Understanding Loneliness and Making Changes

Maybe you are wondering why I would write a blog about loneliness, when you find that the world around you is filled with activity and distraction.  Who could be lonely when there’s always the next thing to do, the next place to be, or the next person to talk to? 

 While all of these things might be true for you, they do not mean that you are immune to loneliness.  On the other hand, just because you find yourself alone a lot, does not mean that you experience loneliness.  So, how do you differentiate between loneliness and being alone and why might it be important to address loneliness if you find yourself in that space?

 Alone or Lonely? Imagine that you are a marathon runner.  Most of your training is pretty individualized.  You have individual goals; your reasons for running a marathon in the first place are likely to be the result of your personal beliefs, values and the rewards you hope to achieve.  Your plan for meeting your goals is specific to your life and considers the other priorities you have on a daily basis.  So, while you may train with others from time-to-time, you are pretty much alone in preparing for the marathon.  Even during the race, where hundreds of others may be running along the same route, your race is your own.  Whether or not you finish the race is all about you, and your finish time is all yours.  But, chances are, you aren’t lonely.

 Especially not if you have folks close to you who are supportive of your goals.  They encourage you when things are tough going and celebrate your successes.  While you spend quite a bit of time in solitary activities to prepare for your race, you feel connected to others on a meaningful level.  Most of the time, you feel seen and understood and don’t experience loneliness.

 Now image you are a marathon runner with similar individual goals, beliefs, and values.   Your training plan also considers your other daily priorities and sometimes you even train with a group of casual acquaintances.   Your training is going pretty well and you are making progress in being able to complete a marathon.  There’s one difference, though.  No one in your life knows your internal world.  No one knows that the reason you are focused on completing a marathon is because you grew up as an overweight child, one of those kids who was bullied and always picked last or next to last for team sports in school.

 No one knows that when you have a set back in your training, you go right into a shame storm and feel depressed and isolate yourself as much as you can for several days before you can resume your training activities.  That’s okay, you tell yourself.  I never needed anyone anyway

 But, inside, you have this sinking feeling in your gut and your heart is heavy.  A part of you longs for a close relationship with a significant other.  Heck, even a good friend or close family member will do.  But, no one comes to mind.  There’s no one to call.  You may even numb the pain of loneliness and depression with alcohol or another substance or some other addictive behavior.

 My scenario is a made up one, but loneliness and social isolation occur in our culture at such a significant rate, that social scientists now consider loneliness to be an epidemic.

 Chronic Loneliness Has Costs. Granted, loneliness is a part of being human.  We have all felt isolated and alone due to certain circumstances and experiences.  However, the loneliness that is situational and short-term is not the real concern.

 What is of concern is the kind of loneliness that is chronic and pervasive.  Research presented at the 125th Annual Convention of the American Psychological Association in 2017 indicated that loneliness has been growing and will continue to grow.  Many believe that loneliness may represent a greater health threat than obesity.  Loneliness has been linked to poorer health, cognitive decline and premature death, possibly by as much as eight years.

 A Path Out of Loneliness. Whether you are the one feeling lonely or you know someone that you suspect is struggling with isolation and lack of connection, there is hope.  Here are some strategies to try:

  • Force yourself to go places where others gather.  Find a coffee shop, take a walk at the park, go to the mall or your favorite shop, or visit the local library.  Whether or not you go with someone else, just the presence of others can help.  While you’re there, be somewhat courageous.  Look others in the eye, smile, and say hello.   Even casual interactions with others can reduce the feelings of loneliness.

  • Instead of texting, emailing, or using social media to connect with a distant friend or relative, pick up the telephone and call them.  While there are times and places when a phone call isn’t possible or convenient, hearing someone’s voice is a much richer interaction than words on a screen.  Hearing each other’s tone of voice and being able to respond to each other in real-time provide an opportunity for a deeper connection.  You may be surprised to discover that the recipient of your phone call is happy to have been thought of and enjoys the interaction as much as you do.

  • Notice when you are backing away from others and make an effort to stay present.  Distractions and opportunities to move into our own little worlds are readily available and enticing.  Unfortunately, staying in your own little world for too long is a recipe for chronic loneliness.  Take a leap of faith that there could be lots of benefits to staying present with the individuals  around you.

  • Be kind and gentle to yourself and others.  Loneliness is a place where people can begin to develop self-talk, beliefs, and views of the world and others that keep them stuck there.  If you or someone you know is caught up in loneliness, know it may not be easy to re-engage with others.  You may find that going slow and making small steps can help. 

  • Celebrate those times when you find yourself engaged with others, whether they are small or deep connections.  The negativity bias of our brains does a good job of minimizing the positives.  Pay attention to those times when you are feeling engaged with others and savor them.  Replay them in your mind later and you might find the next opportunities for connection come along sooner than you anticipated.

When to Seek Professional Help. If you become depressed, have difficulty focusing and managing your life, or are stuck in the fear of reaching out to others, it may be time to seek professional help.A therapeutic relationship with the right counselor can be a good first step to connecting with others.