Have you had the experience of feeling lonely, like there is no one around and no one to talk to, as you sink into a state of sadness or anxiety that you fear you will never get over? Does such a feeling overwhelm you at times? If you've had such feelings of loneliness, you are far from alone. Loneliness is one of the most common, if unpleasant emotions that millions of people experience. For some, it may be a passing emotion. For others, it’s a recurring sense of desperation and sadness. But for all of us, it is part of being human.
Robert L. Leahy Ph.D. completed a postdoctoral fellowship in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania Medical School under the direction of Dr. Aaron Beck, the founder of cognitive therapy. Dr. Leahy is the former president of the Association for Behavioral and Cognitive Therapies, former president of the International Association of Cognitive Psychotherapy, former president of the Academy of Cognitive Therapy, director of the American Institute for Cognitive Therapy (NYC), and a clinical professor of psychology in psychiatry at Weill-Cornell University Medical School.
Editor: Arman Ahmed
Loneliness can lead to excessive drinking or binge eating, to suppress those unpleasant feelings. It can lead to depression and rumination, as you dwell on the question, “Why am I alone?” It can also lead to hopelessness. But having a strategy to deal with loneliness can be an important safeguard against depression, substance abuse, or even making bad choices for partners.
Let’s take a look at seven ways you can cope with feelings of loneliness:
1. Normalize loneliness.
As John Cacioppo, a researcher in the field of loneliness, points out, loneliness is on the rise — from 11 percent to 20 percent in the 1970s and 1980s to 40 percent to 45 percent in 2010. So you are not alone in feeling lonely. Perhaps the recent breakdown of connectedness can be related to the decline of family connections, higher divorce rates, people moving more frequently, the decline of church attendance, or declining participation in organizations like the PTA and labor unions. As Harvard social historian Robert Putnam illustrated in his book, Bowling Alone, people in the 1950s would participate in things like bowling leagues, but now they bowl alone. As widespread and increasingly frequent loneliness is, we must recognize that we need to have strategies for coping with it.
2. Relate loneliness to your values of connection.
It may sound invalidating, but we can also ask, “What is loneliness good for?” I would suggest that loneliness reminds us of the value of connection, intimacy, or simply sharing experiences with others. We evolved to live in smaller communities with daily face-to-face contact — and shared child-rearing. That has changed for most people, but loneliness may remind you of the fact that you value connecting with other people, and that this value is an important part of being human. Don’t give up on connection when you are feeling lonely.
3. Have a plan.
The first part of developing a plan is to identify your “trouble times” for loneliness. It might be evenings, weekends, or holidays. Have a plan in advance for these times. On weekends you might make plans with friends or family, you might go to museums, concerts, bike rides, guided walks, church or synagogue events, or connect with people on Meetup.com or other sites. I like thinking of turning yourself into a tourist for a day or a night. Or if your worrisome time is at night, have a plan for a couple of nights each week when you might connect with someone; it could simply be on Skype. Plan some videos to watch, music to listen to, attend a yoga class, join a health club, take up a hobby. A friend of mine, who is incredibly resilient, took up the guitar and swimming — separately — at the age of 68. He experiences great enthusiasm with these activities. What's your plan?
4. You don’t need someone else to do something rewarding.
So often people will say, “I have no one to do things with." You don’t need someone else to go to the movies, go for a walk, work out, go to a concert, or take up a new hobby. Some people say, “I feel self-conscious doing these things by myself." Try to identify what those self-conscious thoughts are — they may be things like, “People will see me alone and think that I am pathetic." But how do you know what others think? And even if they did think that, why should you care? Maybe doing things alone means you are independent, empowered, and free.
In fact, doing something by yourself might actually be a good way to meet new people. Imagine that you are at a museum or bookstore, and you start talking to someone next to you about a painting or a book. Or imagine that you are taking a cooking or yoga class and start talking to people. Empower yourself by getting out and realizing that you don’t need someone else to do things with. You have yourself.
5. Identify your loneliness thoughts.
Write down some of the thoughts that you have when you are lonely. These might include thoughts like those above, or the following:
- I will always be alone.
- If I am alone, I have to feel lonely and unhappy.
- I must be a loser, because I am alone.
- I can’t stand feeling lonely.
If you have these or other negative thoughts, then you are like millions of other people who feel stopped in their tracks by loneliness. But you can try some of these rational and helpful responses:
- You are only alone for these moments (minutes, hours), and you will be interacting with other people soon — at work, waiting in line, talking to a friend, or participating in an activity. You are not on a deserted island.
- Just because you are alone doesn’t mean that you have to feel sad and lonely. You can look at it as an opportunity to do some things that you like. You might enjoy having the peace to read something you like, listen to your own music, cook your favorite food, watch your favorite movie, or visit a museum at your own pace.
- The idea that you are a "loser" because you are alone makes no sense: Everyone is alone at some time. And as recent research shows, about 45 percent of people experience loneliness. Being alone is a situation — and situations change.
- The idea that you cannot stand being alone also doesn’t make sense. It may be true that you don’t like being alone, but it’s the way you relate to it that matters. If you relate to loneliness with protest, anger, desperation, or defeat, then it will be unpleasant. It might be more helpful to relate to it with the idea that feeling lonely or being alone comes and goes and that it is something we all cope with. Accepting what is might be better than catastrophizing something we all experience.
6. Direct compassion and tenderness toward yourself.
Rather than thinking that you need to rely on others for love, acceptance, and compassion, you might direct these thoughts and feelings toward yourself. This can include acts of lovingkindness toward yourself such as making yourself a healthful treat or buying yourself a simple gift; directing loving thoughts toward yourself by giving yourself support for being who you are and by being your own best friend; and by recalling a loving person from your childhood (your mother, grandmother, father, aunt) whom you recall showing tenderness toward you. Taking care of yourself and soothing yourself is a wonderful antidote for loneliness.
7. Build a community of connectedness.
We all need some connection with other people — or even animals. So many people — friends, family, patients — have told me how much love and connection they experience with their pets. So consider getting a cat or a dog. Or go to your local animal shelter and offer to volunteer. One woman I know volunteered for several months at a shelter, “socializing the kittens." Talk about great work to have.
Another way of connecting is to do volunteer work, because we all need to be needed. You can search online in your community for volunteer organizations that correspond to your interests. Perhaps it’s working with kids, older people, cancer patients, or the poor. I doubt that you will feel lonely when you are showing kindness toward someone.
And make plans to see people. (This includes using social media.) Just because you haven’t been in contact much lately doesn’t mean you can’t take the initiative. Or join organizations where people share your interests — political, cultural, religious, or social.
Being alone doesn’t mean you have to feel lonely. And feeling lonely doesn’t mean that you have to feel that way indefinitely. All emotions pass, depending on what you're thinking and what you're doing.
It’s up to you.