2020-02-14
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Loneliness is a universal human experience that we all deal with from time to time.

An analysis of a recent survey of 10,000 American adults found that 61 percent can be considered "lonely," based on the UCLA Loneliness Scale, which assesses how often a person feels disconnected from others.

Loneliness is a state of mind that has less to do with being alone and more to do with feeling alone. That's why people can feel lonely at work, at school or even in their friendships or romantic partnerships. It's not about the number of people in our lives, but rather about the depth of those emotional connections, psychologist David Narang, author of "Leaving Loneliness," told HuffPost.

"If we are in a room full of family and friends, but nobody knows the actual thoughts and feelings we are having, we are likely to feel lonely," he explained. "Whereas if even one person knows our true thoughts and feelings at a moment in time, we are much more likely to feel less lonely."

And while many people experience loneliness on occasion, a pervasive, prolonged type of loneliness seems to be on the rise.

In 2017, former U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy called loneliness "a growing health epidemic," that experts say is due, in part, to modern technology and social media replacing some of our face-to-face interactions. Loneliness is linked to an increased risk of depression, anxiety, cardiovascular disease, dementia and a shortened lifespan.

Even mental health professionals like New York City-based therapist and executive coach Megan Bruneau deal with loneliness. For her, loneliness is often accompanied by a sense of heaviness and despair, that turns into shame.

"Loneliness and shame tell me I'm broken and unlovable, better off in the safety of my isolation because once people see the real me, they won't stick around anyway," Bruneau said. "Yet I've come to know-and at times, befriend -loneliness well enough to support myself through these times."

We asked mental health experts for advice on what to do when you feel stuck in a lonely state of mind.

Try not to judge yourself for feeling lonely.

"Loneliness itself can be painful but that discomfort is only compounded when we criticize ourselves for feeling it," Bruneau said.

"Most of the suffering we experience when feeling lonely is a product of the shame and anxiety we create through judging and abandoning ourselves," she said. "We believe we're failing or broken because we feel lonely or we're lonely because we're unloveable."

Instead, practice self-compassion. Say to yourself: It's understandable you're feeling lonely right now; you're a human who, like other humans, yearns for connection in our disconnected world, Bruneau suggested.

Know that loneliness is common and what you're feeling won't last forever.

"Remember this feeling will pass, is not a sign of pathology, and that there are millions of other 'lonelies' out there, sharing this feeling with you right now," Bruneau said.

Reach out to people for connection.

That might mean calling a family member, making plans to get coffee with a friend you haven't seen in a while, or even posting about your experience with loneliness in an online forum.

"While shame will try to convince you you're unlovable and no one wants to hear from you, remind yourself it's lying and you will likely feel better if you connect," Bruneau said.

"You can go for a walk outside if you are nearby nature or a park," said Dr. Jeremy Nobel, founder and president of The UnLonely Project, an organization dedicated to tackling loneliness through creative arts. Spending time with animals can also be comforting, Bruneau added.

Reduce time spent on your phone.

If you've been scrolling on Instagram a lot lately, make more face-to-face interactions a priority.

"Browsing social media for hours on end tends to leave people lonelier as they compare themselves to the bright and shiny pictures others selectively post," Narang said. "However, you can turn this to your advantage if you ask someone to lunch or to get together in some way, as the research shows that this way of using social media makes people less lonely."

Do something creative.

Artistic pursuits can be very soothing when you're in a lonely place, Nobel said.

"Reading a breathtaking poem, knitting a lovely scarf, or expressing your feelings through painting or sculpture are all ways you can transform your suffering into something beautiful."

Think about someone who really loves you.

Pick a person in your life who cares for you deeply and then ask yourself a few questions like: "How do I know this person loves me?"; "How do they express it"; "What was a time they were really there for me?"

"Remember that being worthy of and receiving this love was not only a reflection of the other person's goodness, but also of your own, or you could not have been so loved," Narang said.

Seek out a small burst of connection with a stranger.

"Even little acts of kindness, like smiling at a friendly looking person you pass on the street or holding the door open for someone, will make you feel closer to those around you," Narang said.

"As you let someone get in front of you on the freeway, imagine what they are feeling," he suggested. "Talk kindly to the cashier at the grocery store. In small ways, you are meeting their need for kindness or for help which opens them up a little, just as it opens you up."

Sign up for a class or group activity.

Plant the seeds now for new and deeper connections by enrolling in a class or group that meets regularly. It could be anything that piques your interest: a volunteer organization, a professional association, a cooking class or a book club.

"In the midst of a class or activity, you will be having an experience of that event," Narang said. "Briefly sharing your experience (e.g. liking something specific or having a particular curiosity) with others there allows them to get to know you just a bit."

Think about what your loneliness might be telling you.

Instead of pushing it away, get quiet and sit with your loneliness, however uncomfortable it may be.

"Notice the discomfort and how it affects your emotions, thoughts, and also tension in your body," Narang said. "After a few minutes, you might start to get clear on specific actions you want to take- an action plan which is now coming from your calm mind and which is more likely to be effective than one arising from stress."

When to ask for help.

Again, experiencing loneliness is a very common feeling and this doesn't mean there's something "wrong" with you. However, if your loneliness is persistent and/or crippling, it may be time to take action and get some help.

Loneliness "is not an experience that we are meant to have indefinitely," Narang said. "When this otherwise typical experience of loneliness is prolonged, it increases our risk for many health problems, and it may lead us to become depressed."

Instead of isolating yourself further, open up to others or a mental health professional who can help you foster more community and healthy connection in your life.

"If you find yourself regularly distressed over your feelings of loneliness, that is probably a sign that you might feel better if you reached out for help to friends, family, spiritual counselors or mental health support systems," Nobel said.

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