Loneliness doesn’t seem to have a type – it infiltrates the hearts and minds of many and will gladly become anyone’s [unwelcome] companion. If nothing else, loneliness is certainly equitable: it doesn’t discriminate based on gender, age, race, relationship status, stage of life, or life circumstances. I was reminded of this the other day when I overheard a conversation between two people in a coffeeshop while waiting for my coffee.

It went something like this:

Person one: It’s so good to see you!  I’m so glad we could do this. Sorry I don’t reach out more often. I’m not, like, busy really – I’m just not great at reaching out to people. I think about it, but then I just… don’t. I don’t know why I do that.  (Pan over to me, wanting to jump in with an emphatic, “Me too! I do that, too! Can I sit down with you guys and join your convo?” . . .   I refrained.)

Person two: Oh I get it! I live in a perpetual state of loneliness (she kind of laughed . . .),  but then I just.. don’t really text or call anyone. Sometimes I feel even more awkward and lonely when I’m around people, so I just choose to stay at home with my cat (at this point, she’s really laughing). My cat never disappoints!

Person one: RIGHT! Isn’t that so weird? Being out of college is harder than I thought it would be… Being social takes so much more effort. I want to be, but it’s hard to connect with people, you know? I don’t know.

Person two: Yeah, for sure. . . . And now that I work from home, it’s hard. I’m comfortable not being super social, as you know. But I realize how lonely I am sometimes.

I found myself “tuned in” to their conversation because I have had versions of the same one, with multiple people, on multiple occasions. It seems that many of us share the same underlying desire to be connected to one another, and at the same time, many of us struggle to find and foster those connections. This can breed feelings of intense loneliness – short-lived for some, but can become more of an undercurrent in the day-to-day lives of others.

So What Is Loneliness?

Loneliness is essentially the gap between the level of connectedness that you are experiencing with others and the level of connectedness you want to be experiencing. Everyone desires different levels of connection with other people, but all of us have some desire to be connected to another. 

Since loneliness is an internal state (not just the act or state of being alone), you may find that you feel lonely even when in a group of people, around family or friends, or in a familiar social environment. This may mean that – for one reason or another – you don’t feel as connected to those you are around as you would like to, you don’t feel a true sense of belonging in a certain social environment, or you may feel misunderstood by the people you are with.

My therapist recently shared a quote from David Spangler that, I think, highlights this “phenomenon”: “Some people think they are in community, but they are only in proximity. True community requires commitment and openness. It is a willingness to extend yourself to encounter and know the other.” Perhaps there are many of us in proximity with other people, but not always feeling a connection with them.

Is Loneliness Really a Big Deal?

How serious is loneliness really? If many of us encounter it at one point or another, is it just something we accept as a “normal” part of the human experience? Not quite. Many studies indicate that loneliness is actually a complex and multilayered emotion, and it’s one that should be taken seriously:

  • 46% of American adults report sometimes or always feeling lonely
  • 43% of American feel their relationships are not meaningful
  • 27% of Americans feel that other people rarely or never really understand them
  • Several studies indicate that loneliness causes stress responses in the body that increase risks for dementia, anxiety, depression, high levels of inflammation, cardiovascular disease, and drug and alcohol addiction 

There is somewhat of a paradox around loneliness: Many of us experience it, but it’s one of those things we don’t often talk about, or, if we want to, we may not know who to talk about these feelings with. And in some cases, we may prefer to internalize our loneliness for fear of rejection, embarrassment, shame.

It can be hard and feel particularly vulnerable to put yourself out there to make or deepen connections when you are feeling lonely. Heck, it can be exhausting to even entertain the idea of unpacking your loneliness with yourself, let alone talking about it with someone else. I totally get it. You may be confused about why you even feel lonely in the first place. Maybe you feel guilty for feeling lonely if you are surrounded by a great support network, family, and/or friends. But one thing we know about loneliness: it doesn’t exclude people, and it doesn’t pick favorites. Equitable, remember? Loneliness can sometimes find us even when we are surrounded by people we value and love. And admitting that you are experiencing these emotions is moving yourself one step closer to peace and connection. 

Here are some practical steps you can take today to address, make sense of, and cope with feelings of loneliness:

1. Explore the origin(s) of your loneliness

There may not be one single reason for feeling lonely, but is there or (or are there a few) that you can pinpoint as contributing factors? 

Some common contributors to feelings of loneliness:

  1. Time of year (Seasonal, weather, certain holidays)
  2. Lack (or loss) of  emotional connection with those you are in proximity with
  3. Grief, depression, anxiety
  4. Transitional periods: between stages of life (starting college, graduating, marriage or divorce, starting a new job, entering parenthood, moving)

Knowing where your loneliness lies can help you tap into the strategies that will be most helpful for you to address and alleviate loneliness.

2. Invest in something you enjoy doing on your own

Being alone does not have to be accompanied by feeling lonely. Finding something you actually enjoy doing by yourself can help you experience solitude and peace when you are physically alone. This also gives you an activity that does not depend on the reliability, commitment, or investment of someone else. Consider trying: reading, baking, knitting, house projects, crafting, puzzles, thrifting, a form of movement you enjoy.

3. Plan ahead

If you know you struggle more with loneliness during a particular time of year, or if you are currently in a season where you are struggling with loneliness, consider trying to “fill your calendar” with things you will look forward to. These plans can be with yourself or with others, but having something “set” can serve to both keep you busy and create connection opportunities.

  • Plans to consider adding to your calendar: Coffee with friends, a weekend away (if you have the margin and means to do so), visit a friend or family member, attend a concert or event near you, study dates if you are in school

4. Pour into an existing relationship

This is definitely a two way street, but if you have a relationship that you would like to deepen and foster, consider what initial step you can take to try to initiate that process. There are several ways you can do this, starting with finding points of connection with this person.

To build a stronger emotional bond with someone, you may consider stepping outside of your comfort zone a bit: 

  • In our January newsletter, Dr Reichmann provides some insight on non-weight related new year’s resolutions. One of these has to do with connection and is a perfect strategy to help you pour into and deepen an existing relationship. She suggests: “Call a friend at least once a week– yes call! Pick up the phone. And talk for at least 8 minutes. A recent article in the New York Times heralded the importance of the 8 minute call- not enough time to overwhelm us, but just enough to feel connected. Also, phone calls are emotionally regulating (vs texts, which have not been shown to provide any regulatory effects.)” (To get more advice and tips like this one from our team of therapists, subscribe to our monthly newsletter!)
  • Schedule a date and time to actually hang out with the person you are trying to connect with: brunch, a walk, a playdate if you both have kids, dinner, anything. But put it on the calendar and do what you can on your end to follow through.

Being intentional about connecting with another person may require you to “put yourself out there.” And there is a chance that your efforts won’t be met with the same level of enthusiasm, but you won’t know unless and until you make an effort, and your effort may end up creating a deep, lifelong bond with a friend, partner, or family member that defies the feelings of loneliness you are experiencing right now. 🙂

5. Prioritize Sleep

You may be thinking: What’s the connection between sleep and loneliness here? Several studies indicate that getting a good amount of sleep each night can help lessen feelings of loneliness that lead to increased levels of anxiety and depression. Sleep not only helps our bodies stay physically healthy, but it helps us regulate our emotions and hormones, leading us to feel better mentally, as well. Sleep will not cure loneliness in and of itself, but it will help get your mind and body in a state where you are less susceptible to some of the negative impacts it could have on your physical and mental health.

6. Volunteer or Join a Group:

Seek out local groups that align with your interests and hobbies.  Consider a book club, women’s group, on-campus group if you are in college, recreational sport team, organization you can volunteer for. These kinds of opportunities open the door for connection with people who have similar interests and passions. And they can also help you find enjoyment and purpose through meaningful experiences outside of class, work, home.

7. Establish a regular daily routine

Having a regular daily routine can be especially important if your schedule isn’t already regimented because of a school or work schedule. Having a sporadic class schedule, working from home, being a stay-at-home parent are all situations where establishing a set structure for your days can help you plan opportunities for both connection and rest.

8. Talk to a therapist

If your feelings of loneliness are pervasive, or if you feel they are impacting your overall sense of wellbeing and life satisfaction, consider connecting with a therapist if you are not already.  Studies show that feelings of loneliness can contribute to feelings of anxiety and depression and that anxiety and depression can, in turn, further perpetuate feelings of loneliness. Working with a therapist can give you the opportunity to put words to your feelings and experiences with loneliness. It can also help you move out of the rut you may be in because of these feelings. 

While feeling lonely is unfortunately very common, it does not have to characterize your state of being. Recognizing your feelings of loneliness, and clarifying your desire for what a meaningful connection looks like can help you get the most out of relationships in your life. Humans are built for connection, and you deserve to experience that connection in its most meaningful and authentic form.

By: Erika Muller, Assistant for Wildflower Therapy LLC

All images via Unsplash

How Can Wildflower Therapy in Philadelphia, PA Help You?

Life is a unique journey for each of us, and we all have our individual battles to fight. If you are struggling with loneliness and want to partner with someone to help work through the complex set of emotions you are experiencing, our therapists in Pennsylvania would be honored to help!  You can get to know a little bit more about them here and book a free consultation here.

Our therapists know there is no one-size-fits-all approach to any of life’s difficulties and we offer many unique perspectives and approaches to help meet you where you are with our Philadelphia, PA Therapy services.

We offer services for eating disorder therapy, services for anxiety, and depression, and have practitioners who specialize in perinatal mental health maternal mental healththerapy for college students and athletes. As well as LGBTQIA+ Affirming Therapy. As you can see, we have something to offer just about anyone in our Philadelphia, PA office. Reaching out is often the most difficult step you can take to improve your mental health. We look forward to helping you on this journey!