by: E.B. Johnson
As humans, we’re built for social contact. Whether we are social butterflies or occasional conversationalists, we require some level of interaction with people we care for in order to thrive. Social interaction helps us build our definition of self and also helps us to feel fulfilled in an increasingly chaotic world. It’s a simple means of feeling better about who we are, but what do when we when we find ourselves lonely and living without the regular affection of people that we care for?
Loneliness is state of being and one that can wreck our lives if not properly addressed. Prolonged loneliness takes a toll on our hearts and our brains and can even cause us to suffer with serious conflicts of self. The true path to defeating our loneliness is understanding it and the many forms it takes, so we can effectively develop habits that allow us to find the social support networks we so desperately need. That takes perseverance to achieve, though, and a commitment to feeling better about yourself and the world at large.
Loneliness is hard path to take.
Loneliness is a scary concept to many of us. When we hear the word, we tend to imagine a bleak and unhappy future, filled with a pervasive sadness that disrupts and derails our life with misery. Loneliness is a scary thing, but the true dangers loneliness presents is often lost in our grim perception of it as a monstrous inevitability.
In reality, loneliness is a temporary feeling and a temporary state of mind most often exasperated by our tendency to focus on the negative aspects of our experience. It’s based most often in our perceptions, rather than truth, and loneliness can have some serious effects on physical and mental health.
The key to combating loneliness is understanding it, but also learning how to identify it for what it is. Not all loneliness is created equal, but it requires taking a step back and taking a deeper look at how we’re feeling and why. We can defeat our involuntary solitude, and learn how to reconnect with the people and experiences that bring our life meaning. We have to get proactive, however, and stop sitting on the sidelines…waiting for life to fix us.
The basic types of loneliness.
When it comes to feeling alone, we can experience this negative emotion across several different planes. Loneliness is not a one-size-fits-all issue. It comes in different forms and requires different skills and abilities to combat. If you’re looking to overcome your loneliness you have to understand precisely what type of loneliness you’re experiencing — so you can develop a plan for the future that allows you to re-engage with life once again.
Emotional loneliness is the form of loneliness with which many of us are familiar. This type of loneliness occurs when you feel detached from specific relationships or attachments. It might occur when you don’t have a romantic partner, or it might occur when you feel as though you don’t have any close friendships. It’s the type of loneliness we most commonly think of when we hear the word; textbook unpleasant-solitude that is pervasive and disruptive.
When we don’t feel as though we belong to any group, we can encounter social loneliness. We can also come across this emotion when we lose a romantic partner, or feel excluded from things in our professional sphere. Social loneliness is common, but often fleeting, going away once we build up the courage to engage in a new activity or group that creates new social opportunities that satiate our needs. To its credit, however, it’s one of the easier forms of loneliness to combat.
BONUS: The isolated artist
The second type of loneliness is existential loneliness and it’s a strange type that can be both beneficial and harmful when addressed and / or exercised. Existential loneliness is the type of loneliness we often associate with artists and creatives, but it’s often rooted in deeply negative feelings that require a great deal of self-exploration. It’s a self-inflicted loneliness, and one that’s almost viewed as “noble”. Depending on the approach to resolution, this can be both a beautiful tool of growth or self-destruction and delusion.
When loneliness becomes a bigger problem.
When our isolation extends, it becomes loneliness. This loneliness is toxic, and can also have some surprising effects on our long-term health and wellbeing. When we battle with loneliness over an extended period of time, it erodes our hearts, our brains and even our mental state. It can destroy not only how we see ourselves, but how we see the world around us.
Feeling as though you are alone can take a serious toll on your physical health. Studies have shown that loneliness increases mortality rates by 26%, making it comparable to other risk-factors like smoking and obesity. It’s also been shown to have a close association with increased heart disease and stroke, and is known to contribute also to high blood pressure. When we feel alone, our bodies suffer, compartmentalizing the stress we feel in ways that destroy our physical wellbeing. Those who are lonely are those who are suffering physically — something further shown by their increased risk for onset disability.
When we experience isolation — be it real or perceived — our brains actually suffer some serious side-effects. Isolation and resulting loneliness have been shown to put us at greater risk for cognitive decline, with one study seemingly indicating a 64% increased chance of clinical dementia in those who suffer long term isolation. When we feel alone, we are more prone to depression and suicide, and life becomes an uphill battle that seems all but impossible. Being alone takes a serious toll not only on our physical health, but our mental health as well, and it can destroy our lives if not addressed and resolved.
The best ways to reconnect and banish your loneliness.
The good news about feeling lonely is that it isn’t forever. Loneliness is a temporary state and it can be combated with a little know-how and dedication. You can start feeling better today, but the decision is yours and yours alone. Use these simple techniques and start sitting your loneliness on the sideline before it sidelines you.
1. Learn how to regulate your emotions
Often, when we’re feeling unbalanced or off-kilter it can cause us to disconnect with others and become isolated. Chaos or hardship in our day-to-day lives has a funny way of disrupting our social systems, and when this happens it can cause us to compartmentalize our stress and shut down and shut out the people we need most.
Learning how to regulate our emotions can help us better navigate this chaos in our lives, and thus help us prevent isolation. When we learn how to better navigate and regulate our emotions, too, it helps us better deal with feelings of loneliness when they (inevitably) arrive in any form.
Start by making sure you’re getting enough sleep, exercise and a relatively balanced diet. When our bodies are operating well it’s easier for our mind to operate well and balance our emotions. It’s also helpful to figure out your triggers and be on the lookout for the things that might cause you to isolate yourself or pull away from important people in your life. Dig into what’s putting you edge and remember it’s always better to face your issues than bury them. Practice some radical self-acceptance and keep a record of how you’re feeling and why.
2. Cultivate a new skill
Engaging in a new skill or activity is another great way to get re-engaged with life and combat any form of loneliness you might be feeling. Like volunteering or helping out, developing new skills allows us to build up self-confidence, while also giving us useful new perspectives that bolster our physical and mental wellbeing.
Look for a pottery class, or sign up for that once-a-week amateur theatre troupe you’ve been eyeing for a while. It doesn’t matter what you do, it only matters that you go for something that inspires the passion you might feel you’re missing in your life.
Through these new activities, you won’t just build new skills and self-esteem, you’ll also build new social networks that will allow you to feel more socially fulfilled and capable. These new social links — over time — can turn into the support systems that you’re looking for, and new relationships that transform your life over time. The possibilities are truly limitless when we go after new things that make us feel happy.
3. Replace those negative thoughts
Loneliness often rides in on the back of other negative thoughts, or a negative pattern of thinking, and is frequently accompanied by a spiral of rumination. Negative emotions like loneliness have their roots in our fears and insecurities, and they come together to form the basis of negative habits that further undermine our overall happiness and wellbeing. In order to beat it, we have to learn how to identify these patterns, and create our own happiness intentionally.
Start tracking those self-centered stories you tell yourself and stop assuming that there’s something wrong with you if you aren’t immediately happy or socially engaged in a specific situation. Make a note of the self-deflating thoughts you tell yourself, and try to stop negative thought-loops before they get going by either distracting yourself with a new activity, or replacing the negative thoughts with more positive ones.
When you start to feel lonely, ask yourself probing questions about your emotions and where they’re really coming from. Let go of your judgements and hang-ups, and accept your feelings for what they are in the moment. If you just can’t shake the feeling of being alone, try to focus on the other things in your life you can be grateful for. Practicing gratitude can do wonders when it comes to transforming our negative thinking.
4. Differentiate between facts and feelings
Our emotions are powerful, and they serve a number of important functions which includes protecting us from the things that don’t serve us. The problem with emotions, however, is that (because they are so powerful) we often have trouble separating them from the facts of a situation — which can greatly skew our perception of both ourselves and the world around us.
In order to combat loneliness and find your way back to social happiness, you have to realize that your loneliness just a feeling, and feelings are not facts.Loneliness often occurs because a moment of social insecurity triggers a memory of that feeling; when we really dig into it, we often find that we aren’t that lonely at all.
Our brains have been shaped by evolution to focus more on pain and danger than they do on pleasure and joy. While this served us in our primitive pasts, it doesn’t necessarily serve us in our (more) comfortable and modern future, so we have to work hard to retrain our minds and our perceptions. A good start is accepting your feelings for what they are, and realizing that they aren’t the end-all-be-all reality of the situation.
5. Get back into face-to-face
We live in a digital world, but digital interaction isn’t the same as real, honest-to-goodness, face-to-face contact. While our encounters online and over text might be nice, they aren’t the same as being in the present moment with another person and their nuances, facial expression and emotions. If you’re feeling lonely, one of the best ways to combat it is by making sure you get this crucial face-to-face time each day.
Take a 10–15 minute digital break each day and spend that time speaking to someone in-the-flesh. Have a meaningful conversation (or don’t) — what’s important here is that you spend a few minutes in the present, each day, speaking to a real person who can interact and react with you in real-time.
Be mindful of your surroundings and be mindful of the other person. Notice their facial expressions, and how they react and engage with what you’re saying and how you’re saying it. Connecting with others, on a meaningful level, requires a certain trade of energy that we can only get when we’re up-close-and-personal with one another. Don’t be afraid to get a little face-to-face everyday. It’s good for the soul.
6. Look outward to re-focus inward
Being isolated can make us turn inward, and become hyper-focused on our own perceived issues and struggles. One creative way to combat this isolation and re-engage in the world around us is to focus on the needs of others. This can be done either by reaching out to our friends and loved ones, or by getting active in a volunteering project. What’s truly important is that you give back and put your own pain in perspective by helping someone else through theirs.
You can start this process in a small way, by simply considering the diversity around you as you walk down street. Consider the people you pass, and the feelings they might be experiencing or the problems they might have going on in their lives. Don’t dwell on the negative parts, but wish them well and move on. Little by little, you’ll begin to feel better about yourself and your place in the scheme of things. Slowly, you can start to do more, by reaching out to those who need it.
Be curious, and ask your friends questions that let them know you’re there and ready to lend a helping hand if they’ve found themselves in a time of need. Listen actively, and listen with your heart. Don’t expect instant results or even praise for the help you give. That’s not what it’s about. Helping others is simply a good way to distract ourselves, while building self-confidence and a potential network of new and burgeoning contacts that can help us feel connected, energized and plugged-in.
7. Plug into a support system
If you’re struggling with emotional loneliness, the best way to combat it is through the establishment and regular maintenance of a healthy support system. This doesn’t mean rustling up a soulmate or finding some instant BFF. It simply means fine-tuning your deep-relationship skills by reaching out to others rather than waiting for them to reach out to you.
Stop waiting for other people to make the first move and get proactive about creating the social network you need to thrive. When we’re lonely, it causes us to retreat even further into those negative feelings which can cause us to pull away or self-destruct in the friendships that might otherwise have supported us through such a time. If you feel yourself going downhill, reach out to someone and start building the network you wish you had.
Doors can be opened by letting someone know that you “need to talk”. Likewise, you can suggest something fun and light-hearted if you’re not ready to dig into the heavy stuff. Support systems don’t happen overnight.Like all good things, they take time and a certain amount of shared experiences to bloom naturally. Make those experiences fun and allow yourself to grow into the system that you need to thrive.
8. Don’t give up on your healing
The most important part of combating and banishing our loneliness is being persistent. Our feelings don’t just go away overnight. They take time and persistence to work through. Get stubborn about your healing, and get stubborn about feeling better. Only when you become determined about boosting the quality of your life and building up your social networks will you be able to foster the commitment that’s needed to make it happen.
If you try out a new social group and nothing comes of it — brush it off. Try another one and don’t be afraid to go for something completely outside of your comfort zone or normal routine. Challenge the assumptions you make, and try to drop the judgements you hold about yourself and others; you might be surprised by what you find waiting around the corner.
Resigning yourself to a life of loneliness will only bring you one thing: unhappiness. As humans, we’re social creatures, and we crave social interaction even on the barest and most basic of levels. Get clear about what you need to feel socially fulfilled and go after is unapologetically. You’re the only person who has control of your happiness and your healing. Make a choice and stick with it. Take it a day at a time. Nothing happens over night.
Putting it all together…
Loneliness is a hard feeling to overcome. When we feel as though we’re isolated, it takes a serious toll on our physical and mental health, which has some long term consequences for our overall wellebing. The good news, however, is that loneliness (whatever form it takes) can be combated and defeated once and for all. It just takes understanding, perseverance and dedication — three things that come from within, and from within alone.
Learn how to regulate your emotions and realize that loneliness is just a temporary state, a feeling rather than a fact. Maintain a healthy support system and ensure you get at least 10–15 minutes of face time every day. Identify your negative thoughts, and if you’re really struggling try focusing on the needs of others by volunteering or helping out a friend in need. Helping others is good for our sense of perspective and — like engaging in a new skill or activity — is good for revealing new social opportunities that allow us to banish loneliness once and for all. Be persistent and stay strong even if the loneliness doesn’t ebb at first. Like all good things, social happiness takes time to cultivate. Stay dedicated and give it the time it needs to bloom.