“I’m So Lonely”: Tips For Building Meaningful Social Connections
In general, social support is vital to our emotional, mental, and physical health. In fact, one study puts it this way: “Positive emotions, positive social connections, and physical health influence one another in a self-sustaining upward-spiral dynamic." A healthy system of social connections can help us feel fulfilled, supported, and cared for, and can make one’s life healthier and more enjoyable.
For various reasons, though, many people have a hard time forming or maintaining solid, supportive bonds with others.
When this feeling is chronic, it can have a negative impact on our health and well-being, but its effects can be reduced when we build fulfilling connections with others. If you’re feeling lonely, read below for potential causes along with strategies you can try to develop healthy, meaningful relationships.
Potential causes of loneliness
It’s important to note that being alone is not inherently lonely. In fact, many people can spend a fair amount of time alone without feeling lonely at all. Some people may even require a certain amount of time alone regularly to feel healthy and balanced. Instead, loneliness is defined as “the cognitive discomfort or uneasiness from being or perceiving oneself to be alone or otherwise solitary.” In other words, loneliness is when a person is or perceives themselves to be solitary and experiences discomfort as a result.
The reason a person may feel lonely can vary widely. First, some loneliness is not uncommon after an individual undergoes a significant life change. Experiencing the loss of a loved one, going through a breakup or divorce, becoming unemployed, or moving to a new place can all make a person feel lonely for a time. Or, an individual may be involved in a relationship that doesn’t meet their needs, or is one-sided, stress-inducing, or unfulfilling in some other way, causing feelings of loneliness. Furthermore, social media use may also increase feelings of loneliness. For some, consistently seeing other people’s relationships online can make them feel like their own connections should be stronger or more numerous.
Additionally, a mental health condition like social anxiety or depression can make social interaction difficult, leading to loneliness. In fact, loneliness and mental illnesses like depression often have a bidirectional relationship, which means that the presence of one will often lead to the development or exacerbation of the other. For example, those who live with depression may experience increased loneliness due to trouble leaving the house or reaching out to others. Likewise, those who are lonely often develop symptoms of depression, such as sadness and increasing self-isolation. Some personality disorders may also make it difficult for a person to sustain stable relationships. Finally, physical or mental health conditions that cause a person to experience chronic pain and/or low energy can also make socializing difficult, sometimes resulting in loneliness.
How loneliness can impact health and well-being
A wealth of research points to the conclusion that social interaction and support form a vital part of human health and well-being. A lack of these can contribute to detrimental health effects. Some of the mental and physical health complications of loneliness can include:
- Impaired sleep
- Difficulty maintaining focus and concentration
- Cognitive decline
- Immune system impairment
- Cardiovascular health concerns
- Decreased interest in self-care
- Increase in alcohol use
Tips for building meaningful social connections
The longer you experience feelings of loneliness, the more daunting engaging in social activities can feel. However, for many people, socializing is a skill that can be built and strengthened over time like any other. Read on for some helpful tips for building fulfilling social bonds in your life.
Seek out public spaces
Jumping headfirst into direct social encounters may seem intimidating for those who are naturally shy, experience symptoms of social anxiety, or who haven’t been in social situations in a while. In cases like these, it may be easier to begin by spending time in public areas where you can be around people without necessarily having to interact with anyone. Simply being in the presence of others can make you feel less lonely and build up your comfort level for future social interactions. Someone could also end up striking up a conversation with you, potentially leading to an unexpected friendship—even if it’s casual. To get started, you might consider spending time in public places like libraries, parks, or coffee shops.
While joining sports leagues, book clubs, or hobby groups is often a recommended way to meet people, you might feel more comfortable joining group activities where the express purpose is not socialization. You may reap even more benefits if the activity is focused on helping others. For example, one study found that those who volunteer self-report higher levels of both happiness and health. In other words, the benefits of volunteering, if you’re experiencing loneliness, could be threefold: You could help others, feel happier and healthier yourself, and potentially connect with like-minded individuals with whom you may be able to form friendships, all without the pressure of being there specifically for socializing. To get started, you might contact the local chapter of an organization whose cause you’re passionate about and ask if they’re looking for volunteers. (Mental health research is constantly evolving, so older sources may contain information or theories that have been reevaluated since their original publication date.)
Strengthen existing relationships
Some people may have social connections that they don’t presently feel fulfilled by. In cases like these, it might help to ask yourself if there’s anyone in your life you could make an effort to get to know better. For example, you could think about whether there’s a relative you’ve always gotten along well with, a coworker whose personality you feel drawn to, or an old friend you’ve lost touch with but used to like. If so, you could consider taking the initiative to reach out and invite them to spend time together in some way, whether that’s going for a cup of coffee or speaking on the phone. If you create opportunities for current relationships to grow, you may end up with stronger bonds.
Research suggests that a negative self-image can be linked to loneliness. If this is something you’re experiencing, you might benefit both personally and socially by addressing it. Journaling to get to know yourself more, practicing mindfulness to be better able to notice negative thoughts about yourself, and working with a mental health professional can all be helpful. You might also nurture both your body and mind through self-care practices, such as exercising regularly and eating healthy foods, celebrating yourself when you achieve goals, and forgiving yourself when you make mistakes, for example. In time, developing a healthier self-conception can improve the way you feel toward others and may increase your confidence in social situations.
Speak with a mental health professional
As mentioned previously, some mental health conditions like depression can be linked to loneliness. Other conditions like social anxiety and personality disorders can make socializing and forming strong relationships more difficult. A therapist can help you properly address symptoms of any of these. Or, if you’re feeling lonely as a result of a recent loss, a major life change, low self-esteem, or some other reason, a therapist may also be able to help you process your emotions, develop healthy coping mechanisms, and/or strengthen useful skills like communication and boundary-setting.
How online therapy can help
If you feel you may benefit from speaking with a mental health professional, you can typically choose between online or in-person sessions. For those who experience anxiety around traveling to a therapist’s office, who have trouble locating a provider in their area, or who would simply feel more comfortable speaking with someone virtually may be interested in online therapy. Research suggests that it can be a beneficial method of treatment for those who are feeling lonely. In one study, researchers found that online cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) in particular can effectively reduce feelings of loneliness and symptoms of social anxiety while also improving overall quality of life.
If you’re interested in online therapy, you might consider a virtual therapy platform like BetterHelp. When you sign up, you’ll be asked to fill out a brief questionnaire so you can get matched with a licensed therapist based on your specific preferences and concerns. You can then meet with them via phone, video call, and/or in-app messaging to address the challenges you may be facing.
Why do I feel so lonely?
Multiple factors can contribute to feeling lonely, ranging from things like daily routines to life transitions. Examples of other causes of loneliness include:
- Moving to a new place
- Starting a new job
- A divorce or a breakup
- Changing schools
- Having a solitary job, like truck driving or freelancing
- The loss of a loved one
- Excessive social media use
- A mental illness like depression or social anxiety disorder
These factors and others may all lead to feelings of loneliness.
How do I stop feeling lonely?
The thought of having few social connections can be distressing. However, there are several strategies that may help you connect with others and build meaningful relationships. It can be helpful to find ways of doing things that make you happy in the company of others. For example, if you love rock climbing, you might join a climbing gym or meetup group. If you love to cook, you could consider joining a cooking class.
Other strategies that may help alleviate loneliness include:
- Picking up a new hobby you can do with others, like sports or board games
- Meeting up with a relative or an old friend
- Joining a social group like a book club
- Volunteering in your community
- Visiting common spaces like the library or a cafe
- Speaking with a counselor
It may be important to understand that it can take time to search for social connections. That said, even small interactions with others can help reduce feelings of loneliness as you work to build relationships.
Does social media make you lonely?
Although a social website can feel like an easy way to connect with others, social media does not always replace human interaction. Spending a long time on social media every day can take time away from real-life relationships and social activities, leading to feelings of loneliness.
The content posted on social networks can also be a factor in loneliness. People often only update their followers about the good things in their lives, creating a skewed view of their world. This can hurt self-esteem and lead to unhealthy comparisons, worsening feelings of isolation.
Am I depressed or just lonely?
Depression and loneliness can contribute to one another. Having depression may make it harder to leave the house and interact with others, leading to feelings of loneliness. Meanwhile, feeling socially isolated can also lead to a depressed mood.
Symptoms of depression may also include:
- Low energy
- Changes in eating or sleeping patterns
- A lack of interest in activities that were once fun
- Feelings of hopelessness
- Trouble concentrating
If you are experiencing these symptoms or others, it may be worth consulting a mental healthcare provider.
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