Whether you’re a social butterfly or a shy wallflower, you’re human and therefore wired for connection with others. After living through a year of social distancing recently, many people found themselves feeling more alone than ever. And that isn’t good -- a lack of personal connection can lead to emotional and physical problems like:
- Sleep issues
- Feeling stressed out
- Altered brain function
- Increased heart problems
- Higher stroke risk
- Poor decision-making
- Memory problems
- Higher risk of substance abuse
It doesn’t take a pandemic to make you feel isolated. Personal events can make you feel disconnected, too.
Sarah Hightower, a licensed professional counselor in Atlanta, recalls a moment of deep loneliness after a miscarriage several years ago. “I knew I wasn’t the only one who had experienced this, but in the moment, you can feel like the only one. I was in deep grief and loneliness.”
As a therapist, Hightower tries to help clients realize that talking about loneliness is a good thing. “It can be a call to action,” she says. “Those feelings are a wake-up call to look at things in our lives that we can change.”
If you’re feeling lonely these days -- maybe more than normal -- here are ways to get to the other side.
Be kind to yourself
Your inner critic can feed feelings of loneliness. If you think you’re different from other people or that you don’t fit in, it can be harder to bond with others. You could get stuck in a loneliness rut. Recognize your thoughts and see them as a chance to make some changes.
“Loneliness is like pain,” says David Cates, PhD, director of behavioral health at Nebraska Medicine in Omaha, NE. “It can be hard to measure, but you know when you feel it.” Recognizing that you’re out of sorts can be a sign that you may need more time with friends and family.
Be kind to others
Taking time out of your schedule to help others can be a great help. Lending a hand can unlock your inner joy and help you feel like part of a larger community. Check on an older relative or neighbor. Volunteer for a soup kitchen or for a virtual community event.
“We know people are hurting nationally because of the pandemic,” Cates says. “The truth is we were dealing with loneliness and lack of social connections long before a global pandemic.” Experts like Cates note the decline in social networks that can result from things like smaller family sizes, an increase in social media, families living farther apart, and having fewer bonds with volunteer and religious groups.
There are days on the calendar that can make you sad. Plan ahead for tough days or seasons and put something fun on the calendar. Try to meet safely with friends or family. When a day (or time of year) you dread has something you’re looking forward to instead, it can help.
“I call it proactive self-care,” Hightower says. “Recognize that you expect to feel lonely during a certain time, and be gentler with yourself.” Plan a drive or to meet with friends. Looking forward to something joyful can bring joy.
Adopt a pet
If you have a fur baby already, you can likely share the benefits of having a pet at home. If not, consider welcoming one to your family. Research suggests having a pet can lower blood pressure, improve your mood, and ease stress. The extra cuddly company can also help if you’re feeling lonely. Make sure you can handle the costs and extra tasks required, though.
Use social media wisely
Hopping onto social media can help you feel connected. But too much time online can lead to loneliness.
“Social media can sometimes trick your mind into thinking you’re making real connections when you’re not,” Hightower says. “Social media isn’t bad, but it shouldn’t replace real connections.”
Take a look at how much time you spend online. “We’re so focused on likes, but those don’t translate into feelings of connection,” says Adam Brown, PhD, an associate professor of psychology at the New School for Social Research in New York City. Instead, use social media to help you make connections that go beyond likes and comments. Play online games with your family and friends. Try out apps that let you watch a show or movie with another person.
Rediscover a hobby
A hobby -- even one you do alone -- can help. That magical moment where you get lost in doing something you enjoy can push you past loneliness. You might hear it called “flow” or “being in the zone.”
You could take up an old hobby like reading, cooking, photography, or yoga. Things that involve your hands (like knitting and painting) can also help you lose track of time -- in a good way. Or sign up to learn a new hobby. Try an online self-paced course, or check out some online videos. You’ll meet people with common interests along the way.
Reconnect with others
You don’t need a cast of thousands to stop feeling lonely. Experts say that having a few close friends can make a big difference. Start with a phone call and then consider scheduling an online chat or a coffee or tea that you enjoy in person or virtually together.
Check in with others, knowing they may also find it hard to leave their comfort zone, too. Restart a family game night, or plan a monthly online party with friends across the miles.
Find your why
Finding a sense of purpose may seem like a solo mission, but it isn’t. Purpose is rooted in working with others. When you find your life’s calling, you’ll also often find those on the same path with you. Part of this may come from reconnecting to your faith or spending time reflecting.
Digging into your roots can also help define your purpose. Hearing stories about your family history can ease depression and boost self-esteem, Brown says. “Learning about how our family members have gotten through tough times can help us put our challenges in context.”
Brown says research suggests nostalgic activities like flipping through old family photos can help you feel more connected.
Whether you’re with a friend or alone, Spending time in nature can raise your mood. “There is quite a bit of research that shows being out in nature can help people with loneliness,” Brown says.
Take a scenic drive. Walk at the park alone or with a friend. Take a day off from work or family duties and enjoy a day at the beach, the lake, or a trail. If you work from home, set up your office outdoors when the weather is nice.
Move your body
Moving has a host of benefits, including helping you beat the blues of loneliness. Try dance, yoga, or going for a walk, or find an exercise class online. Staying active can help with depression, anxiety, stress, and a host of other things that can come with being lonely.
Don’t have time or the energy for a long workout? No problem. Start with 5 to 10 minutes each day and build from there. Studies show moderate exercise -- where you breathe heavier than normal and get a little warm -- can have great benefits.
Everyone feels lonesome from time to time. But experts say there’s a problem if you feel:
- Lonely more than once a week
- Like you don’t belong
If you can’t shake these feelings, you might need to talk to a counselor. The loss of a loved one, divorce, retirement, or moving to a new town can unleash lonely feelings. A therapist can help you work through these moments and give you tools to make them better.
Learn to cherish alone time
It may sound strange, but spending time alone can help if you feel lonely. “It’s important to distinguish between loneliness and social isolation,” Cates says. Loneliness is subjective. There are people who are fairly isolated who aren’t lonely and others who are around a lot of people with a deep sense of loneliness.
Spending time with yourself can help you feel recharged; bring greater clarity and focus, and boost creativity. It can also help you with your relationships, as spending quality time with yourself can help you appreciate your time with others. As with anything, balance is key. If you’re spending too much time alone, your gut will tell you. You may feel something is off. That can be a good sign to get back in touch with others.
Loneliness doesn’t have to be a constant in your life. Making a few changes can return the joy, connection, and friendships that are waiting around the corner.