Note: This post is about dealing with occasional loneliness, including my own experiences, research on the subject, and how to change your mindset on being alone. If you’re dealing with chronic loneliness (>3 days / week) or depression, please please please seek help. Treat yourself with kindness, and do not let your brain chemistry define your experience of this world without exploring other options. Mindfulness and mindset are powerful tools for self-help, but sometimes we all need professional help too. <3
We all deal with loneliness sometimes. In a survey, 26% of Americans reported that they had been “very lonely or remote from other people” in the past few weeks, with this rate rising significantly among the elderly. Loneliness is an anxiety associated with isolation or lack of connection with other people, and it may focus on either the present or future situations. It’s a subjective experience and doesn’t necessarily reflect how much social interaction you have–you can have a lifelong marriage and a wide network of friends and still feel lonely. Instead, it is how much social connection you believe you need (vs. how much you actually have) that will determine if you are lonely.
- Social Norms such as weekend evenings, which are often positioned as times for “going out”
- Immediate Social Situation such as having the time for friendship or having recently moved to a new town and not knowing anyone yet
- Precipitating Event such as the end of a major relationship or loss of a friend
- Evaluation of Others’ Situations as better may make an individual feel worse by comparison
- Perception of Personal Inadequacies of the Cause will make a person blame him or herself for their situation and intensify the feeling of loneliness.
While there may not be much you can do to change some of your loneliness risk factors, there are things you can do to change your experience of loneliness.
Aloneness vs. Loneliness
The first thing to understand is that alone-ness is not the same as loneliness. While alone-ness is a state of being, loneliness is only a feeling. Our emotions evolved to help us survive, so our brains assume that if we feel something, it’s true. Back in the day, the feeling of loneliness encouraged our ancestors to stick together in tribes and fight off saber-tooth tigers. If you were alone, it probably meant you were going to get snarfed.
It’s different now, though. While being alone is no longer life-threatening in most developed countries, loneliness is definitely mental-health-threatening. Example:
FADE IN. INT. OF LINDSAY'S HOME - SUNDAY EVENING Lindsay stands by her bed folding laundry, her least favorite chore. LINDSAY'S BRAIN Pssst.... you're all by yourself. Makes you feel a little lonely, doesn't it? LINDSAY (Hesitantly.) Yeah, a little. LINDSAY'S BRAIN That's because you're a loser no one cares about. LINDSAY Oh... LINDSAY'S BRAIN It's why you're going to die alone in a trashcan someday. The really sad part is no one will even notice you're gone. LINDSAY That is really sad.... LINDSAY'S BRAIN Yep, and you did this to yourself. Who moved here for work? Who ended your last relationship? LINDSAY ...I did... LINDSAY'S BRAIN Yeah. What an idiot. You might as well eat a whole large cheese pizza by yourself. You can't expect anything better in your life anyway. LINDSAY
And… scene. Our brains are assholes, man.
This is a train of thought I used to have on a fairly regular basis. The trashcan detail may just be my subconscious being melodramatic, but when I got into that loneliness mindset, the rest of the “logic” made perfect sense to my stupid cave-woman-in-the-21st-century brain. Assumptions layered on worst-case-scenario-planning layered on insignificant details layered on self-blame could lead me to dig myself a deep dark hole and leave myself there, often with this cycle of thoughts playing and replaying in my head like the WORST elevator music EVER.
It’s easier to see how ridiculous this logic is when it’s someone else’s brain doing the dirty work, but our thought patterns make these leaps all the time and we don’t even question them. I’m sure you have some of your own deeply-ingrained thought patterns and stories your brain tells you. In order to develop emotional resiliency, we have to be able to separate our feelings from our situations.
The Experience of Loneliness
Our brains like to think they’re being logical. Often, however, our brains are terrible at logic because they confuse thoughts with facts.
For me, loneliness always starts out with thoughts, and then I have beliefs based on those thoughts. (This is straight from Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy theory, for those of you who don’t know.) For example, I may find myself thinking that everyone else in the world is with their loved ones, and I’m not with anyone… therefore I’m not anyone’s loved one. If A = B and B = C, then A = C. The resulting loneliness feels like a weighted blanket has been draped over me, making my whole body heavy and useless. My chest gets tight and my lower left stomach starts to ache. My eyes burn and water, regardless of whether or not I’m actually crying.
Note the (il)logical leap my brain takes from “I’m alone” (a fact) to “everyone else is with their loved ones” (an assumption) to “I’m not anyone’s loved one” (an illogical conclusion that results in a shitty feeling). Of course I feel shitty if I’m working under the assumption that no one loves me. Who wouldn’t?
Once you begin to recognize the triggering thought or event, as well as when the experience of loneliness actually takes place, you’re better equipped to try to deal with it constructively rather than accept it as something that’s out of your control.
Identifying Loneliness Triggers
The first thing to do is identify what, specifically, is triggering your loneliness. There are 8 different types of triggers psychologists use to identify the causes of negative thinking:
- Emotional State – e.g., angry, depressed, happy, sad
- Physical State – e.g., relaxed, tense, tired, aroused
- Presence of Others – e.g., when the behavior occurs are certain people present?
- Physical Setting – e.g., work, party, ex-spouse’s house
- Social Pressure – e.g., are you forced or coerced into doing things you don’t want to?
- Activities – e.g., work, working at home, playing sports, watching TV, playing cards
- Thoughts – e.g., remember times you engaged in the behavior
Once you know which situations trigger your feeling of loneliness, you’re better positioned to address the root of the problem. The hardest part is taking the time to “pull back” from the emotional experience and ask yourself what happened to cause it. Very often (at least for me), my emotions feel as though they’re happening to me, and in the beginning the idea of being able to think constructively about the situation when I’m in the middle of feeling blue was hard to wrap my head around.
For example, for many years of my adult life, Sunday evenings at home by myself were extremely lonely times for me. Growing up, Sundays were always “family time,” with my dad grilling tri-tip and the whole family hanging out and then eating a big yummy dinner together. When I moved away from California, Sundays became extremely triggering. I would spend my Sunday afternoons dreading the upcoming nights, and my entire evenings being sad and mopey.
Addressing the Root of Your Loneliness
So what is one to do when one feels lonely? In a survey, Americans reported four ways of dealing with loneliness:
- Sad passivity.
- Active solitude.
- Spending money.
- Social Contact.
For years, I tried to fill my Sunday evenings with “social contact” in the form of Sunday Fundays and as much time spent with other people as possible. Unfortunately, this did nothing to address my internal understanding of “being alone on Sundays” as “lonely times.” The second I had to be by myself, my loneliness would come roaring in and I would settle into a weekly sad passivity. I would tell myself I had “done this to myself” by making life choices that had moved me away from family.
Finally sick of this cycle, I decided to “redefine” being alone on Sundays. Was this easy? Hell, no. It was hard and it also took months. First, I had to decide to shed the victim mindset (“Boo hoo, poor me, I was transferred to Texas for work and I’m SO ALONE HERE WAAAAAH”) and actually do something about it.
Once I started really digging in to my loneliness, I discovered that some part of my subconscious felt that I deserved to be lonely on Sunday evenings…. because I felt guilty about moving away from my family in the first place! I was making myself lonely and miserable for no reason (or at least no good reason). Once I acknowledged my guilt, I was able to “give myself permission” not to be lonely anymore. Was being lonely helping me or my family at all? It was not, so I let it go.
The human brain is weird, yo.
I then began to spend my Sundays mindfully checking in with myself (“Am I ok right now? If not, why not?”) and redefine being alone as something that was not scary and sad. Once I started to have not-unpleasant Sundays, the following Sundays became far less scary, and each one got easier and easier to deal with.
Now, I generally plan fun things to do with friends during the day so I don’t have any reason to feel isolated, and then I fill my Sunday evenings with “active solitude,” spending the evening cooking dinner and indulging in fun tv shows–but as a treat, not as a distraction. I’ll give myself a pedicure and use a sheet mask on my face. I’ve redefined my weekly alone time to be a special time for myself rather than a purgatory I’m assigned to until I go to work on Monday.
This is different than just trying to distract yourself from your loneliness, by the way. It was only by acknowledging my feelings and addressing the roots of them that I was able to move to a place of okay-ness.
When Occasional Loneliness Strikes
Unfortunately, you may not always be able to redefine triggering events or distract yourself, especially around “family times” such as holidays. There will be times that you’ll feel lonely, and even thought it’s painful, it’s also ok (as long as it’s occasional and not chronic). The important thing is to recognize that the emotion is only how you’re feeling at the current moment and it is not fact, it does not define you, and it doesn’t tell you anything about how you fit into the universe. You are not lonely because you’re a loser. You’re lonely because you’re a human being who longs for connection.
You may also be tempted to beat yourself up for not being able to “rise above” the loneliness, or for being “ungrateful” for what you have. You may try to force yourself to just “think positive” and focus on how much you have compared to how little others may have. If this works for you, then great. But in my experience, it just makes me feel worse for feeling shitty when others have it even worse than I do.
Instead, I allow myself one day of feeling a little blue. I don’t indulge in negative thought spirals or beat myself up for having “made bad life choices that lead me here.” I stay off of Facebook so I don’t compare myself to others and feel even worse. I remind myself, “This is how I feel today. Tomorrow I’ll feel differently.” I sit on the couch in my pjs, eat popcorn, and watch Planet Earth. I’m gentle with myself and I forgive myself for not being happy 100% of the time.
I find that my “recovery time” from a day like this is much faster than if I spend the day cycling through negative thoughts. I’m also generally proud of myself for knowing how to handle those moments with as much grace as possible under the circumstances.
Thank you for reading this post. In many ways, this blog is my way of reaching out to others who may be like me, so it means a lot that you’re here. Remember, very often you don’t even notice the many ways that you may influence others and how that influence may ripple out. So thank you for having a positive impact on my life just by being you and being here.
This post is the first in a series on loneliness and connectedness:
- The Difference Between Aloneness and Loneliness
- What to Do When Loneliness Isn’t Occasional (coming soon)
- Fostering Compassion and Connectedness (coming soon)
- Top Ten Things to Do to Ward Off Loneliness (coming soon)
Do you have other tips on handling loneliness? Please feel free to share below – Lindsay
Loneliness Matters: A Theoretical and Empirical Review of Consequences and Mechanisms. Louise C. Hawkley, Ph.D. and John T. Cacioppo, Ph.D. ( Author manuscript; available in PMC 2013 Dec 30.)
- Loneliness. Daniel Perlman. University of British Columbia. Letitia Anne Peplau. University of California, Los Angeles