Mental Health & ADHD Comorbidities

The Loneliest Generation

Which age group suffers the most from social isolation? You might be surprised.

Isolation and withdrawal exacerbate the loneliness epidemic for people with ADHD. Picture depicting generation with loneliness.
10/05/2024 -The Loneliest Generation

Gen Z can scarcely remember a time before social media promised to make the world more open and connected. Yet today it stands as the loneliest generation alive.

Nearly two-thirds of ADDitude readers ages 18 to 29 report feeling lonely “always” or “often,” according to a new survey of 4,170 adults with ADHD. Living or working with others made little difference; 89 percent of these young adults say they feel lonely even then. Only 19 percent say social media makes them feel more connected. In contrast, 46 percent of people ages 68 to 77—the demographic traditionally associated with social isolation — reported the same levels of loneliness.

“My ADHD makes it hard to remember to reach out or respond,” wrote one 28-year-old woman with inattentive ADHD, “but rejection sensitive dysphoria hits hard when I’m not reached out to or responded to, even though I acknowledge that hypocrisy. ADHD also makes it hard to leave the apartment (time management, overwhelm at what it takes to leave, energy to be social, executive function difficulties, etc.), so even if I’m invited, I find reasons to cancel.”

“For me, ADHD and loneliness impact one another,” wrote one survey respondent. “Now I neither want relationships nor do I have the energy to keep up the masking necessary to navigate relationships. It requires too much effort.”

When ADHD Symptoms Lead to Loneliness

The stories of social isolation shared by ADDitude readers were reflected in the findings of a recent meta-analysis of studies investigating whether young people with ADHD experienced greater loneliness than their neurotypical peers. The review of 20 studies, involving about 6,300 participants, concluded that people with ADHD who were younger than 25 had significantly elevated levels of loneliness due, in part, to mental health struggles, including anxiety and depression, and to “feeling different” because of their ADHD. Researchers called this an “important problem” of which clinicians should be aware for early identification and intervention, according to the study published in February in the Journal of Attention Disorders.1

“I feel too quirky and awkward,” wrote one survey respondent. “I’m fun at first, but quickly become too much for others. I want there to be less of me.”

[Read: “Why Don’t I Have Any Friends?”]

For more than three-quarters of ADDitude survey respondents, feelings of loneliness are tied directly to ADHD symptoms, manifestations, and repercussions. According to the survey, the most common ADHD-related roots of loneliness include:

The Painful Toll of Loneliness

Loneliness correlates to mental health problems for 78 percent of adults with ADHD, who also report high levels of anxiety (65%) and depression (61%), among other comorbid conditions. For two-thirds of survey respondents, loneliness has led to toxic relationships, substance abuse, self-harm, binge eating, excessive spending, and porn addiction.

Among ADDitude readers who say they “always” or “often” feel lonely, only 26 percent live alone. Retirement, lonely marriages, physically limiting health conditions, and strenuous caregiving responsibilities were often cited by older survey respondents, who say that late ADHD diagnoses contributed to their loneliness as well.

“Grieving the loss of what I perceived as a ‘good’ life after my ADHD diagnosis made me feel like a failure,” wrote one older adult. “I cannot undo the damage or ill feelings caused by my past actions, and this recognition has caused me even more pain.”

[Read: The Science of Loneliness]

“When I feel lonely,” said one survey respondent, “I want to reach out, but I usually don’t because:

  1.  ‘Out of sight out of mind’ has left too much time between interactions, and I feel shame over this.
  2. When no one reaches out to me, or if I reach out and get no immediate response, RSD kicks in and I’m immediately overwhelmed with self-loathing.
  3. I dwell on each previous interaction and why this person may be harboring ill feelings toward me.
  4. Depression asks, ‘What’s the point of interaction? It’ll just exhaust you.’”

Causes of Loneliness For People with ADHD

More than half of the adults surveyed say they have trouble making and keeping friends for the following reasons:

“It’s a cruel loop,” one survey respondent said. “I feel safe when alone, so, much of the time, it’s a relief. But then, the loneliness is crushing.”

Coping with Loneliness

A spate of startups like the United Kingdom’s Timeleft and Friender are joining the veteran app Meetup in efforts to facilitate online connections that lead to real-life interactions. Some apps invite groups of strangers to meet for dinner at a specific time and place. Others work more like platonic dating apps where users scroll profiles before making plans. And some draw people together over common interests.

More than two-thirds of people say they feel less lonely when they reach out and connect with others in person, or via text or phone call. They also successfully alleviate loneliness through the following:

  • physical touch: 62%
  • engaging in a hobby: 58%
  • spending time with their pet: 56%
  • working with a therapist: 52%

“Letting the Mask Slip“ in Neurodivergent Friendships

More than half of adults surveyed say they relate better to, and feel less lonely around, other neurodivergent adults.

“Being with other neurodivergent folks validates my experience of living with ADHD,” wrote one survey respondent. “There’s less judgment.”

Said another adult with ADHD: “In a neurodivergent group, I don’t feel weird, and I can let my mask slip. It is less taxing and there is less of a chance of me freaking out later over social mistakes I might have made.”

Loneliness and ADHD: Next Steps

View Article Sources

1Jong A, Odoi CM, Lau J, J Hollocks M. Loneliness in Young People with ADHD: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. J Atten Disord. 2024 May;28(7):1063-1081. doi: 10.1177/10870547241229096. Epub 2024 Feb 23. PMID: 38400533; PMCID: PMC11016212.


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