From time to time, we all experience the odd bout of loneliness. Sometimes it can creep up on us during periods of change (like a move or the end of a relationship, for example), and leave us feeling physically or emotionally distanced from other people. Loneliness doesn’t just strike when we’re by ourselves, either. It can be just as easy to feel lonely in a throng of people when you’re feeling disconnected.
For some people, however, loneliness is more than a fleeting feeling. It can be a near steady state with long-term consequences. “I’d say it was a persistent sense of marginalization and exclusion, and a lack of intimacy,” says Emily White, who experienced a four-year period of loneliness in her early thirties while working as an environmental lawyer in Toronto. “I felt a persistent sense of insufficiency—of not having enough people close to me, and that in turn led to a feeling of anxious aloneness.”
White, who described her experience in a book called Lonely: Learning to Live with Solitude, says the prolonged loneliness eventually began to have physical effects, disrupting her sleep and her health. “I started daydreaming a lot,” she recalls, “and I wasn’t as sharp cognitively. Loneliness started to have an effect on me that was real and observable. It took me some time to figure out how deeply it was affecting me.”
According to White, roughly 10 percent of North Americans struggle with chronic loneliness—a condition more prevalent than depression (and, it’s important to note, different from depression), though harder to understand and less frequently talked about.
“It’s a common problem,” agrees Toronto-based counselor and psychotherapist, Lesli Musicar, who says that many people don’t admit they suffer from loneliness. “A lot of people who feel lonely, you’d never suspect in a million years,” she says. “They might go out a lot, or be highly social, but their interactions stay mainly on the surface. So even though they may give the impression of being popular, those people may be feeling very lonely underneath it all because they aren’t letting people get close to them.”
While some people may be more predisposed to chronic loneliness than others, it can be overcome. Keep loneliness at bay with these tips:
1. Don’t isolate
When you’re feeling lonely already, it can be hard to think about trying to engage with other people, but keeping your own company may only make the problem worse. “Loneliness comes from people not feeling comfortable letting other people close to them,” says Musicar, explaining that if you have a negative self-image, you may be afraid to let others get to know you for fear they might not like what they find. “If you can’t let people close to you, however, you are going to feel alone.” The problem, she explains, is that when you isolate, there’s nobody around to challenge your negative self-image. “You have no reality checks—you only have your own view of yourself.”
2. Keep busy
Though it may be the last thing you want to do if you’re feeling isolated, Musicar suggests joining an group—a book club, a sports team, choir or a gardening group, for example—where you can meet people who share you own interests. “If you join a group where the activity is meaningful for you, and you enjoy it, chances are it will bring out the best in you. And if you feel good while you’re engaged in that activity, it will help you feel more connected to the people around you because you have this one thing in common.”
3. Be kind to yourself
If you’re chronically lonely, you may be fearful of letting people get close. First, learn to love yourself! Fixing a negative view of yourself takes a lot of gentle self-care and nurturing. “The first relationship you need to work on is your relationship with yourself,” says Musicar—and that may mean gently corrected ways of thinking you learned as a child. “If you were neglected or criticized,” she explains, “you need to turn that around. You need to start treating yourself differently. The biggest challenge is to treat yourself well when you aren’t feeling good about yourself.” Being happier with yourself will make it easier to reach out to others.
4. Get educated
Emily White started writing her book on loneliness because she was curious to know more about her condition. Her research actually helped her to feel less lonely by making it less mysterious, which made it easier to deal with. “The more you learn about loneliness and how common it is, the less alone you feel,” she explains. “It’s hard to be lonely, but it’s harder when you don’t understand it or you feel alone in your loneliness.”
5. Find someone to reach out to
Whether it’s a friend, a family member or a therapist, finding someone to talk to about your situation can make a huge difference. “It’s the biggest challenge,” says Musicar, “but it’s the most healing thing you can do for yourself. Our cultural stigma around loneliness makes the condition hard to talk about, but keeping your feelings hidden may leave you feeling worse. “When you feel bad about yourself,” says Musicar, “that’s when you need to hear a different message about yourself. You need to hear from someone else that you matter and that you are worthy.”
Web exclusive June 2010 Best Health magazine