One of the topics that has been gaining more wide-spread attention lately is loneliness. Studies have found that loneliness can have detrimental effects on our health by impacting our healthy behaviors, cardiovascular system, stress hormones, and sleep patterns. Loneliness can impact our immune system, experience of pain, and ultimately, how long we live. Loneliness is an all too common experience in the U.S. and it is on the rise. The former U.S. Surgeon General Vivek H. Murthy called loneliness an epidemic. A study conducted by The Economist and the Kaiser Family Foundation (KFF) in 2018 found that 22% of Americans "always or often feel lonely, or lack companionship, or else feel left out or isolated." Given how many of us feel lonely and how damaging loneliness can be, I want to offer some strategies to combat loneliness and create deeper connections.
Acknowledge and Understand Your Feelings
One of the first steps in addressing loneliness is to identify when it is happening and what it is trying to tell you. Does loneliness feel like an ache in your heart, a coldness in your chest, a restlessness in your body, a tension in your shoulders, a craving for food or substances, a sense of boredom, or something different? For example, I feel a drop in my stomach when I am feeling lonely that makes me want to reach for comfort food or turn on an episode of my favorite Netflix show. Understanding that this is loneliness rather than true hunger or boredom helps me pause and acknowledge this feeling rather than automatically go for the things that will numb this feeling.
Once you've identify loneliness, ask yourself why you are feeling lonely. There could be many different reasons. This article by Gretchen Rubin, the author of The Happiness Project, outlines seven different reasons for loneliness. For example, we could be surrounded by friends and family and yet feel lonely because these relationships do not offer us the depth or intimacy that we crave. Take some time to reflect and ask yourself, "What is really missing in my life?"
Identify Relationships That are Meaningful
A recent study of 1,839 U.S. adults confirmed what we knew all along that the quality of relationships matters more than quantity. Therefore, it is important to know which relationships are meaningful and worthy of your investment. A meaningful relationship is one that makes you feel safe and secure to be fully yourself and be vulnerable, welcomes and holds your emotions, supports and challenges you to grow, has mutual respect and admiration, is reciprocal in the giving and receiving of care, and is dependable and committed. You will know you have a meaningful relationship or the potential for one when you feel accepted by this person without trying to be someone you are not, when you feel seen and understood by this person, when you look forward to spending quality time together, and when you leave interacting with this person feeling fuller and more satisfied.
In order to find and establish more meaningful relationships, you must be willing to be brave and risk being rejected and reject others who are not a good fit for you. In the process of searching for and developing these deeply fulfilling relationships, you could feel disappointed, hurt, even betrayed by opening yourself up to someone. Know that you are not alone in this process and that the reward is so very worth it. You can take small steps toward intimacy and connection by being gentle and kind toward yourself, making eye contact with a stranger, asking a friend about their past or something they are struggling with, listening and extending your empathy, sharing something vulnerable and true, asking someone to help you with a task, offering to help or care for someone or an animal, scheduling times to connect in-person, and offering physical contact (e.g., a hug).
How you do address feelings of loneliness in your life? Please share with me in the comment section below.
Counseling in Ballard
Are you looking for some extra help and support to overcome feelings of loneliness and create more meaningful relationships in your life? Counseling may be able to help. We are a team of compassionate and skilled therapists who help individuals and couples in the Seattle area with a wide range of mental health concerns at our Ballard counseling office. You can schedule a 15 minute phone consultation or contact us for more information.
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The information provided in this blog is not a substitute for professional mental health treatment.