Studies show that Americans, and most people in the western world, are experiencing an epidemic of loneliness. On a previous post I discussed loneliness and offered a psychological test to determine “How lonely are you right now?” You can find that test here. Remember that every human being experiences loneliness. People feel lonely for a number of reasons, including changing situations, life transitions, losses, social awkwardness, emotional hurts, or intentional isolation.
Can we overcome loneliness? Can we connect more, and sulk less? Can we make new friends and live life more to the full? Yes. I think we can. As a counselor, I have worked with many, many people who have successfully—and often reasonably quickly—overcome loneliness.
Eight of my ideas to help in this journey away from loneliness are offered below.
First, take a deep breath. Realize that it isn’t just you. Lots of people struggle with feeling alone, especially during times of loss, transition or holidays. The speed and transitory nature of our society has made it harder and harder to connect. Just a generation ago, people worked in the fields together, canned peaches together, built barns together, bowled together, chatted at the barber shop, or went to church picnics together. Everyone knew all of their neighbors. Many of these “Mayberry RFD” things don’t happen much today. Yet the desire to interact more deeply is still what makes us who we are–alive. So the first step is to take a deep breath and know that you are simply human. Thankfully, humans can grow and change. Every day offers new opportunities.
Second, take a walk. Getting outside helps almost every emotional struggle. Studies show that walking around a mall or a park reduces the sense of anxiety and depression in most people. It changes the blood flow to healthy areas of our brain. The world stimulates our brain as no TV can. And it is good for you physically. Feeling alone? Right now, put your shoes on. Open the door. Put one step in front of the other. Go for a twenty-minute walk. As Bilbo Baggins sings in Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring,
“The Road goes ever on and on down from the door where it began.
Now far ahead the Road has gone, and I must follow, if I can,
Pursuing it with eager feet, until it joins some larger way
Where many paths and errands meet. And whither then? I cannot say.”
Third, take yourself out. Take yourself out for a date to a movie or to a nice restaurant. Treat yourself. Buy a new book and go read at a coffee shop. Take in a ball game. Go try a new ice cream shop, or walk through an antique store. Many times it isn’t simply the friend you are missing, but the activities and hobbies you once shared. Although, it may seem awkward at first, and even more alone to be doing things by yourself, don’t give into fear. It is not strange to be by yourself and out doing things! What charges you up or refuels your own tank? You can find some ideas here. Once you remember why you did these things before, you can enjoy the activity for itself again. And the real truth is that you are worth it.
Fourth, phone a friend. Think of people you know or used to know. Are there any people you miss? Any people you wish you knew better? People you occasionally hang out with? Call them and simply say, “I was thinking about you today, and wondering how your life is going. Do you have a minute to chat?” Talk on the phone for a few minutes (a short call, and listen to them!) or ask them to grab a cup of coffee or lunch (then listen to them again!). If they ask how you are doing (and seem to mean it) simply be honest, “I going through some transitions right now, and sometimes I feel disconnected. I miss talking.” Minimize your expectations—my rule is that these talks can have no strings or future hopes. Their purpose is to create social contact, so enjoy it. A follow-up connecting time may present itself or not, but the blessing is that you are genuinely caring about someone else. This is a key part of being alive and talking with others..
Fifth, take a little risk. Get involved in some activities. Inaction is proven to breed depression. What are you interested in? Join a sports league or take a class. Self-defense or Scuba or art. Join a book club. Call up a local shelter and volunteer serving meals. Help build a house with Habitat for Humanity for one day. Visit a church, and stay for a doughnut. Take a deep breath and talk to someone, even simply saying, “Hi. Isn’t it a beautiful day?” Affinity groups or groups for social anxiety can even be found online. Don’t go just hoping to make friends. Try to go with no expectations whatsoever and to enjoy yourself regardless of what happens. Just do something with some people. Why? Read about Intimacy—And How to Get it.
Sixth, take initiative. Don’t wait for people to approach you. Most people in the world want safe, appropriate relationships, too. Everyone is afraid of rejection at some level, so we must always show interest in other people before they will show interest in us. You’re actually helping them if you approach them first. Say simply, “ Hi. I’m Brad. I’m new here, and I’m trying to make myself talk to people I don’t know. What’s your name?” Be sure to listen and remember their name–you can use it next time you see them. Again, let things happen naturally—no strings or future hopes. Smile and experience life.
Seventh, take a look up. If you are a religious or a spiritual person and pray every day, there is now proof that you might be doing your brain and body a huge favor. According to several studies at non-religious places (like the British Journal of Health, University of Pennsylvania, Columbia University, and Harvard Medical School), people who pray fight off depression, anxiety, and loneliness far more than those who don’t. Studies show religious faith even changes our brain cortex so that we deal with daily stress better. Research finds that prayer reduces our current tension levels, improves our heart health, speeds up post-surgery recovery, and helps us live longer. Most people believe there is a good God above, watching over us. That life has meaning, and that there is a plan for our lives. So say a prayer. God is there, honestly, and we are not completely alone. We have someone we can talk to. Someone we can connect with. It is my opinion–and concrete experience–that God desires to connect with us. Deeply and with love. You might want to check out my blogs, Spiritual Intimacy: A Historic Voice or Drinking a Beer with Jesus.
Eighth, take a helping hand. If none of the above seven steps seem to help, or if you still find yourself lonely, depressed, or suicidal—it is the time to tell someone. Start by confessing to a friend, a parent, or a co-worker. Call your regular physician and just be honest. Go to a local Emergency Room or Google certified therapists near you. It is no failure to get a professional counselor or doctor to help you with emotional issues, just like going to a dentist for a toothache or a hospital with a broken arm. It is simply a smart, positive step to take. Loneliness is such a common human problem that most successful therapists can coach you toward new connections. As well, modern medicine has found several new drugs which are really helpful in treating depression and anxiety with few side effects. A few meetings might change your life for the better, and for the long haul.
The bottom line: you can change tomorrow. You can make new friends. You can find deeper intimacy. Just take a one step. How about today? How about now?