Ways To Cope With Loneliness In The Moment
Many suggestions for dealing with loneliness focus on solving it long term. The main approach in that vein is to give a bunch of practical advice on how to meet people and grow closer to them. Another angle is to try to heal any childhood baggage that makes you feel isolated and alone in the world, even though you may already have supportive, loving people around you.
Though what about when you're having painful lonely feelings right this minute? Yeah, there are changes you can make to address the source of the problem over time, but your lack of connections is making you feel really upset now. Here are some immediate things you can try. Depending on how strong your emotions are you may not be able to reduce them by 100%, but even partial relief is better than nothing:
Remind yourself that all intense, unpleasant emotions do pass
This is an overarching principle to keep in mind. Our bodies can't maintain extreme emotions indefinitely. It won't instantly make you feel better, but just reminding yourself that your feelings won't last forever can make a tough spell of loneliness easier to bear.
I want to be clear that in this article I'm talking about more acute spikes of uncomfortable lonely feelings. Those episodes are different from a low-grade, background sense of dissatisfaction with your social life, which can be more chronic (though even that subtly ebbs and flows a bit throughout the days and weeks).
Try to get some social contact, if you can
This is for when you're lonely in the sense that you don't spend enough time with people. I understand you may not be able to use this suggestion. Your whole problem is that you're too cut off from everyone in the first place. Though there's probably a way you can get at least a small dose of human contact. Maybe there's an acquaintance you can chat to briefly, or an online meet up you can drop in on. This article covers several mores ways find people to be around on short notice:
If this approach works then the little hit of social interaction will make you feel better, at least for now. It's not all you need, but enough to ward off some of the sadness or emptiness. There's also a chance this method will backfire, and you'll feel bad about having to go out hunting for scraps of conversation, or the interactions you have will feel too superficial and fleeting, and remind you of the stronger connections you're missing. I find more often than not getting out around people ends up helping, but you be the judge of how it may help you. The end of the article I linked above goes into more detail about the benefits and risks.
Try to get a small fix of deeper connection
This is for when you're lonely in the sense of not having enough close, intimate, accepting relationships. That's really not something you can go out and find on the streets in the next five minutes, but you may be able to find a somewhat satisfactory substitute. Perhaps you have a relative you can visit, where you can take the conversation to a deeper place for a while. You could look for an online support group happening that day, where you can open up to the other members about your struggles, and get some feeling of being accepted and understood by people going through similar issues.
Use various coping skills to try to reduce or counteract your painful emotions
The idea here is you're not addressing the root of your lonely feelings, just doing something calming or enjoyable to turn their volume down. That's okay to do in the short term. There are dozens of emotional coping or self-regulation skills. Some common ones are:
- Getting some exercise
- Distracting yourself with a fun activity
- Distracting yourself with an absorbing project or chore
- Calming breathing techniques
- Muscle relaxation techniques
- Listening to a guided meditation
- Listening to mellow or uplifting music
- Getting out in nature
- Soothing visualization techniques
If you have a few methods you already know work for you, then use them again. If you don't have a reliable toolbox of mood regulation techniques, then try a few out and see if they help. They may not instantly erase your pain, but it's highly unlikely something won't work at least a little bit. Even if they don't help a ton that day, sometimes they can let you look back later and say, "I felt really lonely last Saturday afternoon, but at least I explored a new hiking trail at the same time." I find these kinds of tools work especially well if some unique circumstance has temporarily raised your sense of loneliness, like you're stuck in another city on a business trip, and just need to take your mind off it.
Think about whether there's more you could be doing to get past your loneliness
Sometimes an unexpected blast of unpleasant emotion is a wake up call. Your mind is reminding you you're really not happy with your social life and need to do more to try to improve it. If you take that warning seriously and spend some time thinking about new practical steps you could take, you may feel better once you come up with some ideas. For example, you realize you're not doing quite enough to meet new people, and then research some drop-in classes you could attend. You can't go to them right this second, but just knowing you've dug up a bunch of fresh options, and have to plan to act on them, gives you a sense of relief.
Try to push back against the pessimistic, hopeless thoughts your loneliness is sending you
When a lonely mood overtakes us we can get caught up in thoughts about how it's impossible to meet anyone, we'll be alone forever, no one will ever love or understand us, and so on. At times it can help to objectively challenge that kind of thinking. Try to be impartial and remind yourself that if you work at it, making friends and developing deeper connections is a totally achievable goal. Try to dismantle distorted beliefs like, "It's too late to make friends after college" or "Everyone my age is married and too busy with their families" by gathering evidence or success stories to the contrary. Remind yourself of what things are going well in your pursuit of a better social life, even if it's not completely where you want it to be yet (e.g., you've made a few activity buddies recently, and you may be able to grow closer or meet even more people through them).
Deliberately trying to shift to a more objective, optimistic headspace may take the edge off. However, it's also normal to get so caught up in your lonely feelings that all your hopeless conclusions just feel deeply true, even if another, more logical part of you knows they're not. Like with any of these suggestions, it's worth a try though.
Try to acknowledge any pessimistic lonely thoughts, but then let them go without engaging with them
Another option is to accept you're having some distressing thoughts, but then to do your best to gently set them aside and get back to whatever valued thing you were in the middle of. Like you could say to yourself, "My mind is telling me I'll never have friends. Yep, that's a thought I have when I feel lonely sometimes. I'm going to turn my attention back to my bike ride." When it pans out this method doesn't prevent your inner voice from saying upsetting things to you, but you won't make your mood worse by getting too sucked into it all.
Allow yourself to fully feel your lonely feelings
Countering your lonely feelings with various techniques is one approach. Another is to lean into them. If you have the time and space to do it, then exploring your emotions and fully feeling them may help them pass sooner. Your mind may be giving you a burst of sadness, fear, or anger about your social life, but if you let yourself experience it, it will work its way out of you. That can be uncomfortable, but unless your lonely emotions are extremely strong it should be manageable. Again, it's your call whether you want to try this suggestion. Here are the rough steps:
- Ideally, find a comfortable spot where you won't be disturbed (you can let yourself feel your emotions to a degree while you're doing other things, but it's better if the process has your full attention)
- Get yourself settled, maybe by taking some breaths or shaking out some tension in your muscles
- Close your eyes if you'd like, though it's also fine to keep them open and stare into space
- Ask yourself what specific lonely emotions you're feeling - Hopelessness? Worry? Frustration? Jealousy of people who have lots of friends?
- Turn your attention to how your lonely emotions are physically showing up in your body. Is there a pit feeling in your stomach? Is your neck tense? Is your heart beating faster? Does your face feel heavy? Whatever is there, just notice it
- As best you can, turn off your inner monologue and just feel the physical sensations of your emotions. Don't try to change anything, just observe them. You may find as you focus on one sensation it increases or decreases in intensity, or shifts to another part of your body.
- If you get an urge to cry, or bang your fists, or tremble or whatnot, let it happen
- If a sensation gets a bit too intense, at first try to breathe through it and see if it goes down in a minute or two. If it's still too powerful, take a break, maybe try an emotional regulation technique to cool off a little, then go back to it for another minute or so. If things still feel too heavy, then stop for now
- Do this whole exercise for maybe an hour tops
If all goes well you'll feel your loneliness for a while, and it won't be fun, but the feelings will start to fade. You'll get a sense you've let them run their course for now.
If this approach doesn't work, the feelings won't diminish with time. You'll have a hunch that you could wallow like this all week if you let yourself (You won't. The emotions will start to dissipate on their own one way or another, but it still feels like they'll last for days). Once more, not every strategy works every time, but at least you tried. Hopefully you partially processed some of your lonely mood, so it doesn't feel quite as crippling. If nothing else, you showed you're not afraid to feel your emotions, and that you can tolerate them, which could lay the foundation for more healing down the road.