Do you ever feel lonely?
I’m going to bet the answer is yes. The feelings of loneliness are even more pronounced when we lose someone we love.
Loneliness is such a natural and expected part of being human, especially a human that is grieving. A two-year pandemic sure didn’t make the battle against loneliness any easier. We are not built to be solitary creatures, like the old bear that has carved out his territory in the woods. No, we are a social species, built to attach to each other from our first breaths to our last.
So it comes as no surprise that loneliness can feel so incredibly painful – it is a shock to our systems, a sign that something isn’t right and the world just might be dangerous if we’re all by ourselves. If a mother didn’t feel lonely when she was away from her baby, our species wouldn’t have survived.
Research supports that 50% of our loneliness is inherited! The other 50% is caused by our environment or experiences.
We also know there’s difference between being alone (which may be a welcome break from outside stimulation) and loneliness. And physical loneliness, emotional loneliness, and romantic loneliness all feel different as well. Maybe we don’t have enough connection with others, or maybe the connection that we do have isn’t deep enough.
Aside from loneliness feeling so painful, it’s really hard on our bodies as well. We are more likely to have health problems, our body’s stress response is on high alert, and our brains just don’t function as well as they could. The more we are removed from connection with others, the more we are on alert for danger in social situations. Thus, it’s even harder to connect with friends and family. What a frustrating cycle to be stuck in!
We’re extra special in Alaska (for lots of reasons, right?!) – the more rural an area you live, the less likely you are to be lonely. Our friends are more likely to know each other so our social support networks are well connected, and there’s often a sense of community in a smaller area. This makes sense when we consider the disconnect between people that can happen in big cities. But we also know that Alaska is full of transplants and transients. Many of us don’t have family in the state. Good friends move in and out of Alaska and often our opportunities to participate in group or community activities is limited.
So what do we do? Tackle it from two directions.
If you’ve ever been in a counseling session with me, you know I love to find ways to come at a problem from a few different angles. First, it lets us start with whatever option feels easiest. This is extra important when our energy reserves are on the lower end. Second, when we hit a barrier with one, we have a built in back up plan to switch over to the other for a bit!
Find Opportunities to Challenge Loneliness
To start feeling less lonely and more connected with our fellow humans, we can work to find opportunities to spend time with others. Call a friend that you haven’t seen for a while and go for a walk or dinner. Plan a family game night. Joining a club, signing up for a class, or volunteering are also great options.
It may also come a surprise to you, but we can also feel a lot less lonely just by being the presence of other people. If we’re feeling stuck, even just going to the grocery store or reading a book at the library can be helpful. Of course it’s not the same as a deep and meaningful conversation with a dear friend, but remember the benefit of approaching things from a few different angles!
Of course, we’ve lost a lot of opportunities to do these things over the last few years due to COVID, so it’s no surprise a lot of us feel a little (or a lot) disconnected. I know when I had to stop my monthly dinners with a dear friend when the pandemic started, we completely lost the routine. It takes a really conscious effort now to make sure we make the time and commitment to get back on track.
“But Sarah, what about technology? Can’t we use the internet to socialize?”
Well, the answer to that question is both yes and no. There’s a lot more research to be done, but it seems like the deciding factor between connecting with the power of technology is based on whether it is a REPLACEMENT for the real world or a SUPPLEMENT to the real world. This is a small, but important difference and I encourage you to think about how this works in your life. As with most things in life, there’s a healthy balance to be found. Your balance is probably different from mine, so taking some time to reflect on what is actually helpful to us is an important first step.
Do the deeper work on what contributes to loneliness
There’s also a pretty significant mental component to loneliness. Maybe depression tells us that we aren’t worth positive attention, or that we’re a burden, or that no one would like us anyhow. Or its social anxiety that makes us uncomfortable when we are in unfamiliar situations. Maybe we can’t figure out how to put ourselves back out there after a loss. Or perhaps we never really quite figured out how to make friends.
Let’s be clear here: our brains give us lots of garbage thoughts that are totally unhelpful. It doesn’t make us weird, or bad. In fact, it’s pretty normal even though it’s frustrating.
This is where counseling can come in to help us out. We can learn to recognize when those unhelpful thoughts occur and find ways to either replace them with new thoughts that are a better fit, or find a way to accept the thoughts for what they are and commit to what matters. I read a comic once that said our own worst enemy is between our own two ears. Isn’t that the truth?!
We can brainstorm ways to increase our opportunities. Remember when I said that our brains aren’t operating at full capacity when we feel lonely? That can make it really hard to even see possible options or solutions, and some help from another person’s brain can offer a different perspective. This doesn’t mean we’re broken, but just that our brain is putting most of it’s energy toward the emotional experience and not leaving much left for the rational and logical part.
We can also practice our skills in social situations. Therapy is a completely nonjudgmental space, so it’s the perfect place to acknowledge something we want to work on and get some support to make changes. Maybe this is roleplaying how you’d start a conversation. Or even writing a script you can practice in the mirror until you feel more confident.
Need help tackling loneliness?
Ultimately, a plan to tackle loneliness needs to be fully individualized to you and your needs. If you’re ready to start therapy, or just want to learn more about the process, I’d love to speak with you. Your 15-minute consultation is always at no cost to you because it is incredibly important to me that you find just the right person to share in your journey. Use the link below to schedule your consultation or give me a call. I’m here for you.
Take good care of yourself,
Are you still curious or skeptical and want to check out my information? Please do! Here are some references I used throughout this post:
- Fakoya, O.A., McCorry, N.K., & Donnelly, M. (2020). Loneliness and social isolation interventions for older adults: A scoping review of reviews. BMC public health, 20(129). https://doi.org/10.1186/s12889-020-8251-6
- Hutten, E., Jongen, E.M.M., Hajema, K., Ruiter, R.A.C., Hamers, F., & Bos, A.E.R. (2021). Risk factors of loneliness across the life span. Journal of social and personal relationships, 0(0). https://doi.org/10.1177/026540752110591913
- Macdonald, K.J., Willemsen, G., Boomsma, D.I., & Schermer, J.A. (2020). Predicting Loneliness from where and what people do. Social sciences, 9(51). https://doi.org/10.3390/socsci9040051
- Masi, C.M., Chen, H-Y., Hawkley, L.C., & Cacioppo, J.T. (2010). A meta-analysis of interventions to reduce loneliness. Personality and social psychology review, 15(3). https://doi.org/10.1177/1088868310377394