“Loneliness is proof that your innate search for connection is intact.” –Martha Beck
Solitude is a state of quietude of being, freely chosen in order to appreciate or refine your inner life; and it is often enjoyable. Isolation is different; it is a feeling of being cut off from the connections you need–an unpleasant feeling which increases frustration, despair, and loneliness. Medical illnesses, like fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue syndrome, cancer, and others, can deplete you physically and lead to feelings of isolation. Major life changes like separation, death, divorce, loss of a job, or moving can also increase stress and isolation. Living or working in an isolated area, like a remote town or mining location, can add to isolation, as can having a long-distance relationship. Loneliness and isolation are difficult to deal with because of the nature of emotions—emotions tend to reinforce themselves, gathering evidence and ignoring exceptions which contradict that belief that no one cares. Following a few suggestions for dealing with isolation can make you feel more connected whatever your circumstances.
Separating judgments about self and others from the actual emotions is the first step to feeling more connected. Isolation is, well, isolating. It is a closed loop of circular causality—feeling isolated leads you to do things that increase isolation, which confirms you are cut-off and lonely, feeding feelings of isolation. Be careful to avoid self-criticism about being isolated as this just feeds negative emotions. The way out of this loop is to recognize the painful feelings of loneliness and isolation and suspend self-judgment. You do not need to deny feelings of isolation, nor do you need to attach a judgment to them. Instead of “I am lonely, what’s wrong with me,” say to yourself, “I see you my loneliness, there you are,” with no judgment attached.
Tips for dealing with Isolation and Loneliness:
- Recognize feelings, suspend judgment, let them pass: You do not need to ruminate on feeling sad or isolated, neither do you need to distract or distance yourself from these feelings. Instead, see these feelings as being like the scenery outside a train as it passes through the countryside. Negative self-judgments can keep you stuck in loneliness or isolation. When you create internal self-judgment-based dialogues about the feelings, it is like the train stopping and the scenery ceasing to pass. Notice the sadness and let it pass on its own accord.
- Talk to someone who listens without judgement and without denying your feelings. A good friend, a professional, a family member.
- Remember to Breathe: Taking deep breathes can help you calm and brings awareness to your body’s state. This separates you from the system of belief you may be creating about being isolated. Mindfulness, paying full attention to what you are doing (breathing, walking, playing the guitar, even washing the dishes) helps ground you in the reality of your life rather and takes you out of ruminating and negative self-judgments.
- Talk to Your Pet: If you have a pet you likely already know that animals can be very therapeutic. Petting your cat, dog, horse or other animal lowers blood pressure and increases the release of natural feel-good chemicals in our brain, like serotonin (associated with well-being). Being with a pet also decreases the stress hormone cortisol. One study even showed that cat owners have fewer strokes. Pets can help you stay engaged with others too; it’s not hard to find cat lovers or to meet other dog walkers, and you have something to talk about at the office. Animals are good partners for exercise, which is good for you too—yoga with your cat, walking with your dog. Don’t worry if you feel it is a one-sided relationship, contact does similar things for your pet.
- Look for the Positive: Emotions are self-confirming. When isolated, you can unconsciously look for things to confirm that you are isolated. The solution is looking for the positive without an agenda. Catch yourself when you start making isolation-confirming contracts like, “If I don’t get a phone call today it shows no one cares,” and use journaling and awareness to focus on positive things. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy can be useful in looking at how thoughts can confirm, or challenge, emotional states.
- Explore Nature: For some, being in nature is a deeply spiritual and connective experience. Being outside in the sun or feeling the rain on your face can help feel more connected to something greater than yourself.
- Join a Yoga Group, meditation group, church group, or writing class. Take small steps—focusing on one small sentence at the grocery store, one phone call or letter to an old friend or family member. Success builds on success, and small steps make this more manageable.
- Confront Your Fears: In counselling, I work with clients to identify hidden fears of isolation/connecting. Often, these unconscious issues revolve around rejection. Talking to a counsellor allows you to explore and understand where feelings of loneliness and isolation may be coming from. It can also help you find a self-acceptance, which is a key to connecting with others in a positive way.
Solitude can be a useful companion in life; many people get their best thoughts, writings, and ideas when alone. Isolation is not so useful; it teaches you to be hard on yourself, reinforcing the idea that you are alone. Some can feel isolated in a crowded city while others are most connected in the midst of wilderness. Your inner state is more reflective of your sense of isolation or connectedness than your physical location.
When feelings of loneliness or isolation become overwhelming take this as a message from your inner life to suspend judgment on your feelings and look at ways of connecting. Loneliness is an inner gauge reading “gas low”—a sign to pause on your journey and fill up on social engagement, connecting with family and friends, time with a pet, or other activities that refresh your sense of connectedness and well-being.