29 Sep Tackling Loneliness, The 21st Century’s Biggest Killer
Loneliness strategy (Teddy) Image Copyright: linux87 / 123RF Stock Photo
And solitaire’s the only game in town
And every road that takes him
Takes him down
And by himself it’s easy to pretend
He’ll never love again
Neil Sedaka/Phil Cody
Loneliness is a somewhat inadequate word for a complex mish-mash of feelings, thoughts and physical sensations that well up from their roots in the earliest stages of our development. We all know that loneliness is not simply being alone – it can be quite refreshing to have some time with our own company and loneliness can just as easily engulf us while at a busy party or in the aftermath of lovemaking as it can when locking the doors of an empty home which once echoed with the noise and bustle of family life.
Yes, loneliness is something else – and it is literally killing us as people turn to alcohol and drugs to escape its raw pain or condemn themselves to death in a fit of despondency. The power of loneliness to make us feel so guttural and act so irrationally generally comes from our childhood survival instincts. We no longer really remember what it was like to be a little child but our caregivers were literally everything to us and to lose them – or to be abandoned by them – would trigger an immediate survival response: our little hearts would race, our breathing would become faster and our stomachs would tie itself into knots. We would respond in the only way a pre-lingual child can – by crying. Twenty or thirty years on we have a new name for these scary impulses and sensations: loneliness.
If you are being plagued by feelings of loneliness, read through the following 20 strategies and see which loneliness strategy resonate with you.
A LONELINESS STRATEGY FOR EVERYONE
Loneliness Strategy 1: Separate Feelings and Thoughts
One of the most problematic aspects about loneliness is our stubborn habit of looking for explanations for our feelings. Instead of simply recognising those early childhood fears for what they are, we ask ourselves, ‘why?’ We delve into the past, stringing together other examples of where we felt the same. Due to the way our neural networks are wired, the more we focus on certain words and phrases the stronger they become with anything that doesn’t fit the pattern becoming weaker and fading away. Without realising it we have literally created a story of victimhood, selecting all the self-deprecating language we have stored within and hyperlinking them to the pain and suffering of childhood abandonment. Like an unhealed wound, our loneliness sits there, unaddressed and we do anything we can to avoid really feeling it. Sometimes, the ‘fear’ of our own loneliness can drive us into the unhealthiest places and the sincerity behind the oft-cried plea, “I will do anything if you’ll just stay with me,” is often underestimated by those on the outside observing this.
So the very first loneliness strategy to try is to really understand that loneliness is a feeling, not a reality! The reasons you give yourself for being lonely are – at best – half-truths and they could extend your suffering indefinitely if you re-run them time and time again. Treat your feelings and thoughts as separate beasts and you will be on the road to overcoming chronic loneliness.
Loneliness Strategy 2: Feel the Pain
It may seem counterintuitive to suggest paying attention to the physical and emotional pain of loneliness but understand that much of the suffering comes from the constant mental prodding of unhelpful thoughts and the fear of what lies beneath them. When you really pay attention to what is happening to your body during an abandonment crisis it becomes much less scary. On an emotional level you may feel exposed, empty and vulnerable while on a physical level you might experience nausea, a tightening in the chest, trembling or a combination of these. Notice these feelings, give them a name and then let them pass. No pain ever lasts forever and the more you get used to really feeling the pain and then consciously letting it go, the easier it will become.
Loneliness Strategy 3: Notice and Challenge your Thoughts
There is a subtle but crucial difference between being caught up in your thoughts and observing them from a distance. Once you’ve allowed yourself to feel and release the pain of loneliness, practice noticing which thoughts jump into your mind and try to rake up the pain again. Do you tell yourself, “nobody cares about me,” or “I’m better off looking after myself”? These thoughts determine much of your reality and are only true to the degree that you believe them. To derail this poisonous train of thought, take an honest look back at your life and recall times when people did show they cared or for situations where you did need someone else’s support. They’re almost certainly there if you let yourself find them. Some unhelpful thoughts may originate from a separate, co-existing psychological condition (e.g. OCD) and you may find professional support is necessary to address this.
Loneliness Strategy 4: Reach out to Others
Part of the toxic narrative that often accompanies feelings of loneliness defines you as apart from others – you take on the identity of the loner or the outcast. By withdrawing from people you also lose out on those experiences that counter those damaging thoughts, becoming a victim of your own brooding. A young child instinctively cries when abandoned, attracting adults to its aid, but you will have to take a more pro-active approach, calling a friend, joining a new club or going down to the gym for example. You probably won’t feel like doing any of these things but contact with others is more important than ever when you’re feeling lonely. As a caveat to the above loneliness strategy, it may be that a co-exisiting psychological issue is complicating matters in which case your journey towards repairing your relationship with the outside world may require a different strategy. For example, someone battling depression using CBT may be encouraged to reach out to others as part of their treatment plan whereas another person dealing with PTSD might require that reintegration to be much more carefully managed. Again, in these instances you may benefit from professional support.
Loneliness Strategy 5: Create your Loneliness Battle Plan
It can be difficult to remember the steps above when you are in the middle of a loneliness crisis which is why it is sensible to create your own plan for tackling loneliness head on. For example, set yourself a target to go out socially once a fortnight, whether that is to meet your friends for a drink or to attend a club or event. Book in some time every day recalling the positive experiences you have shared with others in the past and read them out as affirmations. It is also wise to come up with a simple emergency rescue plan for acute bouts of loneliness. For example, you might want to follow a four-step process of stopping what you’re doing, breathing deeply, feeling and releasing the pain and noticing and challenging unhelpful thoughts.
Loneliness Strategy 6: Turn your Attention Outwards
When you’re plagued by loneliness it is only natural that your thoughts and attention will turn inwards. This serves only to increase your isolation and can come across as unfriendly or even hostile to others, creating a vicious cycle. Resist this tendency by making a concerted effort to think about what other people are feeling and what needs they may have. Smile at people you meet on the street and silently wish them well.
Loneliness Strategy 7: Use the Power of the Internet to Find Like Minds
From online societies and fan forums to social media groups and niche blogs, the internet is the perfect place to align yourself with others who share your interests. Whatever your penchant, whether it is something niche, like chasing storms or keeping corn snakes or something more generic, like recipe sharing, knitting or reading books, there will be something out there that will connect you to others with the same passion. Meetup.com is a popular website which organises groups of people into topical and geographical areas and it is a useful hub for arranging get togethers with like-minded souls.
Loneliness Strategy 8: Remember That Tomorrow Never Comes
As with any aspect of life, putting off your social engagements until the time is right or until you feel better is a recipe for disappointment and frustration. There are always reasons for not attending a function or putting off meeting a colleague for coffee but the more you avoid a challenging situation the more anxious you will feel. You will also feel disappointed and frustrated with yourself. The only answer to procrastination is to dig your heels in and push yourself out there.
Loneliness Strategy 9: Start a Social Experiment
A common mistake when feeling lonely is to go out feeling desperate to strike up meaningful relationships. This intensity can turn off potential friends and feeds any self-doubts you already have. Real friendships develop over time so take off the pressure by treating your social interactions as a playful experiment or an adventure rather than a ‘life or death’ situation. If you strike up a bond with someone, great, you’re obviously doing something right. If not, let it go and move on. You will soon find out which people are worth spending time with and what attracts them into your company.
Loneliness Strategy 10: Be Kind to Others
It can seem that we live in a cold, inhumane world sometimes. What we often don’t realise is that we ourselves are contributing to this zeitgeist by walking the streets with a downturned mouth or hostile eyes. Soften it all up and you might be surprised at the reciprocal attitude others show to you. If you’re feeling brave, try smiling to people you would normally be intimidated by (teenagers, people in successful positions, young mothers, etc.). Just be mindful of your personal safety with this loneliness strategy.
Loneliness Strategy 11: Try Out the Magic of Six
Social researchers have apparently worked out that an average person tries out six social groups or clubs before they find one that suits them. On the other hand, people who feel terribly lonely tend to strike up the courage to attend one group, find the experience overwhelming and disappointing and give up the challenge as a bad idea. Make a commitment to find out what groups are out there and to try out the magic of six over a two-month period.
Loneliness Strategy 12: Choose the Best Interpretation
If you are finding it difficult to challenge your unhelpful thoughts around loneliness (Strategy 3) it could be that you are succumbing to the natural tendency to jump to the first disempowering conclusion that comes to mind. For example, if your children have fledged the nest, telling yourself that it is because they don’t love you supports the abandonment narrative whereas telling yourself that it is because you have taught them to be independent and resourceful is more empowering and won’t drag you down into gloom. We often have more control over how we interpret events than we think therefore, where at all possible, choose to believe the empowering, life-affirming option.
Loneliness Strategy 13: If the Past Hurts, Don’t Live in it
When we constantly ruminate about past pain we not only wallow in hurt, we project the same feelings forward and live in fear of the future. Truly living in the present is a tough art to master and requires you to constantly remind yourself to focus and attend to what is around you. The rewards for success are significant though: less regret and anxiety and more meaningful interaction with the world around you.
Loneliness Strategy 14: Don’t Rush the Journey
Desperation to reconnect with people not only risks turning them away, it also piles unnecessary pressure on yourself. As with any journey you might go a certain way down one path and then find you need to retrace your steps and head in a different direction. Not everyone will want to be your friend and there will be others that approach you but that you won’t resonate with. As long as you reach out to the world with integrity and a calm determination you will find genuine companionship in the end.
Loneliness Strategy 15: List your Unique Qualities
When we are used to berating ourselves over our faults it can be a challenge to break the habit and allow ourselves some praise. As with establishing any habit, regular repetition is crucial so make a list of at least ten of your qualities and make sure you read these affirmations out aloud to yourself at least once a day, preferably just before you sleep so they can seep into your unconscious mind.
Loneliness Strategy 16: Avoid the Addiction Trap
There is no short cut to overcoming profound loneliness but there are plenty of ways in which we can mask our feelings with tempting distractions. Overcoming social anxiety through alcohol or drugs may get you through the night but will leave you back at square one in the morning and may even make things worse if, for example, you tend to get emotional, violent or destructive when intoxicated, driving people away and increasing your sense of isolation. This can lead to a vicious circle, pushing you towards both psychological and physical dependency. Another type of addiction to steer clear of is the temporary and shallow intimacy of serial one-night stands.
Loneliness Strategy 17: Stop Thinking of Yourself as Broken
Nobody makes it through life unscathed and given the powerful undercurrents of abandonment that run through every helpless child’s life, feelings of loneliness and the fear of those feelings almost certainly affect the vast majority of people at one time or another. While it is important to overcome our limitations if we want to enjoy a fulfilling social life it is unhelpful to put ourselves in a category that makes us different and inferior to others. Whenever you feel that you are somehow dysfunctional, remind yourself that the feelings you experience are commonplace and that with patience and determination you will climb out of the pit you are in. No one of us is without our own story of hurt.
Loneliness Strategy 18: Enjoy your Freedom
Whenever you are in a relationship with someone else, whether they are a family member, a friend or a work colleague, there is always an element of compromise involved. When you are alone you are truly the master of your domain. Use that freedom to realign your life to better serve the person you are inside. Take that overseas holiday you’ve always wanted or enjoy a new hobby. Not only will you be able to channel your attention into a positive outlet, you are also more likely to find someone who shares your interests.
Loneliness Strategy 19: Seek Professional Help
Some people are able to draw upon the strategies above to move themselves into a better place but some of us require a little extra support, particularly if we are suffering with an underlying psychological issue. A professionally trained therapist can hold you safely while you work together on identifying what is holding you back. They can also offer suggestions on practical steps you can take to become unstuck. If you are unsure of how best to access appropriate help, please read my earlier article: Safe Psychotherapy.
Loneliness Strategy 20: Keep the Faith… Hope
This final loneliness strategy is deceptively simple and, if mastered, is extremely powerful. No matter what happens to you during the day, if you can convince your unconscious mind that things are steadily improving and that everything will turn out “fine” in the end then the battle is half won. French psychologist Emile Coue gave us the straightforward instructions on how to perform this gentle optimistic autosuggestion on ourselves:
Before you go to sleep
Say a little prayer
Every day in every way
It’s getting better and better