Coping with Loneliness
By Aspasia Hotzoglou, Ph.D.
Feeling lonely is an experience that everyone has at some point in their life. Loneliness can occur when you do not feel understood by your friends and family. It can also occur if you do not perceive your relationships as satisfying. Loneliness can also come up if you have recently moved, are going through a break-up, or starting a new job. You are “hard-wired” to connect with others and when this need is not met loneliness can appear.
Loneliness affects people of all ages, genders, levels of education and intelligence. It is distinct from “being alone.” Have you ever met others that love solitary activities? Solo hikes, trips, or time at home? You probably enjoy a little bit of time to yourself too. Depending on what your personal need for connection is too much time alone can leave you feeling lonely. If you have been feeling lonely for some time getting back to connecting with others can seem more and more difficult. How you approach loneliness can affect how long it sticks around.
Here are some tips to cope with feeling lonely:
Think About What is Contributing to Your Loneliness
- Ask yourself the following questions “Do I feel understood by others? Do I feel connected to others? Do I want to see and talk to others more often? Do I think I am alone too often? Think about which questions you responded “yes” to as a way to begin understanding why you are feeling lonely. Identifying where your loneliness stems from can help the experience seem more manageable and open you up to problem solving.
- Are you being too hard on yourself? Realize that feeling lonely is a normal reaction to changes in your life or feeling disconnected from others. Validate your emotions. Remember self-critical mindsets are not helpful in most situations. Tell yourself “feeling lonely is hard, and is not unique to me.”
Notice Behaviors of Isolation
If you have been feeling lonely for a while the idea of socializing can seem overwhelming. While staying home might seem easier on some days it will increase your feelings of loneliness over time. Start small and build up. The following are some ideas for getting started.
- If you are turning down invitations to get-togethers, or not reaching out to existing friends practice doing just the opposite. Attend a party for an hour or call a friend to check in for 5-10 minutes. Make it a point to leave your home and take a walk around your neighborhood. Make eye contact or smile at others. Say “hello” to neighbors in your elevator, and to the barista in a local cafe.
- Open up to existing relationships. You might think that others do not understand you, or that you do not feel as close to others as you would like. Consider telling a friend that you have been feeling lonely or seeking support from someone that you know.
- Identify times you might feel lonely and plan for them in advance. Do you feel most lonely on after work, weekends, or during holidays? Plan to attend a class during those times, set an in-person or phone date with a friend, go to a museum, grab a Citi Bike and ride around a park.
Change Your Expectations
Maybe you have tried connecting with others in the past and felt rejected and now you are telling yourself “this should be easy, everyone else has friends.” Think about what your expectation is and whether or not it is realistic or helpful.
- Remember that starting new relationships is difficult. Many pieces have to be in place in order for a connection to happen, many of which are out of your control. Someone else’s availability, desire for a friendship, or need for social connection is not in your control. Reframe thoughts like “this is not working” to “this is hard for everyone, not just me.”
- Remind yourself that continuing to try will increase the chances for connection. Isolating will not.
- Check for self-fulfilling prophecies. Walking into a party and expecting that you will not connect with anyone or have fun is not a helpful mindset. In fact, this can turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy. Challenge yourself to attend gatherings, or go to work “expecting the best” or approach situations with a curious mindset.
Avoid Comparisons with Others
As a therapist I often hear clients tell me “everyone else has friends” or “everyone else is in a relationship.” Comparisons keep you focused on what you do not like about your life instead of strategies for change.
- Ask yourself if you are making assumptions about how the relationships of others. If you are – label your thought as an assumption and ask yourself “does this thought actually help me?” Chances are your response is “no.” Let go of that thought.
- Redirect your focus to yourself. Building connection with others is not a race. Instead of making a comparison to others tell yourself: “I am on my own path. Comparisons do not help me connect.”
- Assess how you are using social media. Research shows that lonely and non-lonely individuals spend the same amount of time on social media. Are you using social media to compare yourself to others in a negative way or to connect? If you are using it to make comparisons I suggest taking a 2 week break from social media and seeing how you feel.
Thinking Creatively About Ways to Connect with Others
Family members, current friends, and individuals in your office are not the only people you can connect with. The more opportunities you create for connection the more likely you are to develop a friendship or relationship. Trying one-time activities such as a cooking class, or attending an exercise class can be helpful, but I encourage you to keep on the look-out for activities you can attend several times. This will allow you to have the time to develop a new friendship, and be around others who enjoy the same activities as you. Think of this as “choosing environments that work.” Here are some ideas outside of your usual social circle you may want to try:
- Intramural sport leagues: There are a number of leagues in NYC, and around the country that are open to individuals joining a team by themselves.
- Volunteer Organizations: Is there a cause you are passionate about? Chances are there is a volunteer organization that also wants your help. Volunteer organizations are not only a great way to meet others, the act of helping others can also improve your mood. Schedule a weekly day and time that you can volunteer. Check out volunterrs.org/nyc for options.
- Ongoing classes through CourseHorse: Interested in drawing, painting or acting? CourseHorse offers many multi-week courses across a variety subjects (art, cooking, tech, language). This is a great environment to meet others who share an interest with you.
Talk to Your Therapist
A Cognitive Behavioral Therapist can help you identify why you are feeling lonely and develop a plan for you to begin building meaningful and satisfying relationships. Talk with your therapist about developing a long-term plan to cope with your loneliness.
Aspasia Hotzolgou, Ph.D., Dr. Aspasia Hotzoglou is a Post-Doctoral Fellow, psychologist in training, at the American Institute for Cognitive Therapy. She is trained in cognitive behavioral therapies, specializing in working with individuals suffering from anxiety and mood disorders, trauma, and anger related issues. Check us out at www.CognitiveTherapyNYC.com