There have been a few times in my life where I have felt very lonely. I particularly remember my loneliness when I moved to New York City. I had a couple friends in the city and a few more acquaintances; still, it was a time in my life when I needed to put forth some effort to form more meaningful relationships. But the more I went out to parties and mingled with people with whom I didn’t connect, the more disconnected and alone I felt. Feeling alone in a room full of people, or in my case, a whole city packed with people everywhere, was the loneliest I have ever felt.
So, rather than trying a new tactic to make friends, I went to my other NYC friend: Netflix. I was more likely to ignore phone calls from friends, and I looked at social invitations and opportunities to meet new people as drudgery. Looking back on this period of loneliness, I wonder at the way I isolated myself rather than reaching out to those who were more than willing to keep me company and offer friendship.
What I have learned from my own experience and the experience of many of my friends is that more often than not, those who feel lonely choose isolation. Indeed, many of my own friends describe avoiding social life as a way of coping with feelings of loneliness, from singleness, breakups, or just not feeling understood.
Loneliness can strike whether you have people and friends in your life whom you can call or not. It can occur when you move to a new place or, more commonly, when you are just going through a rough patch or a life change. It could be that you are feeling weary with dating life, or maybe you recently had a baby and don’t feel like you have friends who can relate, or maybe all your friends are getting hitched, and you’re the last single woman standing. It can take effort to make new friends or seek out new companions; instead, many opt to isolate.
This behavior is somewhat common, and new research takes a big step toward explaining this behavior. According to the University of Chicago’s leading experts on the psychology and neuroscience of loneliness, Stephanie and John Cacioppo, there is an evolutionary explanation for this tendency to isolate when feeling lonely.
By monitoring participants’ brainwaves, the Cacioppos found that lonely people tend to respond negatively to social stimuli. “The finding, reported online in the journal Cortex, supports their broader theory that, for evolutionary reasons, loneliness triggers a cascade of brain-related changes that put us into a socially nervous, vigilant mode,” Dr. Christian Jarrett explains in New York Magazine. “When people feel most alone, these results suggest their brains are not tuned in to smiles and laughter, they’re switched on to frowns and snarls—they’re vigilantly looking out for negativity without really knowing it.”
Making ourselves aware of this evolutionary instinct could actually be the first step in combating loneliness. Once we know that we are more sensitive to negativity during lonely spells, we can focus our energy on resisting the urge to put up walls.
Think about what you’re going through that’s causing your aloneness. Are you tired of being single, lost in a new city, or hurt by feelings of not being understood? It may be that you need to seek professional help to work through feelings of depression or isolation, and that is certainly OK. But, whether you are speaking to a counselor or just in a rut, here are three things that helped me resist isolation and find relief from loneliness.
01. Turn off Netflix . . . or whatever you have streaming.
Many of us chuckle about our “Netflix addiction” and how most nights streaming TV on the couch is preferred over going out. But some convincingly argue that we use technology to cope with pre-existing feelings of loneliness. Researchers from the University of Texas at Austin conducted a survey amongst 316 18- to 29-year-olds and found that the more lonely and depressed participants were, the more likely they were to binge watch TV, “using this activity to move away from negative feelings.”
Consider the danger of spending too much of your precious time “zoned out.” While watching TV is shown to be an instant source of relaxation, those who come out of a long binge session often feel discombobulated and suffer from greater anxiety. The best thing I ever did for myself when I struggled with feelings of loneliness and depression was to go on a TV and movie fast. I only allowed myself to indulge in mindless streaming if I was doing it with a friend. When I had time to myself I picked up a book that I enjoyed; I thought of it as a kind of nicotine patch for my TV addiction. I stayed true to my fast for four months, and by the end my urge to escape by means of Netflix had disappeared.
02. Plan out your social calendar for the week.
I know, I know, this is a very obscure practice nowadays. Nobody likes to commit to social functions too far in advance, for fear that something better might come up. But committing to social events ahead of time is a boon to those who are feeling lonely or depressed and would rather not submit themselves to socializing. You would be surprised how effective planning your week in advance can be at keeping you out and about.
On Friday look at Facebook to see what events you have been invited to for the next week, and then pick one that involves the potential for meeting new people. I would force myself to attend a weekly talk and happy hour for young adults in my city. The dread of committing to going to this event alone was enough for me to be proactive in dragging a friend along with me. I was always surprised by how much better I felt after this night out. Even if the event was lame, my friend and I could commiserate, and she was always grateful that I got her out the door as well.
I would also call my girlfriends over the weekend and schedule at least one happy hour or night in cooking dinner together. This one-on-one or small-group conversation is especially nice if you are an introvert, but it’s helpful in making you feel connected and understood no matter your personality type. If you don’t have a friend you can easily reach out to, take the plunge and reach out to a coworker or a friend of a friend for companionship. I’ll never forget the first time I called a girl I met once through a mutual friend out of the blue to ask her to go to a movie with me. I didn’t want to go alone, and she lived nearby. It was a little awkward at first, but I’m happy I risked it because now we’re best friends!
03. Volunteer your time.
Nothing surrounds you with a sense of community like volunteering. Rather than closing in on yourself when you are feeling disconnected and lonely, reach out to others. You won’t have to look far to find opportunities. Look for "young adult" volunteer opportunities in your church community for the added benefit of potentially forming new friendships with those your age.
I have one friend who lives in Denver who fearlessly joins volunteer groups on Meetup in an effort to find and form community. Personally, I never have to look farther than my own family and friends to find opportunities to be generous with my time. My married brother and sisters could always use a date night, and my siblings and friends with children often appreciate my company. Even small things like these leave me buoyed by the sense that I am doing good, and they help me to connect with others.
It may take work to push yourself out the door at first, but taking these steps will help you see the world with a new lens. Resist the urge to isolate, and you will begin to see that people, for the most part, are really rather lovely, and the world you live in is a lot less lonely.
Photo Credit: Regina Leah Photography