Dealing with Loneliness: How to Overcome Loneliness and Isolation

Mental Health Spirituality

It's a fact of life that everyone feels lonely some of the time. It's a natural feeling. It's an aspect of the human condition — inevitably, we enter and exit this world alone. However, it's what we do (and think) during the middle part of our lives that determines quite a bit, including our levels of loneliness.

As you probably know, loneliness is one of the most uncomfortable and painful feelings a person can experience. But loneliness, like all feelings, is not permanent, and if you find yourself struggling with loneliness for too long, there are some steps you can take for dealing with loneliness. These steps don't make the unpleasant sensations disappear completely, but they can help to make loneliness occur less often and become more bearable when it does strike.

Sound good? Great! Read on to learn more and find out how to deal with loneliness.

Show Me the Meaning of Being Lonely

Before we get into some specific actions you can take to beat loneliness, let's talk about what loneliness is, how most people experience it, and its tendency to hit in waves.

What is Loneliness?

Loneliness is a broad term used to describe the complex feelings and sensations that can arise from thinking negatively about being alone, with feelings of being isolated and lacking substantial human connection. Research has shown the negative consequences of chronic loneliness, which can have huge mental and physical implications for your health.

There is a fine line between being alone and being lonely — the two terms are not the same thing. Being alone does not automatically cause loneliness. You can be alone and not be lonely, and you can be surrounded by people and still feel lonely.

This brings us to a crucial point: Your relationship with being alone — i.e. how you feel about being alone — matters a great deal.

Solitude vs Isolation

It's important to recognize the distinction between solitude and isolation. We know that one of the main factors which can lead to feelings of loneliness — and even depression — is isolation. Unfortunately, people who are feeling down tend to isolate themselves from other people even more, which can in turn increase feelings of loneliness, in a powerfully negative cycle that can be difficult to break.

However, this is in contrast to solitude, which is the purposeful act of spending time alone.

Man in solitude at sunset

What is Solitude?

Solitude, in contrast to isolation, is when you are alone but don't feel lonely. There are tons of benefits to purposefully spending time alone (solitude), the primary reason being that it gives you the time and space necessary to really figure yourself out — who you really are, what you like, and what you want out of life (yes, the cliched "find yourself" mantra).

Therefore, we're learning that solitude is as necessary an activity as any other for our mental health. While spending time in solitude, you are deepening the relationship with yourself, which ultimately is your most important relationship.

Now that we know what loneliness is, in the next section we'll outline some things you can do to help deal with loneliness.

Some Ways to Cope with Loneliness

Loneliness is a natural feeling that everybody experiences, but it should not be experienced for extended periods of time. Unfortunately, depending on that person's current situation — recent loss of a partner or child, being laid off, etc. — as well as that person's naturally tendency toward isolation, loneliness can sometimes overstay its welcome and become a near-constant feeling.

However, there are some things you can do to deal with loneliness when it lingers. There are steps you can take to lessen its sting or even get rid of it altogether.

The first of these recommendations you may have heard before:

1. Get Involved with Helping Others

Find a charity that speaks to you and get involved with the organization. It can be anything. There are tons of charities that are always in need of enthusiastic and helpful volunteers. (To help you with your search, you can check out this list of charities.)

Lonely man who needs help from charity

The obvious benefit for getting involved with a charity is that you will be doing good for others. The indirect benefit of this is that it will make you feel better about yourself. The reasons for this are many, but a big one is that when you are focused on helping others, it is difficult to think about yourself. This can help you "get out of your head" and stop negative rumination, which can only fuel depressive feelings and loneliness.

Another major benefit of getting involved is that it will put you in direct contact with other people. You will immediately "belong" to something greater than yourself, cooperating with others to achieve a goal. With this comes all the benefits of being on a team, such as developing positive new friendships with like-minded people.

If you are feeling lonely or down, join an organization dedicated to helping others. You'd be amazed at the way positive feelings can fuel other positive feelings and help subdue negative feelings like loneliness.

2. Put Yourself Out There

Feeling lonely can distort our thinking and make us believe we have fewer and less meaningful relationships than we actually do. This mode of thinking can be difficult to shake. To overcome it, you must really make the effort to put yourself out there.

That friend who hasn't called in 3 months? The one who has undoubtedly not picked up the phone to call because he or she suddenly realized he/she does not like you anymore — yeah, it's likely that your loneliness has fueled these negative thoughts. Maybe that person has just been incredibly busy, or maybe that person has been waiting for you to call, thinking the same exact same negative thoughts as you. Like the saying, the phone goes both ways. Enough of the passive-aggressive tests — waiting for the other person to initiate conversation, and if he/she doesn't, then using that as "proof" that he/she does not like us. If you want to talk to somebody, don't wait; pick up the phone and talk. Call up family members you haven't seen since Christmas and friends you haven't talked to in ages. I'm willing to bet that that person has been thinking about you and wanting to talk to you, too.

By "put yourself out there" I don't just mean with people you already — I'm also talking about breaking out of your comfort zone and going into situations in which you can meet and interact with new people.

Getting involved with volunteer work and being social

Here are some ways you can meet people and form new relationships:

  • Volunteer work (as mentioned above)
  • Book readings at a local library/coffee house
  • Taking a class (cooking, gardening, poetry, yoga)
  • Joining a gym
  • Taking your dog to the park
  • Attending work-related events

These are just a few examples. Really the possibilities are endless! Check out your local newpapers or your local area's website for activities and upcoming events. Pick something that sounds interesting and just go! Put yourself out there.

Being pro-actively social and forming new bonds is one of the easiest ways to break through loneliness.

3. Change your Thinking

This is perhaps the most important thing you can learn about loneliness (and about life in general). For some, it can be a life-long process to fully understand it. Others never really do. It applies to basically everything, but for now we'll just use it in the context of loneliness. It can make a whole world of difference:

Your feelings of loneliness stem directly from your current ways of thinking about loneliness.

That may appear to be a confusing statement at first glance, but it's really not. Another way to put it is this: You have been feeling lonely when you've been alone because of how you view being alone. That is, your current way of thinking sees being alone as a negative thing, when (as we've seen) being alone is not inherently negative. In reality, like we've mentioned already, spending time alone in solitude is tremendously important.

Wear your struggle with loneliness like a badge of strength. Embracing your loneliness may seem silly or strange to some people at first. But changing your thinking about being alone may be exactly what you need. Over time you'll come to find the loneliness has disappeared and was replaced with strength and wisdom.

There is a marvelous quote in the book If you Meet the Buddha on the Road, Kill Him!, written by Sheldon Knopp, that goes like this (Warning: the quote is lengthy, but well worth the read):

"There is the image of the man who imagines himself to be a prisoner in a cell. He stands at one end of this small, dark, barren room, on his toes, with arms stretched upward, hands grasping for support onto a small, barred window, the room's only apparent source of light. If he holds on tight, straining toward the window, turning his head just so, he can see a bit of bright sunlight barely visible between the uppermost bars. This light is his only hope. He will not risk losing it. And so he continues to staring toward that bit of light, holding tightly to the bars. So committed is his effort not to lose sight of that glimmer of life-giving light, that it never occurs to him to let go and explore the darkness of the rest of the cell. So it is that he never discovers that the door at the other end of the cell is open, that he is free. He has always been free to walk out into the brightness of the day, if only he would let go."

This imagery can apply to many situations in life, but fits well with loneliness, because loneliness can so much seem to be a dark trap, filled with hopelessness and dispair — when in reality, after simply changing your thinking, you will see that things are not quite as bad as they at first seemed.

In Closing: The Lonely Truth

Always remember: You are not alone. Everyone feels lonely from time to time, though some feel it more strongly than others. But feeling the pangs of loneliness is part of the human condition. I hope it helps to remember that we really are all connected. In your loneliness, reach out to somebody who cares about you. Even if it doesn't seem like it all the time, there is at least one person (but probably a ton more) who cares about you. Reach out to this person and spend some quality time with him/her.

If for whatever reason you truly don't already have somebody to whom you can reach out, then try the steps outlined above. There are so many people in this world who are looking for somebody to love (and I'm not just talking about romantic love). Put yourself out there and love them back — who knows, each of you may be saving the other.

Note: If you have mental or social issues that are at diagnosable levels (for example, paralyzing social anxiety), then you should seek out a psychiatrist and/or psychologist who is trained in treating patients with similar situations. This treatment may include medications, behavioral-cognitive therapy, or some combination of both. If you are struggling, please don't be afraid to ask for help.