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Health & Wellness

Feeling Lonely? You're Not Alone. Here's What to Do.

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Anyone can feel lonely—even people who are surrounded by family.

Asim Shah, MD, professor and vice chair for community psychiatry in the Menninger Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Baylor College of Medicine, defines loneliness as an emotion that strikes when someone feels socially isolated. That feeling can set in within a marriage, at a party or just about anywhere. “When you’re in a relationship it doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re not lonely,” says Shah.

In fact, loneliness doesn’t just make you feel bad mentally, it may also have an impact on a person’s physical health. An analysis published in the international British Cardiovascular Society Journal, Heart [1], men and women with “poor social relationships” were associated with a 29 percent increase risk of incidences of coronary heart disease and a 32 percent increase in risk of stroke.

Loneliness may be temporary, if you’re proactive and take some positive steps. Shah shared these tips to get started.

  1. Make time for introspection. First, it’s important to admit that you’re lonely. Once you’ve identified that something is wrong, Shah says it’s time to do some soul searching. “When you’re lonely, you need to think what is missing from your life. Because I may say a relationship is missing from my life. Someone else may say they don’t have any time to do activities they like. The answer will be different for everybody,” he says. The key to overcoming loneliness is finding what’s missing and working to fill that void.
  2. Talk about it. If you’re in a relationship, share your feelings with your partner and ask if he or she is also lonely. Then, together, analyze what’s amiss. Is it a problem with scheduling time together? Are you having compatibility issues or arguing? Is one of you spending more time with friends than the other? Figure out what’s at the root of the emotions and come up with a plan to make positive changes.
  3. Give your partner space. It sounds counterintuitive if you’re feeling lonely, but Shah says that it can be helpful for couples to spend time apart, so that each can do things they enjoy and then return to one another with new stories and experiences to share.
  4. Seek out places and activities that may fulfill you. This, too, will be different for everyone. For some, it may be going to a place of worship. For others, it may be joining a gym or getting involved with a sport, like racquetball or tennis. You could also go to an author reading at your local library, sign up for a class at your local community center, try playing an instrument or find another hobby that resonates with you.
  5. Take a walk. This could be with your partner or with a friend (who also may be lonely). Opt for a change of scenery, soak in the warm rays of sun, breathe in the fresh air.
  6. Consider adopting a furry friend. A dog or cat could bring great joy—and health benefits—into your life. “All human beings want some physical bonding,” says Shah. A companion pet allows for that, and so much more.
  7. Pick up the phone. With texting, email and social media, more and more distance grows between phone calls among some loved ones. Whether you’re the lonely one or you know someone else who is, make an effort to connect with them through a phone call. “It will make their day, and it will make your day, frankly, when you see them happy. You will feel accomplished, you will feel that you’ve done something good,” says Shah.
  8. Amuse yourself. Read a book, watch upbeat television, cook a meal, volunteer, or do something that changes the direction of your day. Know that loneliness is an emotion and it will pass. In the meantime, be kind to yourself and do something you enjoy.
  9. Make the most of your downtime. Short-term loneliness can actually be a good thing, says Shah. “It can help you do things, like clean your house or finish a project,” he says. It can inspire you to reach out to friends and get an outing on the calendar. And it can serve as a reminder to feel gratitude for those times when you’re feeling socially connected.
  10. Know when to seek help. If your feelings of loneliness are getting in the way of your daily routine, or if you’re finding you don’t enjoy the things you usually enjoy doing, Shah says it may be time to reach out to a medical professional and talk about what you’re going through. They may be able to offer help.

If you’re feeling lonely, you’re not alone. Most people feel that way at some point in their lives. By admitting you’re struggling and taking steps to change it, you may already be one step closer to feeling better.

[1] “Loneliness and social isolation as risk factors for coronary heart disease and stroke: systematic review and meta-analysis of longitudinal observational studies,” Heart, April 16, 2016.

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