A way out of loneliness: Steps toward well-being when you're feeling alone
Practical ways to connect with others and with yourself
Have you ever been in a room full of people or in a romantic relationship and still felt utterly alone?
When a significant or meaningful attachment to something or someone is no longer there, loneliness can set in with a sense of sadness, grief or depression. We could be missing a place or have lost a partner, or we may have stopped participating in a hobby that we loved. Life transitions can also make us feel lonely whether it's retirement, widowhood, an empty nest, illness or the loss of a job, we can lose a sense of our identity, feel disconnected from our lives and long for the comforts of the past.
In Perspectives on loneliness, authors Peplau and Perlman describe that "Loneliness corresponds to a discrepancy between an individual's preferred and actual social relations." Loneliness: The experience of emotional and social isolation, by RS Weiss further describes that, "This discrepancy leads to the negative experience of feeling alone and the distress and dysphoria of feeling socially isolated even when among family or friends." Research shows that loneliness can affect our sleep patterns, eating patterns, immunity, and mental health. In fact, loneliness can make us become more isolated because we feel as though we don't belong, so we retract from society and distract our woes with social media and television or become consumed by our emotions.
The unspoken conversation is that many of us have felt lonely, empty or isolated in varying degrees at some point in our lives. We have suffered grief, felt misunderstood, been the outsider, or have felt emotionally disconnected. Often, the coping mechanism is to stay silent so that we don't appear to be vulnerable, but allowing ourselves to feel vulnerable is an act of strength and courage that can lead to transformation. Taking the time to acknowledge and process how you feel can help you to resolve your feelings of loneliness. There are ways to come back to yourself with zest and the full capacity of life. Admitting that we feel lonely could be a first step. Everyone's situation may be different, but at the heart of it there are a few effective options that could be of service.
Become aware of the thoughts that make you feel lonely
When we experience loneliness, feelings of doubt, unworthiness and comparison can sprout up like weeds in our mental garden and we can lose confidence in ourselves, our existence and our purpose. So it's important not to abuse yourself with neglect, self-shaming, or guilt. Even more, it's important to avoid comparison between your life and someone else's online photo montage of friends, happiness and joy. This could leave you feeling more isolated. Your relationship with social media may need to take a hiatus. A recent study indicated that, "One key to (social) cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) in the framework of reducing loneliness is to educate individuals to identify the automatic negative thoughts that they have about others and about social interactions more generally, and to regard these negative thoughts as possibly faulty hypotheses that need to be verified rather than as facts on which to act. By aiming to change maladaptive social perception and cognition (e.g., dysfunctional and irrational beliefs, false attributions, and self-defeating thoughts and interpersonal interactions;) the CBT approach implies that loneliness can be decreased."
Attend to your thoughts and check in to see if your negative inner dialogue about your life and the lives of others is true. Are you isolating yourself more? Do you feel unworthy of friendship? When you observe the negative thoughts come up, mindful interventions can help. A simple practice is to guide your mind to your breath and keep focusing on your breath until the thoughts subside. The Open Psychology Journal writes that, "Along with the practice of attentiveness, mindfulness practice entails the cultivation of non-judgmental perspective of the self and others. Being non-judgmental enables one to let go of unpleasant thoughts or experiences, instead of ruminating about it."
Foster significant and meaningful relationships
Confidence can return with the help of community, counsel and support. A recent study indicated that "group interventions involving an educational component and social activities targeting specific groups of people were promising interventions of loneliness." If you have time to give back then volunteer or mentor, if you need faith join a faith community and if you want to connect with others, do something you love with a group that shares your common interests. Fostering real connection means that the time spent with your friends and new acquaintances must be of quality. Meaningful relationships with animal companions can also help to decrease loneliness. Studies show that those who feel lonely are seeking significant relationships with meaning. Simply being with just anyone or doing anything to be in a group is not a viable or lasting intervention, so be true to your relationships and yourself when it comes to who you spend time with.
Re-establish your relationship with yourself and meet your needs for lasting connection
You have witnessed every thought, dream, feeling, idea and action that you have ever had. No one has had your unique experience of life. Friendships and relationships help us feel supported, loved and a little less empty but a clear connection to yourself, enjoying your time with you and appreciating who you are can keep you feeling resilient and alive. Re-establishing a relationship and deeper connection to yourself can also help you to meet your emotional needs rather than expecting fulfillment to come from someone or something else.
Mindful practices consist of spending time with yourself and observing your everyday experiences with attention. This could include walking mindfully through a forest, eating mindfully where you focus your full attention on gratitude for your food or focusing on the sounds and sights around you. Gratitude creates stronger bonds and social relationships with positive associations and invites the experience of being in solitude rather than the perception of being alone. Solitude is when we welcome time alone with ourselves. It gives us the space to appreciate our life experiences with gratitude rather than thinking about what we do not have or what we have lost.
When we are grateful for the time we have had with a significant other and focus on the beginning and the middle of that experience, not just the end, we can appreciate that it was incredible and meaningful. It may have changed our lives significantly and it was beautiful. Now, there must be time taken to reflect and transition. You are here with yourself, in this moment now. Stay focused on the present. Then set the mental intention to help meet your emotional needs. When we rely on an external source for emotional fulfillment, we could also abandon ourselves and lose sight of what we really need to focus on for positive change. Perhaps what you have been truly seeking is your own presence.
Nicole Mahabir is the Founder and Director of JAI Wellness, a platform for health education, mindful living and wellbeing. For the past 10 years, Nicole has lead professional certified programs, teaching Nutrition, Meditation, Ayurveda, Yoga Therapy and Natural Anti-Ageing Beauty Regimes. When she isn't teaching, Nicole creates integrated, sustainable health protocols for her busy clients and leads corporate and wellness retreats. Follow Nicole on Instagram @jaiwellness or on her website, jaiwellness.com.