How can we overcome loneliness?

Loneliness is a universal human experience that can affect us as badly as any physical ailment. As the new year commences, the faded hustle and bustle of the holidays can sometimes leave behind a sense of emptiness and isolation. So how can we overcome it?

As American writer Fanny Howe says, loneliness is "an uninvited and uncreated companion" that "slips in beside you" without notice.

Psychologists define loneliness in a number of ways and often split it into categories depending on its duration.

Essentially, however, most specialists agree that loneliness, though a shared human experience, is an undesired and hurtful emotion that can affect both our physical and our mental health. Recent studies have noted that loneliness can impact how our immune system functions, damage sleep quality, and put us at risk of heart disease.

A study from last year argued that loneliness "significantly increase[s] risk for premature mortality," more so than other health factors.

A survey targeting adults aged 45 and over in the United States found that approximately one third of respondents identified as "lonely." Reports focusing on children and young adults also indicated that a significant percentage of respondents aged 17 to 25 experienced loneliness.

Finally, one study that garnered attention in the media alleged that 35 is the age at which men feel the loneliest. In short, it seems that no age group is safe from facing this damaging emotion.

Since the start of January is apparently the deadliest time of the year, with the fabled Blue Monday — allegedly the most depressing day of the year, the third Monday of January — just around the corner, we look at ways of overcoming the sense of loneliness that may affect some us in the aftermath of the winter holidays.

Even if loneliness doesn't hit as the New Year parties come to an end, the tools and ideas outlined below will leave you better equipped to fend off this unwanted companion, whenever it may try to seize you by the hand — or heart.

Acknowledge and react

John Cacioppo, the Tiffany and Margaret Blake Distinguished Service Professor at the University of Chicago, IL, has specialized in loneliness, why we may experience it, how it can affect us, and what we can do to cope with it.

In the TED talk that you can watch below, Prof. Cacioppo argues that our society has grown to value individualism and self-sufficiency more and more, which may often push individuals to become isolated and refuse to acknowledge loneliness when they experience it.

"You don't hear people talk about feeling lonely," Prof. Cacioppo explains in the talk, "and that's because loneliness is stigmatized, the psychological equivalent of being a loser in life or a weak person, and this is truly unfortunate, because it means we're more likely to deny feeling lonely, which makes no more sense than denying we feel hunger, thirst, or pain."



Denial, Prof. Cacioppo argues, does nothing but exacerbate feelings of loneliness and may lead to counterproductive strategies, such as seeking further isolation. Thus, the first step toward fighting the negative impact of this emotional state is to recognize that what we're feeling is loneliness.

"Second," he continues, "understand what [loneliness] does to your brain, to your body, to your behavior."

"It's dangerous, as a member of a social species, to feel isolated, and our brain snaps into self-preservation mode. That brings with it some unwanted and unknown effects on our thoughts and our actions toward others."

Prof. John Cacioppo

Once we acknowledge our feelings and understand that they can seriously affect our mental and physical health, as well as our behavior, Prof. Cacioppo advises us to respond to our sense of loneliness by forming and strengthening connections.

"One can promote intimate connections by developing [the relationship with] one individual who's trusted, in whom you can confide and who can confide in you," he explains. "You can promote relational connectedness by simply sharing good times with friends and family" without any distractions.

Finally, "[C]ollective connectedness can be promoted by becoming a part of something bigger than yourselves," so why not "consider volunteering for something that you enjoy"?

Lay off social media

Social media may be the first solution that comes to mind when we're lonely; it seems to be a quick and easy fix. However, many studes have shown that our online networks, although they may offer an illusion of connectedness, actually make us even lonelier and more segregated.

Social media may be our first port of call, but it actually renders us more isolated.

A study published last year in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine found that social media users feel more isolated than peers who dedicate little time to online networks.

In the book Alone Together, social psychologist Sherry Turkle also argues that hyperconnectivity via social media makes us more estranged from each other in our offline lives.

"We expect more from technology and less from each other, and I ask myself, 'why have things come to this?', and I believe it is because technology appeals to us most where we are most vulnerable, and we are vulnerable, we're lonely but we're afraid of intimacy," Turkle explains.

In order to form a true support network that will help us to keep loneliness at bay, we need to look outside of our computers and handheld devices, and instead strengthen our bonds with family, friends, and community.

Psychologist Guy Winch advises us to face our fears and uncertainties and take the first step to connect, or reconnect, with others. When we reach out to others, he suggests that we send out positive rather than negative messages, as well as set out clear timeframes for the social event.

For instance, sending something such as, "I miss you, why don't we catch up over coffee next Sunday?" is more likely to be effective than, "Hey, I don't even know if we're friends anymore."

Another reason why face-to-face contact is preferable to online contact is simply because humans need physical touch in order to feel comforted and connected, according to Helena Backlund Wasling, of State University of New York Upstate Medical University in Sycaruse.

Of course, you shouldn't go about randomly touching strangers on the street, but holding a parent's or child's hand, or hugging a friend, could do wonders for our mental health; touch is also a tool for communication, sending messages about our emotional states.

A pet may help

When human contact is not available, it may be useful to enjoy the presence of a furry friend, some studies suggest.

A study conducted last year discovered that owning a dog can help to reduce the risk of premature death, especially among people who live on their own, who happen to be the group most at risk of experiencing debilitating loneliness.

Previous research has also found that pet owners may have better social and communication skills and engage more in community activities.

Animals can be great conversation starters, and caring for a pet — by taking it out for a walk, or to the vet — can discourage sedentarism, as well as provide an opportunity to meet new people.

If a larger animal, such as a dog or a cat, seems to be too much of a hassle or too expensive, why not consider a tiny, mostly fuss-free, and much cheaper alternative, such as fish, snails, or insects?

A 2016 study revealed that older adults who were offered crickets to look after as pets became less depressed and had improved cognitive functioning within 8 weeks from the start of the experiment.

Or, you could volunteer at an animal shelter, or offer to look after friends' and acquaintances' pets when they're off on holiday, in order to enjoy the same benefits and improve your social relationships.

Rewrite the story

If you can't escape being alone and that makes you feel lonely, then try turning that loneliness into solitude, and use it to your own advantage. When you're stuck on your own, why not turn that into an opportunity for some "me time," so you can get to know yourself better, destress, and develop new — or old — skills?

Learn to cherish your time alone as an opportunity to befriend yourself, first of all.

One study, co-authored by clinical psychologist Ami Rokach, puts forward that "acceptance and reflection" are one way of turning the negative impact of loneliness into a more positive attitude.

The authors define this approach as "using the opportunity of being by oneself and becoming aware of one's fears, wishes, and needs as the most salient means of coping with loneliness."

Rokach and his co-author explain that, when we learn to welcome solitude and use it to our own advantage, we can avoid loneliness and its negative effects.

"The results of the present study suggest that solitude (i.e., welcomed aloneness as opposed to loneliness) can aid in coping effectively with the pain of loneliness in that solitude stops attempts to deny loneliness, thereby promoting its acceptance as an existential and, at times, unavoidable human condition."

In Addressing Loneliness, researchers from Tel Aviv University in Israel additionally suggest that mindfulness meditation may be useful in this context, as it "may reduce the subjective feeling of loneliness by reducing maladaptive cognitive functions."

So, if you're alone and loneliness strikes, it might be a good idea to make yourself a cup of tea, put on some relaxing meditation music, and enjoy the opportunity of making friends with yourself first of all.

"Start thinking of solitude as a good thing. Make room for it," encourages Turkle in her TED talk, suggesting that learning to be comfortable with just ourselves might help us to break through loneliness and improve our relationships with others.