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December is a festive time of year, full of pine-scented candles, spiked eggnog and glittery holiday parties. But in between the bundled up carolers and happy couples, anyone who’s feeling lonely might start to feel even lonelier.
And the number of people feeling lonely is surprisingly high: Research shows that an estimated 10 to 15% of the population feels lonely, which comes out to 29 to 45 million people. Loneliness feels pretty bad in the moment, but it also has some scary long-term health consequences: It’s linked with a greater risk of depression and suicide, cardiovascular disease and stroke, altered brain function and decreased memory, to name a few. Want another example of just how bad loneliness is for you? It’s considered more lethal than smoking 15 cigarettes a day.
The problem with loneliness is that once it starts, it’s a hard cycle to break. If you’re feeling depressed due to loneliness, it can feel a lot easier to lie in bed with the covers over your head than reach out to a friend.
Whether you’re feeling just a little lonely or very lonely, here are some action steps you can take now.
The Difference Between Loneliness and Being Alone
First things first: Solitude isn’t a bad thing, and learning to enjoy some alone time is probably a good idea—especially because research shows that people would rather receive an electric shock than be left alone with their thoughts (yikes).
“Often when we’re alone we feel like we should feel lonely or we should want to be with other people,” says Rachel O’Neill, Ph.D., an Ohio licensed professional clinical counselor and Talkspace Provider. “The reality is, it’s okay to be on your own and to work on reconnecting with yourself.”
Meet the Expert
Dr. Rachel O'Neill has over 14 years' experience in the mental health profession and specializes in anxiety-related concerns, sexual dysfunction, sleep disorders, working with young adults/ millennials, and LGBTQIA+ issues. In addition to her work in private practice, Dr. O'Neill is also a full-time faculty member in a graduate clinical mental health counseling program.
In O’Neill’s opinion, the first step to beating loneliness is becoming comfortable with the idea of being alone, which is admittedly hard in the smartphone age when you can numb out with a few scrolls and taps. “There’s a lot of meditation and mindfulness work that can help here in terms of facilitating a sense of comfort with the concept of aloneness,” she says.
Know When to Take Action
If the true emotion you’re feeling is loneliness rather than discomfort with being alone, it’s important to take action. But this doesn’t necessarily mean you need to send out a PSA telling the world you need someone to hang out with. “I recommend starting with grounding techniques—counting backwards from 100, focusing on breath, etc—anything that can distract from those strong and overwhelming emotions of loneliness,” says O’Neill. And if you have it in you, try reaching out to someone. “Do something to feel connected with someone else, like calling or texting someone, or just finding a way to engage with someone,” O’Neill suggests.
Have a Long-term Anti-Loneliness Plan
If you’re prone to feelings loneliness, combatting it is hard work—but it’s work you have to do. O’Neill suggests starting by working hard to reframe what the idea of being alone really means so you’re not always viewing it as a negative thing. “Mindfulness and meditation interventions can help individuals reframe the idea of solitude into something meaningful and positive,” she says.
Next, be intentional about seeking out relationships with other people that have the potential to evolve into meaningful connections, even if that just means taking baby steps at first. “Is there a hobby or an activity you’ve been hoping to try? If so, try to connect yourself with that hobby or activity,” suggests O’Neill. “This can be a really easy way to meet other people and begin to form meaningful connections.”
If you’re feeling lonely, know that there are so many other people in your boat—and that there’s a lot you can do to combat these feelings both in the moment and to feel more connected to others long-term. And if you’re struggling with extreme feelings of loneliness and depression, it’s always a good idea to seek the guidance of a mental health professional.