there any ________ people here?” on a confession page can lead to wonderful things. Think about all the times you’ve seen someone you want to talk to and haven’t approached them. Now think how many people could be looking at you, waiting for you to make the first move? The worst-case scenario is that they don’t feel the same way and you move on. 

I met one of my best friends because I told her I’d seen her around campus and knew her as the girl with the nice jacket. That’s literally it. Sometimes it’s that simple, no overthinking necessary.

There are other people from university who I’ve made really good friends with after virtually “meeting” them during lockdown. All I did was post on my story, “I need more queer friends who are people of colour” and instantly one girl popped up, sparking one conversation that led to another. Now we talk regularly as friends. For others who I have made friends with, I haven’t even needed to make much effort into meeting them – all I did was leave comments under Instagram confession pages and, when people saw these comments, they would often click onto my account, follow me and send a DM responding to my comment, which led to us getting to know each other. Conversations are as easy as that!

You might think that you’re lonely and awkward but, trust me, everyone is thinking the same as you. Everyone. Take that nervousness, tell it to go away and get yourself out there. What’s the worst that can happen?

If loneliness is so common, why don’t we talk about it?

Loneliness affects everyone in the world at some point. In its worst cases, it can affect chronic health problems such as diabetes, sleep and coronary artery disease. So why are we ashamed to talk about it? As social mammals, we crave acceptance and avoid rejection. We all want to put our best image forward, and it can sometimes feel like we have failed in some way to admit this issue.

Young people in particular place unrealistic expectations upon themselves. Today, we live in a society where texts can be sent across the globe in seconds, Instagram is bursting pictures of people in large friendship groups and Tinder is so inviting, so of course taking a month or more to find people you can bond with may feel like an eternity. But know that not everything happens so quickly.

How we can help ourselves

  • Go to online events to normalise attending events alone

Everyone goes alone to a virtual chat, and the absence of walking into a room full of eyes watching you can help ease the stress of going somewhere alone. Also remember the eye is attracted to movement so when you enter an in-person event in the future and people look at you, they aren’t judging you.

  • Learn when to ignore your anxious thoughts

The worst part of doing anything is right before it happens – when your anxiety gives you worst case scenarios, but they will never happen.

  • Join a society

The purpose of societies and sports teams is to allow people with common interests to socialise. Poets belong in the poetry society to meet other poets; Pokémon fans meet other Pokémon fans in Pokémon society and so on. Even if you only attend one meeting, the experience of being in an environment with people that share a common interest is one that everyone should have at some point during their university years. But only join societies with events you’ll enjoy. When you go out for the sole purpose of meeting someone, you’re setting yourself up for disappointment and putting pressure on yourself. It’s like getting a Tinder account for a relationship… you risk lowering your standards for someone who’s not worth your time out of desperation to achieve your goal of meeting someone. So if you have a hobby like art, join Art societies. That way, regardless of whether you meet someone or not, you’ll have a good time. So do the things you enjoy, not just for the sake of meeting people.

  • Use social media pages

I’ve met some really cool people using the RHUL confession pages… I might leave a comment and someone will see it, follow me and pop up in my DMs and we just start talking.

  • Don’t be afraid to expand your social circle

As much as we socialise and meet people online, the odds are that we will probably never hear from most of the people we meet at university again after one or two conversations. The first set of friends you make will probably not be your last, and even if they are, you shouldn’t limit yourselves to only speaking to two people when our university holds hundreds or thousands of potential friends and other connections. If you feel like the friends you made before lockdown aren’t right for you, it is never too late to find others, even if you have to have social nights out over zoom instead of at the pub. Freshers week is not the only time to make friends and there is always an opportunity to meet new people, even if it’s in the middle of your final year.

  • Know your worth

Don’t let loneliness in lockdown force you to lower your standards and accept any old idiot into your life. It’s better to be alone.

  • Know that you are not alone

There are so many people feeling exactly the same way as you, although they may not publicly declare it because of social stigmas of shame in regard to talking about emotional struggles. I hope that this article empowers you to discuss your own experiences with loneliness or at least feel comforted by knowing you’re not alone.

What if these feelings get too much?

If feelings of isolation become overwhelming, speak to the Student Union, Wellbeing or book an online appointment with a counsellor on campus.