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Feeling Lonely? Here's What to Do About It

By Ashley Broadwater
August 25, 2022

Most of us have felt lonely at some point in our lives. According to the 2021 Loneliness in America survey conducted by the Harvard Graduate School of Education, 36% of Americans overall, including 61% of young adults and 51% of mothers with young children, report feeling “serious loneliness,” meaning they had felt lonely frequently or almost all the time within the four weeks before taking the survey.

Sometimes, the reason for feeling isolated may be obvious—you’ve been working from home and haven’t seen other people that day, or you're going through a breakup with a romantic partner or friend. But loneliness can also find its way to you even when you’re surrounded by family at a gathering, or when your social calendar has been booked for weeks with meals and outings with friends.

4 Causes of Loneliness and How to Handle Them

Loneliness can feel all-consuming and overwhelming, especially when you think you’re doing all the “right things” to feel more connected and nothing seems to help. If you feel alone in a crowded room or find the usual advice—like simply spending more time with loved ones—just isn’t working, the following tips can help you identify the root cause of your loneliness and provide strategies to cope with it in a more meaningful way.

1. Your Relationships Have Changed

Between the stay-at-home orders at the beginning of the pandemic and the waves of COVID-19 variants that have seen us return to and retreat from the office, most of us have spent a lot more time on our own in the last two years than ever before. And many of us have used that solo time to reflect on our relationships.

Maybe the slow drifting away of a friendship during the pandemic, seemingly without a concrete cause or a definitive ending, has brought on a feeling of ambiguous loss, which occurs when you don’t have the information and closure necessary to truly cope. Or perhaps you made the difficult decision to let go of a relationship with a family member who didn’t respect your pandemic boundaries. Even though some time has passed, you may still be coping with the reverberating effects of losing connections with people you cared about.

“During the time of isolation when our worlds closed down, it gave us a rare moment of collective pause to reflect on what was important to us, what we wanted, and who we wanted to be around,” says Danielle Haig, Ph.D., a psychologist and business leadership coach. "Many of our relationships have drifted, and we’ve realized that perhaps we don’t want some connections anymore.”

How to Handle It

Start by reminding yourself that it’s okay to have boundaries and move on from relationships. “You’re allowed to evolve, grow, and change,” Haig says. It’s also worth taking a step back and considering why your relationship ended in the first place. Research indicates that understanding the reasons behind a relationship breakup may help stop you from internalizing the cause and spiraling into self-blame and dwelling on negative thoughts after the fact.

If you still have an inkling of hope that you may be able to reconnect, Haig recommends deeply considering whether and how you want this person to show up in your life, and acting accordingly. Upon reflection, you may realize you're better off without them, despite the pain of losing a relationship, or it may be time to initiate a vulnerable conversation with the other party to try to meet in the middle.

2. You’re Still Coping with the Trauma of the Pandemic

Although we're in a more hopeful place compared to March 2020, it's possible that you haven’t completely moved on from the lockdown loneliness and uncertainty you endured for years. And that sense of isolation and anxiety may have started even before the emergence of COVID-19.

“The pandemic magnified how disconnected we really are,” says Lizandra Leigertwood, M.B.A.C.P., a psychotherapist with New Frame Therapy in the United Kingdom. “There will be a long-lasting impact on our mental health, particularly for those who live alone, and some who may have had small signs of social anxiety before are struggling socially now more than ever.”

As Leigertwood points out, struggling to meaningfully connect when we've been deprived of meaningful connection the last several years is understandable. “We all couldn’t wait to return to ‘normal,’ but we can’t erase the collective trauma we all endured,” she says. “We’re spending less time with human interaction and more time on social media and the internet, when we are wired for human social connection.”

How to Handle It

One way to cope is by connecting with people in ways that are meaningful to you. “Spend time doing the things you enjoy, even if that now looks different to what it used to be,” Leigertwood says. “Take a class to learn a new skill and be open to making new social connections.” She also recommends taking a break from social media and, instead, finding ways to connect in person when and where possible.

You’ve likely come across advice to “create boundaries with your devices” for what seems like a million times, but the logic stands. Research suggests that social media use can contribute to loneliness (and may have done so before and during the pandemic), and receiving in-person social support may lead to reductions in depression, anxiety, and feelings of isolation.

3. You Don’t Always Feel Heard or Valued in Social Settings

Have you ever found yourself at an event or gathering with a group and suddenly realized they just aren’t “your people”? This type of experience can make you feel lonely, too.

“Not all connections are the same,” Haig explains. “We can spend time with people whom we aren’t bonded with or have any similarities or shared hobbies, thinking, or world views with. We're social animals, and we need to feel understood and heard—and often, that’s with like-minded people.”

How to Handle It

If you’ve noticed that you leave social situations feeling empty or overlooked, it may be time to find or make plans with friends who have more common interests. “If you’re in a crowded room and feel lonely, then it’s time to find another room,” Haig says.

She suggests volunteering or joining a sports club or religious group. “All you must do is make a concerted effort, and you’d be surprised at how many like-minded people are waiting for you to join them. Not everyone who likes tennis or amateur dramatics will be your best friend, but you’ll have things to discuss and share.”

That’s not to say you shouldn’t spend time with people who are different from you (you certainly should!), but it may help you feel more valued and less lonely to make an effort to spend time with people whom you can relate to and open up with.

And if you feel anxious about making new friends as an adult, know that you aren’t alone. Starting small—meeting just one new person at a coffee shop or community event—can help.

4. You’re Focusing Too Much on People-Pleasing

You may think making other people happy and prioritizing their needs is a quick way to create friendships. Maybe that’s how you were raised to make friends, or it’s a strategy that has worked for you in the past. But constantly acting on people-pleasing tendencies can leave you feeling lonely.

“If we're not having meaningful connections with those around us, like not showing up as our authentic selves, or pretending everything is okay when it isn’t, it can feel extremely isolating,” Leigertwood says. “This can lead to having superficial or surface-level connections because no matter how many people you might have around you, you're not truly connecting in those relationships.”

How to Handle It

Start by getting to know your wants and needs; then begin taking steps to advocate for them. “People can only really feel connected to you if you're willing to be your true self and not just tell them what you think they want to hear or be who you think people want you to be,” Leigertwood says.

Practice saying no and setting boundaries. “A simple trick to help with people-pleasing: Before saying yes, give yourself some time to think about it before responding,” Leigertwood says. “It can give you the time and space you need to really consider and practice if what you would really like to respond with is a no.”

In time, you may find that saying no can feel good because you’re only saying yes to opportunities and plans where you can show up as your best, most present self. And when you’re more present and at ease, chances are you may feel a bit less lonely.

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