10 Things You Can Do (and Not Do) to Feel Less Lonely

6 min read
S. McQuillan

Non-human companionship can help alleviate loneliness.

Source: S. McQuillan

There’s a rising public health crisis in America, according to social scientists, and its name is loneliness. Loneliness affects young and old alike and may exist for any number of reasons. The underlying cause of increasing loneliness is likely to be connected to the way we relate, communicate, and function in today’s social environment. Where you live, your living situation, the state of your physical and mental health, the workings of your individual brain, biology and genetics, your family dynamics and early childhood experiences, your school or workplace environment, and how you use digital forms of communication can all contribute to the “why” of loneliness.

What does it mean to feel lonely? Generally, it means that something in the way of human contact and interaction, a sense of belonging, is missing from your life, and it doesn’t feel good. People can and do feel lonely and isolated at any age, for any number of reasons; and when it’s prolonged, it’s not a condition to be taken lightly. Loneliness significantly increases the risk of heart disease, heart attack, cognitive impairment, dementia and premature death.

A meta-analysis of more than 80 studies, looking at more than 40,000 people, concluded that loneliness is one of the significant variables in the development of depression. On the flip side, people with chronic depressive and bipolar disorders have been found to suffer more loneliness than those in the general population. Similarly, studies have found that loneliness and social isolation, with their effects on social interaction and cognitive stimulation, can contribute to cognitive decline, just as cognitive decline can contribute to loneliness and social isolation.

How Did This Happen?

Any real remedy for loneliness has to be based on your particular life circumstances and lifestyle preferences. It helps to first pinpoint the type of loneliness you’re experiencing. Are you lonely because you have few social contacts or no good friends at hand when you need them? Do you find it difficult to meet people and make new friends? Are you missing a romantic relationship or feeling a lost connection within your current relationship? What about family? Are you estranged from family members? Have you lost your family, or does it feel like your family members are too physically or emotionally distant to help? Your feelings of loneliness may have deep origins, stemming from a fear or distrust of others based on past experiences.

Transpersonal and cognitive therapist Andrea Matthews, LPC, NCC believes the path to developing healthy relationships begins with finding your most authentic self. She uses the analogy of a tree that has weathered many storms and lost branches in harsh winds and under the weight of heavy snow, but still has a strong and healthy root system. That root system is your authentic self, the part of you that has escaped the storm of your life, intact. It’s there for you to discover and use to nurture yourself and help you build your true, authentic life.

Are You Lonely, Socially Isolated, Neither or Both?

It also helps to define and understand the difference between loneliness and social isolation. When you are lonely, you feel alone and you want more physical contact with family or friends. When you are experiencing social isolation, you have limited or no contact with family or friends because your social network is very small or nonexistent.

While use of technology may be contributing to loneliness for many people, some forms of tech, such as social media, virtual reality and robots, when sensibly used, have also been shown to be a social “equalizer,” reducing despondent feelings associated with loneliness and social isolation. Technology can also provide a much-needed link between elders and distant family members and other external connections, including friends and health care providers.

For many self-contained individuals, being alone doesn’t equate to loneliness and, for them, solitude is often a choice. The solution to loneliness doesn’t necessarily involve other people, at least not as a first step. Feelings of loneliness can signal a need to change your mindset or change your lifestyle before you include other people.

10 Do’s and Don’ts to Help Reduce Loneliness

While there are no proven ways to completely or permanently alleviate loneliness for everyone, there are some approaches that studies have shown can work for many people. Here are some of them:

Do live an authentic life, defined by you, that makes you feel whole. You have to be true to yourself in order to be as happy as possible and bring like-minded others into your life.

Loneliness Essential Reads

Do learn to love and respect yourself as you are. Speak the language of positive self-talk. The more you love and care about yourself, the more others will do the same for you.

Do move on from people who don’t reciprocate or respond in kind to your efforts to connect.

Do consider caring for a pet. It could be a real pet, if you’re willing and able in your current circumstances, or even a “virtual” pet to care for online. While a relationship with an animal isn’t the same as a human relationship, numerous studies have found that caring for pets (yes, even virtual pets) can help diminish loneliness and the negative effects it can have on your health.

Do reach out for support. If your feelings of loneliness are persistent, a mental health professional can help you get to the root of the problem with individual and/or group counseling.

At the same time,

Don’t be a people-pleaser. Always doing what others want you to do, or what you think they expect you to do, prevents you from being true to yourself and living an authentic life.

Don’t tolerate toxic behavior from anyone. Circumstances that arise for young and old alike can lead to abusive and neglectful relationships that can then become very isolating.

Don’t define yourself by the way you think others define you.

Don’t compare your social life to that of others, especially on social media. It’s particularly important to remember that social media is not always real life and not necessarily to be believed.

Don’t hesitate to try something new when what you’re doing isn’t helping you feel more connected and purposeful.

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