Remember, when it comes to feeling lonely, you’re not alone.
5 Strategies To Overcome Loneliness, According to a Psychologist
Remember, when it comes to feeling lonely, you’re not alone.
The ironic thing about feeling lonely, is that you're not alone in feeling it. In fact, nearly two thirds of young people say they feel lonely and left out, new research from Headspace National Youth Mental Health Foundation has found. And even though we may be more connected than ever through digital technology, loneliness is on the rise.
Loneliness doesn't discriminate, and this feeling can pop up at any point in life, potentially having a significant impact on your mental and physical health.
Below, Clinical Psychotherapist and Psychologist, Noosha Anzab explains the different types of loneliness and shares her top five strategies to help foster connection and wellbeing when you're feeling lonely and disconnected.
What is loneliness?
Noosha Anzab: Loneliness is a state of feeling isolated and often occurs when we feel a discrepancy between the quality and type of interpersonal relationships we wish or want to have, versus what we perceive we are currently facing. It’s an emotionally unpleasant experience that is often associated with low self-esteem (interpersonal sensitivity), depression, anxiety, general dissatisfaction, boredom, and emptiness. Loneliness is linked to higher levels of cortisol (hello stress), more sensitivity to pained facial expressions, and, fragmented sleep and impaired immune activity.
What are the types of loneliness?
The thing about loneliness that many of us don't realise, is that it can be emotional, physical, social, existential, or positive.
We often experience emotional loneliness when we feel the absence of an attachment figure and/or relationships in general, and miss the connection to parents, partners, peers, friends, or family. This often leaves us feeling isolated and deeply alone, and these feelings can be heightened when we need someone to talk to but feel like no one is around to fulfil our emotional needs.
On the other hand, when we lack a social network, or have a really big absence of a circle of people around us, we can experience social loneliness. Social loneliness means we feel like we aren’t developing a sense of belonging within a group and we don’t feel a part of a community. In this space, we feel as though we aren’t socially integrated and can often feel bored, depressed and meaningless.
Existential loneliness is often characterised by a total lack of relatedness. It embodies feelings of emptiness and nothingness. It’s saturated with a toneless quality and is often demonstrated in transitions, disease groups, and geriatric populations, and more recently as research has indicated, in adolescents. It’s saturated in thoughts about life, existence, meaning, and meaninglessness and can feel like a complete separation from the rest of the world, leaving us isolated in our innermost thoughts and feelings instead.
One aspect of loneliness we have all endured as recently as a few years ago is physical loneliness. This is just what it sounds like – loneliness that’s centred on physical aloneness. It’s being separated from others in a spatial or temporal sense. When we look at it from an evolutionary perspective, being socially isolated meant our survival risks were reduced and feeling lonely was our biggest alarm against that. Perhaps because we, along with other primates rely on the ability to touch one another in a bid to bond, we see physical loneliness used as a form of punishment and torture and has a significant impact on our mental health.
Solitude or Positive Loneliness
One aspect of loneliness that goes unnoticed is the positive side of it. Solitude, or positive loneliness has been talked about in literature as far back as 1945. Positive loneliness, is the voluntary withdrawal from the daily hassles of life and instead, a focus on orientation with higher goals such as meditation, communication with a higher power through prayer and religious or spiritual connection and, reflection. This is a little bit more along the path of solitude seeking, where even though isolation is present, it is free from the pain of loneliness.
What are the causes of loneliness?
Loneliness can be caused by many things. Death, illness, disability, communication gaps between generations, race and culture, breakdowns of communities, marriages, relationships and families, as well as rejection, are all some of the universal factors promoting loneliness. We can’t forget to mention the biggest impact we’ve ever felt – Covid-19, which brought with it a great divide, social isolation, physical distancing, work-from-home, and mandated lockdowns. We also can’t forget to mention the feeling of disconnect which ultimately leads to us feeling lonely. Being unable to be our true selves, feeling unable to talk about our feelings or issues, feeling misunderstood, or feeling insignificant, as though we don’t matter, are some big contributors to loneliness.
How does a lonely person behave?
Differentiating the behaviour of a lonely person and a non-lonely person might not be the easiest thing for the layperson to do. Lonely people can still present as non-lonely people do, but may experience a range of adverse health outcomes instead. Studies show loneliness reduces health-care utilisation, increases the risk of cardiovascular disease, and impacts us mentally and emotionally. We see loneliness associated with depression, anxiety, or suicidal ideation. From a behavioural point of view, we may find them chronically busy or extremely withdrawn and/or disconnected. They may be quick to temper, spend a lot of time on social media, and have low self-esteem.
What should you do if you’re feeling lonely and disconnected?
1. Connect with self
When we connect to ourselves through curiosity, compassion, courage, creativity, and calmness, we feel more in touch with our self-energy and can more openly and lovingly uncover what it is we need. Admitting our loneliness/disconnect to ourselves, and even to others, can help us stop perpetuating the feelings. It also can help us explore whether our loneliness is situational or chronic, and maybe even recognise that we aren’t alone in our feelings of loneliness.
2. Get more group time in
Group time is fantastic for our health. It allows our social skills to be increased, strengthens our social support, and also increases opportunities for social interaction. The focus on social bonds and friendships, while we engage in group activities, is brilliant and increases social networks, in turn decreasing loneliness. Technology allows that in 2023, wherein we can join online groups and forums that also facilitate face-to-face meetups. The social participation, community integration, and improvement to social networking for individuals joining groups are astounding and help in reducing feelings of loneliness. New hobbies, volunteering, and joining groups for leisure or exercise are wonderful ways to connect with the community.
3. Adapt your expectations
It’s so important to adapt our expectations of relationships to the ever-changing circumstances of them. For example, keeping an open viewpoint that when working from home, social contact may be reduced. Putting in measures to counter that by engaging in meaningful connections outside of work hours, frequent checkpoints with colleagues on both work and personal-related matters throughout the working day, and acceptance that a degree of work-from-home-blues is circumstantially appropriate. This will allow a shift in focus, so instead of focusing on the feeling of loneliness, we can shift gears and focus on employing some feel-good strategies instead. This means connecting to loved ones on our lunch break, heading out of the home and having person-to-person interaction during our lunch breaks or using some of our break times to meditate, catch some sunlight, or connect with self.
If we look at it in a broader sense, it’s adapting to ongoing changes in connection, physical separation, and emotional availability from others. It also means we employ a village and learn to lean on them when we are starting to feel disconnected, and that might just mean having different people to bridge the gap between different types of loneliness.
4. Get out and about
One thing we can do when feeling lonely, is to retreat and avoid. Even though that may feel like the right thing to do while we work through our feelings, it's quite counterproductive. Getting out and about via hitting the shops, treating yourself to that coffee out, going to breakfasts, brunches, lunches, and dinners, and hitting greenspaces can be so revitalising.
Whether you make eye contact and have a two-minute conversation with your barista, window shop a shopping centre amongst the other hundreds of people doing the same, or get outdoors into nature with a friend or a fur-friend, it helps us to do something seemingly normal and seemingly social.
Being in outdoor greenspaces has a significant impact on our mood, and can help us feel motivated enough to connect to others, it can also help us feel a part of the world, thus reducing feelings of non-belonging or isolation.
5. Seek professional guidance
The thing about loneliness is that it doesn’t discriminate, and it can be the result of significant issues such as trauma. It also can be secondary to a mental illness, for example, being depressed can cause loneliness. Seeking the help of a professional is beneficial here because all contributing factors can be gently and slowly unearthed and if necessary the broader, deeper issues can be addressed instead. A major benefit here is learning effective interpersonal and intrapersonal communication, so we can ask for our needs to be met, ascertain boundaries and communicate our truths openly to ensure we are honouring ourselves, which can be key in reducing feelings of disconnect, which ultimately leads to loneliness.
This article is intended for informational purposes only and is not a substitute for individualised health advice. If you are concerned about your health and well-being, please speak to your GP, who will advise on the correct treatment plan. You can also call Lifeline 24/7 for mental health support on 13 11 14.