When you’re in high school and college, parents, teachers, and mentors often do as much as they can to prepare you for the real world. You learn about character, and you search for a job that can awaken your passions you even learn to build a corresponding resume that will hopefully help you land that job. But there is one part of adult life that, no matter how amazing your community is, can be hard to prepare for: loneliness.
Since you’re surrounded by friends who are often in the same life phase while you’re in school or directly outside of high school (even if you don’t opt for college), it can be easy to idealize what it’s like to garner the small aspects of independence that come with adulthood. When you’re living with a roommate, it can be easy to fantasize what it would be like to have your own space both physically and mentally. And look, I’m definitely not going to bemoan the conveniences of having that space, but I’ll be the first to admit that a lot of life phases in early adulthood can feel really isolating.
I spoke with Megan Bruneau, RCC, a therapist and executive coach, to find out how she deals with her own loneliness, when she sees this emotion rear its ugly little head, and to find out how people can work through it in a beneficial way.
Remember, Like Any Emotion, It’s Not Forever
Bruneau says that loneliness definitely affects people of all ages and life stages, but she does typically find it to be more pronounced in clients who are experiencing “heartbreak, grief, or an issue they perceive to be unique to them.” One of the more isolating times in life can be in your late 20s, and 30s when everyone else starts to couple off.
“While I've felt loneliness both in and out of romantic relationships, I do tend to feel it more when I'm single,” Bruneau says. “I remind myself it will pass, it's part of the human experience, and it's a reflection of my (healthy) desire for connection. I go for a walk and listen to music, get a massage or pedicure, or write.”
While this time can feel dark and unique to you, this is a common and normal experience, and acknowledging that fact could help you heal.
Don’t Mistake Loneliness for Your Personality
The problem, Bruneau believes, is that people have a natural tendency to perceive loneliness as “a sign of weakness brought on by oneself.” Think about it, when you start to feel lonely, self-doubt begins to creep in. Maybe you question your social skills or your accomplishments. Bruneau wants you to know one thing: It’s normal.
“If we normalized the experience of loneliness more, those who feel it regularly would be more likely to look inside and seek to understand or seek support for their loneliness, rather than trying to deny or avoid it and continue to suffer as a result,” she says. “I emphasize that loneliness is a healthy, universal human emotion that's there to highlight their yearning for authentic connection.”
Know the Difference Between Natural Loneliness and Something More Serious
“My concern is that we're conflating acute or temporary loneliness with chronic loneliness,” says Bruneau. “In doing so, we're actually pathologizing the healthy expression of the human emotion.” It’s the same thing as being able to tell the difference between a bad day or natural mood swings and something more concerning and diagnosable, like depression.
“That said, chronic disconnection, and its accompanying loneliness, tends to keep us in fight or flight (the stress response), secreting cortisol and decreasing immune function,” Bruneau says. “Disconnection and isolation are proven precursors to depression. For these reasons, it's fair to state loneliness does directly impact physical and mental health.”
Avoid Behaviors That Could Make Loneliness Worse
While therapy and social clubs are good ways to deal with loneliness, there are also a few things that you can avoid doing in your personal time while you’re experiencing it.
“Judging oneself for feeling lonely; scrolling Instagram and 'comparing and despairing'; numbing the feeling using methods that ultimately evoke shame and make us feel worse physically and/or emotionally [are all examples of] further isolating when what you need is love and connection,” Bruneau says. “Once we alleviate the shame and anxiety around loneliness, we can actually go into the emotion, learn what it's telling us we need, and take steps to satisfy those needs.”
While Bruneau notes that loneliness is difficult to measure for the purpose of studies, she does mention that some “studies suggest loneliness has negative psychological and physical outcomes, but many of these studies are correlational and not causal.” Bruneau suggests the presence of a possible third variable like isolation, stress, or addictive behavior is what could greatly impact a person’s overall health.
Even at your most lonely, remember that you can take back some control. FaceTime a friend who moved across the country (possibly the reason you’re feeling so lonely), ask a coworker to grab tea one afternoon to catch up, send your dad a sweet text message, just to say hello. Reminding yourself that you’re not alone, and recognizing that the people in your life probably don't know you're lonely or could even be feeling the same way can be small first steps with big impact.