How To Cope With Loneliness
Simple Steps For Overcoming Loneliness
Virtually everyone experiences loneliness from time to time, with many people becoming especially aware of feelings of loneliness around the holiday season, Valentine’s Day, and during times of extreme stress. While the sheer number of people who experience loneliness is quite large (a poll on this site shows that holiday loneliness is experienced by a surprising proportion of readers, for example), people don’t always talk about feelings of loneliness, and don’t always know what to do with these feelings. Other than being emotionally painful, loneliness can affect people in many ways:
- Physical Pain: Research shows that the areas of the brain that deal with social exclusion are the same areas that process physical pain, adding a scientific explanation to the oft-romanticized experience of a “broken heart.”
- Depression: One study found that lonely people showed more depressive symptoms, and that lonely and depressed people alike tended to experience less “togetherness” in social interactions. Research has also found that depression and loneliness can feed off of each other, each perpetuating the other.
- Physical Health: Several studies have linked emotional stress with depressed immunity. Other research links loneliness and depression with poorer health and wellbeing. That means that people who are experiencing loneliness are susceptible to a variety of health issues.
If you’re experiencing loneliness, there are some things you can do about it.
Join a Class
Whether it’s an art class, an exercise class, or a class at your local community college, joining a class automatically exposes you to a group of people who share at least one of your interests. It can also provide a sense of belonging that comes with being part of a group. This can stimulate creativity, give you something to look forward to during the day, and help stave off loneliness. (See this article for more on the benefits of exercise and taking classes.)
Becoming a volunteer for a cause you believe in can provide the same benefits as taking a class — meeting others, being part of a group, creating new experiences — and also brings the benefits of altruism, and can help you find more meaning in your life, both of which can bring greater happiness and life satisfaction, as well as decreasing loneliness. Additionally, working with others who have less can help you feel a deeper sense of gratitude for what you have in your own life.
Find Support Online
Because loneliness is a somewhat widespread issue, there are many people online who are looking for people to connect with. You do have to be careful of who you meet over the internet (and, obviously, don’t give out any personal information like your bank account number), but you can find real support, connection and lasting friendships from people you meet online. (One place to start is the Stress Management Forum on this site!)
Strengthen Existing Relationships
You probably already have people in your life that you could get to know better, or connections with family that could be deepened. If so, why not call friends more often, go out with them more, and find other ways to enjoy your existing relationships and strengthen bonds? (See this article on creating supportive friendships for more ideas.)
Get A Pet
Pets — especially dogs and cats — carry so many benefits, and preventing loneliness is one of them. Rescuing a pet combines the benefits of altruism and companionship, and leaves you with several loneliness-fighters. It can connect you with other people — walking a dog opens you up to a community of other dog-walkers, and a cute dog on a leash tends to be a people magnet. Additionally, pets provide unconditional love, which can be a great salve for loneliness. (See this article for more on the benefits of pets.)
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy And Other Types of Therapy
Research has shown that loneliness and depressive symptomatology can act in a synergistic effect to diminish well-being, meaning the more lonely you are, the more depressed you feel, and vice versa. It’s also been found that people experiencing loneliness tend to feel more lonely than others when with other people, meaning that even when they are with other people, lonely people tend to keep their loneliness to a degree. Because of this, sometimes just “getting out there” and meeting other people isn’t enough. If this is the case for you, it may be a good idea to seek psychotherapy to help with feelings of loneliness, especially if you also feel depressed. Some forms of therapy, especially cognitive behavioral therapy, can help you to change your thoughts as well as your actions to help you not only experience less loneliness, but do more in your life to prevent loneliness. (See this article for more on cognitive therapy.)
Whatever you do to combat loneliness, know that you are truly not alone, and there are many things you can do to feel more connected.
What Is The Idea Behind Cognitive Therapy?
Cognitive therapy for stress rests on the premise that it’s not simply the events in our lives that cause us stress, it’s the way we think about them. For example, two people may be caught in traffic. While one person could view this situation as an opportunity to listen to music or get lost in thought and become (or remain) relaxed, another person may focus on the wasted time or the feeling of being trapped, and become distressed. There are hundreds of examples of how our thoughts and our negative self talk color our experiences and can lead to a triggered stress response or a calm demeanor.
Virtually all of the thought patterns that negatively impact our experiences can be categorized into one of 10 common cognitive distortions. Therapists using a cognitive approach work with clients to recognize and alter these habitually negative thought patterns. You can also work on some of them at home. See this article on cognitive restructuring for more information.
When you think about your life, it is quite possible that your mind is playing tricks on you that can distort your view. Cognitive distortions — where your mind puts a ‘spin’ on the events you see, and attaches a not-so-objective interpretation to what you experience — happen all the time. They are especially common in people with depression and other mood disorders.
Aaron T. Beck originally came up with the theory of cognitive distortions in the 1960s, and many therapists since then have helped clients live more positive lives by hunting down their cognitive distortions and correcting them. (It’s one of the tenets of a very successful and fast-working mode of therapy called cognitive therapy.)
When you know what to be on the lookout for, it becomes rather easy to spot the cognitive distortions in others. It may be a little more challenging to spot your own, but it is possible. Doing so usually brings lasting positive change in the way you experience stressors in your life.
An interesting thing to note is that several cognitive distortions, can actually work to your advantage. The key is to know when and how to do so. See this article on traits of optimists for the secrets to cognitive distortion success.
Here are the 10 most common (and officially recognized) cognitive distortions, with examples of how they relate to stress. You might find yourself smiling as you recognize one or two as familiar “friends.” If, in the coming days, you look for them and gently correct them, you’ll be well on your way to reducing your reactivity to the stress in your life.
This type of distortion is the culprit when people think in extremes, with no gray areas or middle ground. All-or-nothing thinkers often use words like “always” and “never” when describing things. “I always get stuck in traffic!” “My bosses never listen to me!” This type of thinking can magnify the stressors in your life, making them seem like bigger problems than they may, in reality, be.
Those prone to overgeneralization tend to take isolated events and assume that all future events will be the same. For example, an overgeneralizer who faces a rude sales clerk may start believing that all sales clerks are rude and that shopping will always be a stressful experience.
Those who tend toward mental filtering may gloss over positive events and hold a magnifying glass to the negative. Ten things can go right, but a person operating under the influence of a mental filter may only notice the one thing that goes wrong. (Add a little overgeneralization and all-or-nothing thinking to the equation, and you have a recipe for stress.)
Disqualifying the Positive
Similar to mental filtering, those who disqualify the positive tend to treat positive events like flukes, thereby clinging to a more negative world view and set of low expectations for the future. Have you ever tried to help a friend solve a problem, only to have every solution you pose shot down with a “Yeah but…” response? You’ve witnessed this cognitive distortion firsthand.
Jumping to Conclusions
People do this one all the time. Rather than letting the evidence bring them to a logical conclusion, they set their sights on a conclusion (often negative), and then look for evidence to back it up, ignoring evidence to the contrary. The kid who decides that everyone in his new class will hate him, and ‘knows’ that they’re only acting nice to him in order to avoid punishment, is jumping to conclusions. Conclusion-jumpers can often fall prey to mind reading (where they believe that they know the true intentions of others without talking to them) and fortune telling (predicting how things will turn out in the future and believing these predictions to be true). Can you think of examples of adults you know who do this? I bet you can.
There are 5 more cognitive distortions to learn about that happen all the time.
Magnification and Minimization
Similar to mental filtering and disqualifying the positive, this cognitive distortion involves placing a stronger emphasis on negative events and downplaying the positive ones. The customer service representative who only notices the complaints of customers and fails to notice positive interactions is a victim of magnification and minimization. Another form of this distortion is known as catastrophizing, where one imagines and then expects the worst possible scenario. It can lead to a lot of stress.
This one is a close relative of jumping to conclusions in that it involves ignoring certain facts when drawing conclusions. Emotional reasoners will consider their emotions about a situation as evidence rather than objectively looking at the facts. “I’m feeling completely overwhelmed, therefore my problems must be completely beyond my ability to solve them,” or, “I’m angry with you; therefore, you must be in the wrong here,” are both examples of faulty emotional reasoning. Acting on these beliefs as fact can, understandably, contribute to even more problems to solve.
Those who rely on ‘should statements’ tend to have rigid rules, set by themselves or others, that always need to be followed — at least in their minds. They don’t see flexibility in different circumstances, and they put themselves under considerable stress trying to live up to these self-imposed expectations. If your internal dialogue involves a large number of ‘shoulds,’ you may be under the influence of this cognitive distortion.
Labeling and Mislabeling
Those who label or mislabel will habitually place labels that are often inaccurate or negative on themselves and others. “He’s a whiner.” “She’s a phony.” “I’m just a useless worrier.” These labels tend to define people and contribute to a one-dimensional view of them, paving the way for overgeneralizations to move in. Labeling cages people into roles that don’t always apply and prevents us from seeing people (ourselves included) as we really are. It’s also a big no-no in relationship conflicts.
Those who personalize their stressors tend to blame themselves or others for things over which they have no control, creating stress where it need not be. Those prone to personalization tend to blame themselves for the actions of others, or blame others for their own feelings.
If any of these feel a little too familiar, that’s a good thing: recognizing a cognitive distortion is the first step of moving past it. See this article for tips on cognitive restructuring, the process of moving beyond cognitive distortions.
Source: Burns, David, M.D. Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy. Avon Books:New York, NY, 1992.
A Little Cognitive Restructuring Can Bring Significant Change
There’s plenty of solid evidence that how we think about what’s going on in our lives can greatly contribute to whether or not we find events in our lives stressful. Cognitive distortions, or patterns of faulty thinking, can impact our thoughts, behaviors and experience of stress.
Our self talk, the internal dialogue that runs in our heads, interpreting, explaining and judging the situations we encounter, can actually make things seem better or worse, threatening or non-threatening, stressful or…well, you get the picture. Some people tend to see things in a more positive light, and others tend to view things more negatively, putting themselves at a disadvantage in life. (See this article on optimism and pessimism to see how.) But, as our self-talk develops starting in childhood, how does one go about changing these habitual thought patterns?
Cognitive restructuring, a process of recognizing, challenging, and changing cognitive distortions and negative thought patterns can be accomplished with the help of a therapist trained in cognitive therapy or cognitive behavioral therapy. However, in many cases results can also be achieved at home with the right information and commitment to change. Here are some general tips on changing negative self talk. For more specific tips, keep reading.
Awareness Is The First Step
Become aware of your cognitive distortions of choice. The first step in loosening the grip of cognitive distortions is to become aware of them. Take a look at this list and see which ones sound familiar. If you have a name for them, and some examples of how they work, they become much easier to recognize — or harder to ignore! Once you become aware of your patterns of faulty thinking, you can begin to challenge these thoughts more and more: look for exceptions if you’re an all-or-nothing thinker; make it a point to look for evidence and try to find alternate conclusions if you find yourself jumping to conclusions or practicing emotional reasoning.
With time and practice, this type of cognitive restructuring will become second nature to challenge your negative thinking patterns, and replacing them with more positive thoughts and views will become easy.
Recognize Your Power
Studies on burnout show that people tend to get more stressed when they feel that they don’t have a choice in what happens to them. In some situations, such as within the context of a job, there is very little choice. However, we can also create a choice-less reality in our minds when we fail to recognize when choices exist. Pay attention to your self talk: do you tend to say you ‘have to’ or ‘can’t’ do things a lot?
The statement, “I can’t work out because I have to volunteer at the kids’ school again,” ignores the reality that both activities are choices. Just because one choice isn’t chosen doesn’t mean it wasn’t a choice to begin with. Changing your ‘have to’s and ‘can’t’s’ into ‘choose to’ and ‘choose not to’ (or some smoother-sounding approximations) can actually remind you that you do have choice in a situation, and help you feel less stressed. “I’d like to work out, but I choose to volunteer at the kids’ school instead,” feels less confined, and sounds more fun, doesn’t it? (For more on recognizing choices in your reality, see this resource on locus of control.)
Cut Down On The ‘Shoulds’
As I was studying to become a therapist, I once heard a colleague tell a client, “Stop ‘shoulding’ all over yourself.” It was a cute way of helping the client notice how often she said the word ‘should’ when making plans. What’s the problem with the word ‘should’, you may ask? It’s another confining word that implies that there’s one way that things need to be done, and usually it’s a way mandated by someone else that doesn’t necessarily fit for your situation. The truth is, we do things because we want to (usually, but not always, because we have valid reasons for wanting to), and if our self talk reflects this, it usually feels much nicer. “I should call my friend” sounds and feels better as, “I’d like to call my friend”. And if this is not a true statement, you might reconsider the action.
Actively Focus on the Positive
Often people place an inordinate level of focus on the negative, discount the positive, or fail to see the positive altogether. This leads to a world view that can seem overwhelming, and problems that feel insurmountable. When you place a focus on the positive aspects of a situation, and make peace with the negative, the situation becomes less stressful. If people are rude to you done day, go out of your way to notice the people who are neutral or polite. If things just seem to be going wrong one after another, make an effort to notice and appreciate what does go smoothly.
Along these lines, many people find that keeping a gratitude journal — a daily log of things for which they are grateful — is immensely helpful in that it not only supplies a list of blessings to look over, but it trains the mind to notice these blessings throughout the day, and it affects their whole experience of stress.
Stay In The Here And Now
When dealing with a problem, try focusing on what’s happening right now, without projecting into the future or dredging up the past; it keeps you dealing with what’s going on now. For example, interpersonal conflicts are often complicated by past grievances, and when people focus on not only what’s happening now, but on all the previous times they’ve been angry at each other, and project into the future that things will never change, their anger and frustration sharply escalates.
Try to stay in the present, the specific problem, and finding a solution that works. This can effectively help you deal with a variety of stressors without becoming as overwhelmed. (For more, also see this article on communication skills.)
Again, if you’re dealing with a more severe form of stress or a clinical disorder, you’ll see the best results with a trained therapist. However, these techniques for cognitive restructuring can be helpful in changing negative thought patterns to relieve daily stress; with practice, you may see a significantly positive change in outlook, and a decrease in your experience of stress.
Burns, David, M.D. Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy. Avon Books:New York, NY, 1992.
Fava GA, Ruini C, Rafanelli C, Finos L, Conti S, Grandi S. Six-Year Outcome of Cognitive Behavior Therapy for Prevention of Recurrent Depression. American Journal of Psychiatry. October 2004.
Sage therapist Steven Kalas —
Sigmund Freud’s genius ideas still undeniable
Sigismund Schlomo Freud was born on May 6, 1856. And then he changed western civilization as we knew it. Not to mention that, because of Sigmund Freud, I have a job.
Sigmund Freud was a social savant. He’s somewhere in the top three of “change agents” of the past 150 years. Because of his ideas, our culture is quintessentially “psychologized.” It is through the lens of Freud’s ideas that we fundamentally see ourselves and the world around us.
Freudian slips. Questions of motive. The Unconscious. Sexuality. Today, Freud’s ideas are relentlessly reflected in the way we think and the way we talk. It shapes our humor. It shapes our ideas about suffering and healing. It shapes the way we ask questions, the way we apprehend human dilemmas and proceed in our attempts to ameliorate those dilemmas.
Even severe critics of Freud find themselves thinking in Freudian terms as a resource for their criticism. There is no way to escape his emblazoned “cultural fingerprint” on the modern way of life.
The truth is, nearly 100 years since the emergence of his genius, the bulk of Freud’s ideas still hold up as undeniable. (See? There Freud lives in my own language choice! If you resist what Freud is saying, that is evidence that you are “in denial.”)
Here’s a primer of Freudian theory that seems to me self-evident and unassailable:
There exists a human unconscious and a human ego. These two are not natural friends. On a good day, each is deeply suspicious of the other. The unconscious is relentless in its desire to communicate authenticity and wholeness to the ego. And the ego is relentless to ignore, dodge, deny and defend itself from those communications. In short, every human life is a story of a war within oneself.
The ego is genius in its ability to defend itself. The chief defense mechanism is repression, or, “splitting.” The ego simply chops off uncomfortable aspects of the self and tosses them summarily into the unconscious. But these denied energies don’t rest quietly within us. They emerge as neuroses and drive myriad, often problematic behavior — compulsions, habits, somatic symptoms, depression, and in some cases even human evil. Ironically, these same repressed energies often drive brilliance, creativity, art, leadership and authentic human holiness.
Sexual desire is a fundamental, driving force in the human being. (Freud would say the driving force, though I disagree.) Acknowledging and embracing (integrating!) these energies is a crucial work of being a whole human being. When these energies are denied, interpersonal chaos is the invariable result.
One way the unconscious attempts to communicate with the ego is through “projection.” Projection is a universal human phenomenon. We (unconsciously) attach our own feelings, emotions or motivations on to another person, not realizing our reaction to this person is actually a reaction to oneself. We “transfer” our emotional past and especially our historically unmet needs on to our therapist, our doctor, our spouse, our children, our rock ‘n’ roll icon, our favorite sports team, etc.
The goal of Talk Therapy is to identify, release and integrate powerful emotional energy that has been banished from consciousness. Freedom to live authentically and consciously is the reward.
Having said all that … very few traditional Freudian psychoanalysts remain. Why? Because traditional psychotherapy presupposes things that, in practice, just aren’t true. To wit:
1) That the average patient has the several months or years that it takes to evoke the therapeutic transference and then hopefully insight that traditional psychotherapy presupposes. Nope. Many patients need to make changes now, before negative social consequences overwhelm them.
2) That the average patient can afford several months of psychotherapy. Nope. Modern insurance plans don’t cover this kind of treatment. The average American doesn’t have $120 per week (or more) of discretionary income to spend over two or more years.
3) That insight necessarily equals change. This above all is the one presupposition Freud postulated that is not in every case true. Just because you’ve figured out why you behave destructively in no way guarantees you’ll find the wherewithal to stop.
So, most modern therapists, while sitting squarely on the bulk of Freudian theory, find themselves becoming more systemic interventionists instead of classical psychoanalysts. This is a good thing. Because, in the end, therapy practiced as academic elitism is hardly useful. We have to deliver what patients need.
And they need to make changes to live well, whole and freely.