Loneliness is reaching epidemic proportions. Despite living in an ultra-connected world where we have everything we need at our fingertips like finding out what friends are up to on social media, looking for a new mate on the latest dating app or my personal favorite: FaceTime, there are many people who still feel lonely.
We all feel lonely sometimes and that’s hardly abnormal. Loneliness should not be confused with being a loner or introvert. Some of us need the time alone to recharge and center ourselves. Loneliness is a feeling of being isolated, like something is missing, an incompleteness or absence. It is the difference between the amount of social contact you have and the amount you want. It begins with an awareness of the lack of close friendships or social network. That turns into sadness and longing for contact, tearing away at our emotional well-being. It plays like the song we heard on the radio just before we get out of the car and can’t get out of our head.
There is evidence that suggests that the emotional discomfort or the distress of loneliness has mental and physical effects on us. Lonely people:
- Have a poor quality of sleep that is less restorative, both physically and psychologically
- Experience severe depression and anxiety
- Have reduced immune and cardiovascular functioning
- Report higher levels of perceived stress and have raised levels of stress hormones and
- Have elevated blood pressure
However, there are interventions that can help.
Improving social skills. There is research that suggests that loneliness is the result of the lack of interpersonal skills it takes to create and maintain relationships. You may try putting yourself into situations that make you a little uncomfortable. Engage in a conversation with someone new, give and take compliments, and communicate in positive ways that are non-verbal such as a smile or a nod to say hello. Such small interactions will grow your confidence and encourage you to take another step forward the next time. Because there will be a next time – you’ve got this.
Enhancing social support. Many lonely people find themselves in unexpected and new situations such as the loss of a spouse, relocating to a new area or the child of a divorce. Professional help and counseling can help but there are things you can do on your own, too. Be proactive to get the most out of your social relationships. Reach out to friends or family who could use a caring ear or to just say hello. If you’re there for them, they will be more likely to be there for you when you need it. Take advantage of technology. Though face-to-face interactions are the most beneficial, meeting in person may not always be possible. Connect on social media, send a text message or schedule some time to talk via video chat.
Increasing opportunities for social interaction. If you’re feeling lonely, look for opportunities to meet other people through group activities such as a book club, a hobby class such as cooking, photography or salsa dancing or join a non-profit you’re interested in and go to their events.
Changing maladaptive thinking. Over time, chronic loneliness makes us sensitive to rejection and hostility. For example, a lonely person would assume an unreturned phone call from their friend Sarah means that Sarah doesn’t want to talk to them. In truth, Sarah was busy at home and decided to call the next day. That’s because lonely people pay more attention to negative information than positive. This leads to negative expectations about future interactions; and since lonely people rarely expect things to go well, they usually don’t.
To change your pattern of thinking and eliminate anxious feelings when going into social situations, try to identify your negative thoughts when they occur. An indicator would be if you are focusing on what could go wrong or intensely worrying about if people will like you. Instead, consider the alternative. Maybe everything will go smoothly and everyone will like you. Once you learn to confront your negative thoughts, you will be better able to approach new social situations positively, see the best in others and feel more confident in yourself. I mean come on, why wouldn’t everyone like you? You’re amazing. See what I just did there?
I know what you’re thinking – it’s easier said than done. But, you’ll find that the answer lies in changing your patterns and breaking the negative cycle of thinking.
Sources: Halvorson, Heidi (October 2010). The Cure for Loneliness. Retrieved from: c.ymcdn.com/sites/www.naswoh.org/resource/resmgr/docs/professional development resource book.pdf.