How do I thrive in my loneliness?

I am feeling lonely, and in my relationships any little thing that goes wrong or could go wrong is at the top of my mind every time. I want to turn all of this energy back to myself.
Asked by FW

Thank you for reaching out for support and for submitting your question. I am sorry you are experiencing some challenges and difficulties in your relationships right now.

We are finding ourselves in what has been called an epidemic of loneliness. In older civilization, and in ancient times, it was common for millions of individuals to pass away from epidemics such as cholera or flu or plague. Advancements in modern medicine and in sanitation have largely eliminated these. But now we endure something altogether different and previously unknown. We now struggle with behavioral epidemics. In the United States, the average life span, which had been increasing since the 1950’s, is now falling. And it due, in part, to suicide and overdoses which are continuing to escalate at an alarming rate. Contributing to all of this? Loneliness.

You truly are not alone in your loneliness. It is a common experience which is increasingly more common. In reality, there are probably people you know that you believe are not lonely – but usually they also experience this phenomenon, yet they simply are not talking about it.

Oddly enough, the word did not even exist in the English language prior to about 1800. With industrialization came less social connection and thus loneliness was born. And it is just getting worse. While we are more connected technologically than ever before in the entire history of the world we feel more lonely and isolated than previous generations.

Why should we worry about loneliness? It is, in fact, a major health risk. Beyond just making us unhappy, there are actual a variety of negative consequences with which to contend if you are struggling with. Loneliness increases the risk of stroke and heart disease. It increases the risk of high blood pressure. It puts you at a greater risk for severe depression and general cognitive decline as you age.

One of the best ways to tackle the issue of loneliness is to serve. Every single one of us can contribute to another. It could be as simple as a smile. Consider this: you might be the only person who smiles at an individual in a given day. Is a smile, then, a small thing or could it be one truly enormous gift which takes little effort, no special skills, and no money to gift to another person?

Being of help to others gets you out of your own head and keeps you from ruminating on your loneliness and your own situation. It can be tremendously beneficial in terms of helping energize you and in changing your perspective. Research proves it, too. Acts of service towards other people, towards animals, and even nature helps lift loneliness. There are many, many ways to give. Think about what ways may resonate with you. Giving will allow you to surround yourself with others, which will improve social connections. You will connect with those you may serve as well as those you are serving with.

Movement will also be a helpful strategy to employ. In particular, getting out in the world and into nature has been shown to be very beneficial. A recent study demonstrated multiple positive outcomes which came about from simply going for a casual walk in nature. Individual participants found their overall well-being improved, depression was reduced, physical health improved, and they even felt their desire to connect with others was elevated. 

Sometimes, it helps to be brave and reach out to others. We often can worry that we may come across as too needy or be judged negatively. Yet if the person you reach out to cares about you, they will not view you this way. In fact, more often than not, people are pleasantly surprised when they get a phone call or a message. Again, as noted previously, you might be the only one reaching out to them. They might be quite delighted to hear from you and would love to be invited to spend time together. You do not have to tell the person you are reaching out because you are lonely – unless you would like to say that. Just let them know you were thinking about them. Too frequently, we wait on others to do the reaching out. Or we keep records and think we have contacted them many times and they “should” equally reciprocate or else we just won’t be their friend anymore. It’s okay to reach out first. It’s okay to always be the one reaching out – because sometimes other people are lonely, depressed, or anxious and reaching out is hard for them. And what if you don’t have anyone to contact? Well, then you have an opportunity to begin building a new support network. Maybe there is a neighbor or coworker you can stop to chat with. Maybe there is a class to take or a club to join. Perhaps you begin attending church and get involved in some activities there. 

Also, too, you could consider meeting with a therapist. A therapist is someone trained to help you work on your communication skills if that might be something you think you may benefit from. They are also someone to practice being more vulnerable with. And they can partner with you to come up with some strategies to help you begin moving out of loneliness. If, too, you find you struggle in your current relationships, a therapist can help you figure out exactly what is happening and help you figure out some ways to improve things.