Laura Giles of Surviving to Thriving On How We Can Solve The Loneliness Epidemic Among Young People

An interview with Pirie Jones Grossman

Pirie Jones Grossman
Authority Magazine
20 min readJul 21, 2023

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I could give you some superficial suggestions like “join a club” or “strike up a conversation” but unless you do the internal work, it’s really just a Band-Aid. Learning how to connect and stay there is a lifestyle. It’s not a connect-the-dots type of thing. It’s an inner journey. And it only takes one personal connection to help you feel it.

Our youth are facing a loneliness epidemic like never before. They have “social” media, but many are lacking healthy social lives. Many have likes and virtual “friends” but not real live friends. They can text and tweet but not speak and listen and connect. And they are feeling it. Humans were made for real live interaction, and we crave it when we don’t get it, or don’t even know how to go about looking for connection. How can we solve this loneliness epidemic that young people face? As a part of our interview series about the ‘5 Things We Can Each Do Help Solve The Loneliness Epidemic Among Young People ’ we had the pleasure to interview Laura Giles.

Laura Giles is a licensed holistic trauma therapist and relationship coach who believes that a fulfilling life comes from connection. Laura believes disconnection is the cause of most dis-ease. Her podcast, Let It Go Now, and private community work to increase awareness of the loneliness epidemic and provide a safe place for people who yearn for authentic connection to gather.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share your “backstory” with us? What was it that led you to your eventual career choice?

I grew up animist, which is the belief that everything is alive, sacred, and connected. The neighborhood where I lived as a child was a community. People knew each other and looked out for each other. My mom, and most other moms were stay-at-home moms, so we were always watched. If I got into trouble, a neighbor might tell my parents or rescue me, if need be. Consequently, I grew up with a sense of safety and belonging.

Life wasn’t perfect by any means, but I don’t have a tale of woe. My father was in the home. He was a good provider. My mom was warm and loving, so when tragedy happened, it might have knocked me down, but it didn’t wipe me out. It helped to make me stronger.

And yet, I was bullied, too. It wasn’t one mean girl. It was a pack of mean girls. If it was only one of them, I was safe, but if they got together, I was in trouble. This created confusion for me. Humans made no sense to me, so when I got into college and took my first psychology class as an elective, the lights just came on. I started to see the patterns of why people do what they do.

I’m an INTJ. I love patterns, systems, and order and love putting things back in order. When I saw how easily people could “break” and also how simple it was to put them back together, I knew I had to go into mental health. And when I got into the field, I saw that it could be a really unhealthy place. What people needed most of all was to be seen, and they were often treated like cases or numbers. Regardless of what someone has done or what symptoms they have, I always try to see them as worthwhile people, and I think this is the major component of any healing relationship.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?

About 8 years ago when I was doing spiritual tours rather than retreats, I took a group to Native American country and we spent some time on a reservation. For the first time, I felt what it is like to live in a community where everyone has the understanding that everything is sacred and connected. It’s one thing to have that knowing within yourself or your family, and quite another to have it all around you. That propelled me to a whole new understanding of how important it is to belong. That radically shifted my work and made me more intentional about creating connection and belonging.

We always belong. We belong to each other, nature, and the universe, and feeling that gave me a far deeper sense of myself, my power, and my purpose. We’re all here to love and belong.

I felt this when I was a kid. When I experienced what it was like to be in a community where there was no separation between the earth and sky, my friends and strangers, the past, present, and future, and everything breathed with one breath, I knew that I had to share that with other people. This is what we are all yearning for.

It has been said that sometimes our mistakes can be our greatest teachers. Can you share a story about the most humorous mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson or takeaway you learned from that?

Oh, I can tell you about a mistake, but it’s not very funny. Something people don’t tell you is that college doesn’t prepare you for being a therapist. You learn that after grad school through training and experience.

Well, one of my first clients was a couple on the verge of divorce. They wanted to work things out and feel good again. I thought that they could find some hope for that journey by laughing and taking a break from their worries, so I gave them the homework of making time for a date night.

They did that, and it was disastrous. They only triggered each other and solidified that the hurt was too deep for them to recover the love and trust.

It wasn’t until later that I learned about the “order of operations.” You know that rule from algebra that says “this” has to come before “that?” Yes, I didn’t know then that you have to firm up the foundation before you can build upon it, and this couple had no foundation. They had to stop hurting each other and feel safe again before they could trust each other.

Understanding that order of operations has streamlined everything for me. It’s really just following the path of nature. Most answers can be found in nature.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

Oh, yes! In the big picture, all of my work focuses around creating connection. It’s my happy place, and I want to share that with others.

My newest project is the Surviving to Thriving Sanctuary. It’s a safe, private, virtual space where people can be themselves and meet other people who are their authentic selves. No highlight reels, no sales pitches, no pressure to conform. It’s a place where people can dip their toe in the water of connection or dive right in. We do live events as well as virtual ones, and I am always renewed after an event. It’s refreshing to be with real people. I think it helps tremendously to have a space where you don’t have to conform to any standard.

Can you share with our readers a bit about why you are an authority on the topic of ‘The Loneliness Epidemic Among Young People’?

I’ve never felt lonely. I used to be afraid to admit things like that, but now I don’t care. I know loneliness is a normal human emotion, and I thought that my time would come eventually, but it hasn’t. I believe that is because I grew up animist with the understanding that everything is connected. To be lonely is to be disconnected, and that’s not something that someone or something does to us. It’s something that we do to ourselves. We turn our light down and stop offering it to others. We hide who we are and disconnect.

Since we have the power to change that, it’s a choice. I say this because I help people walk that walk every day.

We think that belonging is about fitting in. It’s actually a balance between me and we. We have to be authentic first. We have to be humble. We can’t connect if we are far above people and looking down on them. We can’t connect if we’re not here, and most of us aren’t here.

The messages we get from society teaches us — like succeeding, looking good, making lots of money, and having the right material goods — actually create more separation, not less. Those are ways of staying safe and hiding because we are afraid inside that we’re not good enough. Or maybe we are afraid that someone else will hurt us. When we know our own power, that becomes a lot less likely. And if we do fall, we know that we can get up again.

Young people are naturally curious and open. They want to love and belong, so starting with the youth is a way to use their natural gifts to lead the older crowd who may have given up hope.

Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the main focus of our interview. According to this story in the New York Times, loneliness is becoming an increasing health threat not just in the US, but across the world. Can you articulate for our readers 3 reasons why being lonely and isolated can harm one’s health?

Wow, that’s such a great article because it touches on so much — the pandemic, epigenetic, technology, and culture. Yes, all that adds to the epidemic of loneliness.

One thing that the article doesn’t touch on is skin hunger. We all need touch to thrive. If a baby isn’t touched enough, they can actually die! Or, if they survive, the brain doesn’t develop in the same way as someone who is cuddled. They become socially awkward, emotionally distant, and lack emotional intelligence. This, of course, makes them unhappy people and hard to be around.

But babies aren’t the only ones who need touch. We all do! And platonic intimacy is a great antidote to that, but you’re not going to hold your friend’s hand or sit close if you don’t have a friend or your relationships are superficial. We have far more opportunities for platonic intimacy than romantic intimacy, and yet friends are overlooked. It’s really astounding and so obvious. When we’re six, it’s okay to play rough, wrestle, and hold hands, and then puberty happens, and it’s like we become sexual creatures and all touch is reserved for sex. That’s nonsense. We can be affectionate without being sexual. A touch isn’t an invitation to anything more.

Another way that loneliness can harm our health is through making poor choices in order to avoid loneliness. I have heard lots of client stories about having sex with someone they didn’t want to because it was better than being alone. Or staying in a bad relationship because it’s better than being alone. That harms our mental health as well as physical health. Life’s holistic and it’s all related.

A third way that loneliness harms health is that it lowers resilience. Life happens. It’s not always going to be great, but when we’re resilient, we can bounce back. In Sebastian Junger’s fabulous book, Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging, he talks about how people have gone through horrific events, like war. Those who had community bounced back more easily and were able to grow from their tragedies and come out the other side stronger.

The Roseto Effect showed the same thing. The Roseto Effect looked at a close-knit community of Italian immigrants to see why they didn’t have heart disease despite smoking excessively, working in a toxic quarry, and eating lots of carbohydrates, fat, and drinking wine. Additionally, they had very little crime and few people on public assistance. According to science, they should have higher rates of disease and unhappiness. Why not? Because they belonged to each other.

The Surgeon General is right. Connection is like air. We need it to thrive.

Based on your experience or research, are children impacted differently than adults by the loneliness epidemic? How?

In my experience, loneliness hits children far harder than adults. Lots of kids today never had a friend. They grow up with babysitters, not family. “Stranger danger” means they don’t get to be outside alone. Suicide is the second leading cause of death among children in the United States. Kids as young as 5 are killing themselves. And very young children are being treated for mental illness.

If you don’t feel safe as a child, if you don’t feel like you belong, it’s very easy to feel that there is no hope and no way out except through death.Thinking back to my childhood, I woke up every day thinking about riding bikes and jumping rope. Death was the furthest things from my mind, but our house was the Kool-Aid house. It was swarming with kids as long as the sun was up. Everybody gathered at my house because I had so many brothers and sisters.

Every child should feel carefree enough to have nothing more pressing to worry about than whether they were going to play football or dodge ball. The pressure to get good grades, do well at travel soccer, wear the right clothes, and be popular is insane. Kids need the freedom to play. We really underestimate the value of playing outside with other kids. And I don’t mean in organized sports, video games online, play dates, or in clubs like Boy Scouts. I mean organic, natural play making mud pies and climbing trees. Kids need to use their imagination with other kids. It’s an essential part of social and emotional development.

On a broader societal level, in which way is loneliness among our youth harming our communities and society?

Unhealthy kids grow into unhealthy adults. One of the most common complaints I hear among my clients is that they have a toxic boss.

Imagine this. We rear our kids to be stellar academics who get great jobs. They succeed, then become the leaders of companies. They have no people skills because they didn’t socialize as children. And now they are our bosses who have no compassion, drive us to perform, and expect us to handle their emotional tantrums and tyrannical whims.

That’s what a lot of people are dealing with today. It all trickles down.

Or maybe the kids end up as the lost ones. They cave under pressure, fail at academics, and end up on disability because they can’t cope. I have these clients, too. It’s very hard to rehabilitate someone who didn’t get love and connection as a child. They can’t believe in something they’ve never seen. And if they avoid people because their interactions were harmful, they aren’t going to let their guard down. It’s too dangerous. So, they stay stuck.

People need people. We all influence and depend upon each other. It’s hard to thrive when we are disconnected strangers who fear connection and don’t know how to do it.

The irony of having a loneliness epidemic is glaring. We are living in a time where more people are connected to each other than ever before in history. Our technology has the power to connect billions of people in one network, in a way that was never possible. Yet despite this, so many people are lonely. Why is this? Can you share 3 of the main reasons why our young people are facing a loneliness epidemic today?

Sure. The first is unresolved intergenerational trauma — Parents can only give what they have, and many have a legacy of trauma. Trauma creates fear. When we live from a space of fear, we’re not open and trusting, so people are viewed as a threat and are always on edge. ALL of my clients have a legacy of unresolved intergenerational trauma. The load that young people carry isn’t just their own, it’s the weight of generations. It’s time that we began to clean that up. I work with many adults whose motivation is their children. They know how hard they have had it, and they want their kids to have a more carefree, emotionally fulfilling life.

A lady I will call “Grace” came from childhood sexual abuse and alcoholism. She vowed her child would never endure what she had to go through. Grace didn’t see herself as repeating the family cycle because she wasn’t hitting her son or calling him names, but when he was seven and still stuttering and wetting the bed, she noticed. Rather than putting the blame on him and taking him to a child psychologist, she looked at herself and took ownership for her rages, cursing, and emotional breakdowns. As she addressed her trauma and learned healthier skills, her son’s behavior improved, too. Grace understood that she couldn’t connect to her child from a space of trauma. To have the kind of relationship that she wanted, she had to heal herself.

The second main reason for the loneliness epidemic among the youth is distractions. Technology helps in so many ways, but it also keeps us from having a normal human life experience. We don’t have to do many things anymore, so we’re intellectually lazy and incapable. We can escape into a fantasy realm rather than live in the messiness of real life. For example, I’ve had many clients who felt amazingly better after turning off social media. They didn’t have the pressure to keep up with everyone else and their displays a “wonderful” life of laughter, fun, prosperity, and beauty. When they began to give themselves permission to have an average, slow, connected life, it was a happier one.

A guy I will call Brandon was near suicide when he first came to see me. He seemed to have it all. He was young, educated, attractive, fit, highly paid, had a beautiful partner, and lived a picture perfect life. And he was deeply unhappy. As he started to tell his story, it became clear that he had pursued a life that he thought he was supposed to have. As he began to let go of the distractions, like social media, and started living from his heart, his life changed drastically. He paid off his debt and stopped buying the latest things. He stopped going to photo op events that built his highlight reel and began going to social events with people he loved. He stopped having what he called “marathon movie sex” and began making love. His family relationships improved. His stress completely dissolved, and his sense of fulfillment skyrocketed because he started tuning into his inner experience.

The third huge reason for loneliness among young people is transactional relationships. We live in a time where everything is available and attainable, either because we have the wealth or we can put it on credit. This means that many of us indulge our impulses. We buy stuff. We trade money and time for stuff and experiences that make us feel good. This way of life translates into the way we think about people, too. We have a lot of sayings like, “You have to give respect to get respect” and “If you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours.” It’s a tit for tat society. The alternative to that is living a relational life.

I recently led a pilgrimage to the Holy Island, and that’s what we practiced. We had a few places on the agenda to go and see, but mainly what we did was eat together, laugh, hike, watch the seals bobbing in the waves, and gaze at the sunset. We related to each other, the land, the sea, and the spirit of the place.

I do this because it fills me up. It teaches me and helps me to broaden my appreciation of all of life. Sometimes it clarifies what I don’t see. It makes me a more honest version of myself and makes my connections to others more real, too, because it removes the distractions. There is never any feeling of disappointment because I have no expectations. I am open to what each moment has to offer. Dolphins don’t keep score. The Moon doesn’t keep score. When humans don’t keep score, we’re more connected and happy. You’re never going to figure that out if you are always chasing the next adventure or designer thing.

What signs would you tell parents, friends, or loved ones to look for in young people they think may need help? Can you please explain?

Ooh, kids are tough! If a child thinks it’s his responsibility to take care of you, he’s not going to tell you his troubles. If he feels he’s going to get in trouble for needing something, he will keep it to himself. If he thinks that what he’s feeling is normal and there is no alternative, it won’t occur to him to talk about it. That said, we can always see it in their behavior. The first thing to look for is changes in pattern. This could include eating, sleeping, grades, level of activity, clothes, language, grooming, or peers. Other things are lying, withdrawing, bullying, and sexual knowledge or behavior that are not age appropriate.

When your child is “off,” the first thing to look at is yourself (if you are the parent). Kids learn social skills from us. If we are ungrounded and not healthy, they will pick that up. So kids don’t just need attention, they need healthy, safe, positive attention.

Ok. It is not enough to talk about problems without offering possible solutions. In your experience, what are the “5 Things Each Of Us Can Do To Help Solve The Loneliness Epidemic Among Young People?”

I like going to the root cause, so I’m going back to the order of operations. I will give you one example from each of those steps.

Stage one: Surviving — If there is a crisis, get out of danger, then resolve the crisis. I have so many clients who can’t heal because they aren’t ready to leave their toxic situation. That has to come first. Until that happens, you’re only treading water until the next wave comes.

For example, I used to work in domestic violence, so these were families that had a recent and active case in the courts. Do you think there was a feeling of loneliness and isolation here? Of course! But on the list of priorities, that was way down the line. Safety always has to come first. You can’t heal while in crisis. So, if you are in crisis, get out of danger, then resolve the crisis. If you are a healthy person who can assist someone in crisis, do so!

Remember what I said about the couple doing the date night? I know we all want to feel good now. This means we may want to skip this step. Don’t. It’s the foundation. Anything you build on a shaky foundation will crumble. It’s like a relapse. People relapse because they haven’t healed the thing that caused them to drink in the first place. They just stopped drinking. Do the healing work first.

Stage Two: Coping — Coping is about learning new skills to create and sustain stability. We don’t think about all the things we do in a day, but if we listed them all out, you’d see that we all have a lot of skills! For instance, if I drink to let off steam, that’s a skill. It helps to meet a need. However, it’s not the most effective skill, so I might want to learn something that has fewer negative consequences and costs less.

Isolation is a coping skill. It helps to keep us safe from physical and emotional assault. However, since we need social contact to thrive, it’s not the best way to stay safe. Practicing healthy boundaries probably works better.

Using biting wit to keep others on their toes might make people laugh and make you the life of the party, but it probably also leaves you feeling a bit lonely because it keeps people at bay. That’s probably why people do it, but if we want emotional intimacy, we might learn how to be appropriately vulnerable instead. That’s a skill, too. Having a full toolbox of social skills and life skills can make connecting possible and enjoyable.

Stage Three: Vibing — Vibing is about giving yourself permission to discover yourself. It’s a purely selfish stage that toddler’s go through during their “terrible twos.” They get away with it because two-year-olds have no self-control yet. They are totally willful.

At some point between puberty and our early twenties, we get a second go at this. We are breaking away from our parents’ beliefs and desires and figuring out our own. Only lots of us never do this. We do what we think we are supposed to do, or do the rebellious thing, and never hear or follow our inner voice.

Our relationships will be superficial until we know who we are. We can’t do that if we don’t give ourselves the space to figure out who that is. So make some mistakes. Explore. Say yes to things. Take chances. Use those experiences to find your true north. When you know who you are, stand in your power.

Stage Four: Tribing — Tribing is about reaching out to others and making connections. Once you know who you are, you can reach out a hand in friendship. If others like you, fine. You can connect from an authentic space. If they don’t, that’s okay too because you like you!

Healthy attachment is an expression of “I’m okay, you’re okay.” Once you’ve done all this work, you can truly say, “I’m okay, you’re okay.” You don’t need people to look a certain way, believe a certain way, or be anything other than who they are.

Stage Five: Thriving — Once you can have healthy relationships with a few people, you can begin to experience relational living on a universal scale. You can see the Earth, Air, Fire, Water, and Spirit within you. You can feel your relationship with time, places, animals, plants, and everything. From this space, there is no separation. In fact, now you know there never was. And once you find this place, it’s easy to find it again.

I could give you some superficial suggestions like “join a club” or “strike up a conversation” but unless you do the internal work, it’s really just a Band-Aid. Learning how to connect and stay there is a lifestyle. It’s not a connect-the-dots type of thing. It’s an inner journey. And it only takes one personal connection to help you feel it.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)

My personal goal is to influence 100,000 people to become more connected in whatever way feels good and authentic to them. I’m doing that through my blog podcast, private community, retreats, and just the way I move in the world as a person. My Moon is in Cancer. Family and home is so important to me, and like a crab, I wear my home on my back and take it wherever I go. So, if I can share that safety, security and home feeling with others, it benefits me and them, so why not? Love expands when you give it away, right?

I know 100,000 people is a big number, but I see “100,000” as an “each one, teach one” type of situation, so what I am really looking for one person. If I can reach one, who knows who that one might reach? In a short period, we can eradicate loneliness by instilling the value of belonging within our society. All we need is love.

We are blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them :-)

I am uniquely blessed to have had amazing support and mentors throughout my life. They are real people, not celebrities. I don’t really keep up with celebrities; however, I think it’s amazing when people with power and influence use it to help others. For instance, the actor Richard Armitage is ambassador for CyberSmile. It’s a charity that helps to prevent and protect children against cyber bullying. It’s because of him that I even know cyber bullying was a thing. So, he’s my pick for a lunch date.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

My coaching website- www.lauragiles.org

My private community- https://player.letitgonow.org

My podcast- www.letitgonow.net

Youtube- www.youtube.com/@Surviving2Thriving

Thank you so much for these insights. This was so inspiring, and so important!

About The Interviewer: Pirie is a TedX speaker, author and a Life Empowerment Coach. She is a co-host of Own your Throne podcast, inspiring women in the 2nd chapter of their lives. With over 20 years in front of the camera, Pirie Grossman understands the power of storytelling. After success in commercials and acting. She spent 10 years reporting for E! Entertainment Television, Entertainment Tonight, also hosted ABC’s “Every Woman”. Her work off-camera capitalizes on her strength, producing, bringing people together for unique experiences. She produced a Children’s Day of Compassion during the Dalai Lama’s visit here in 2005. 10,000 children attended, sharing ideas about compassion with His Holiness. From 2006–2009, Pirie Co-chaired the Special Olympics World Winter Games, in Idaho, welcoming 3,000 athletes from over 150 countries. She founded Destiny Productions to create Wellness Festivals and is an Advisory Board member of the Sun Valley Wellness Board.In February 2017, Pirie produced, “Love is Louder”, a Brain Health Summit, bringing in Kevin Hines, noted suicide survivor to Sun Valley who spoke to school kids about suicide. Sun Valley is in the top 5% highest suicide rate per capita in the Northwest, prompting a community initiative with St. Luke’s and other stake holders, to begin healing. She lives in Sun Valley with her two children, serves on the Board of Community School. She has her Master’s degree in Spiritual Psychology from the University of Santa Monica and is an Executive Life Empowerment Coach, where she helps people meet their dreams and goals! The difference between a dream and a goal is that a goal is a dream with a date on it!

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Pirie Jones Grossman
Authority Magazine

TedX Speaker, Influencer, Bestselling Author and former TV host for E! Entertainment Television, Fox Television, NBC, CBS and ABC.