We are living in the era of putting ourselves first. Looking out for number one. Doing whatever we need to do and cutting out anyone or anything that threatens our happiness. But while that all sounds good in theory, does it really do us any good?
To figure out how to cope with this problem, we have to define loneliness. "Being pushed out of human experience or human relationships is a definition of loneliness," says Amy Banks, MD, co-author of Wired to Connect. "Your relationships and your expectations for those relationships are all going to go in your subjective view of loneliness."
The difference between being alone and lonely has to do with stress. "It's okay and sometimes invigorating to be alone. Being alone and not having your whole stress response system activated means you're well-enough embedded in your world that it doesn't make you stressed. Isolation always makes you stressed," she says. "Being isolated from human community and connection is always a negative thing."
Becoming isolated isn't a something that just popped up out of nowhere. Contrary to what we might think about how we were raised, it is something that is inherent in all of us. "From the get-go, we pitted community against the strength of any unique individual," she says. "A lot of early values are about being unique. Standing apart. Forging ahead on your own. You [also] have capitalism which is a you vs. me system. All of our power systems in this country is built on the belief that that is how you succeed and how you get the most out of people."
It this mentality that has gotten us to feeling lonely all the time. "People who are spit out into the real world in their 20s are without particularly strong social skills because we don't teach them," she says. "The things you need to work through difficult relationships—good conflict resolutions skills, expressing emotions, the ability to listen—are looked over in our quest to make these strong, hyperactive individuals."
So how do we cope when we get to a point where we feel like we have no one on our side? She gives four tips on how to deal:
Limit Social Media
We are repeatedly told that social media is a curation of the best parts of people's lives. While not necessarily fake, what we see on our feeds are just snapshots of people's lives. "Social media is great if you’re in a good place in your life," she says. "But if you’re really feeling that lonely or isolated, social media isn’t going to be your friend."
Take a Risk
The true antidote to loneliness is human connection. But of course, that involves being vulnerable and putting yourself out there. Luckily there are ways to do it so it doesn't. "You have to identify one person to reach out to. It doesn’t need to be a best friend or lover. It could be someone at work you heard two weeks ago say something that intrigued you or that you felt some sort of connection to. Ask that person to go grab lunch. It doesn’t have to be that big," she says.
See a Therapist
If human interaction is just too much for you, she suggests seeing a professional to get you to be more comfortable with people in general. "You're first foray into human interaction might be a therapist or clergy person," she says. "Someone who allows a more controlled setting to begin to be known and seen."
Don't Give Into the Hype
The holidays can amplify the feeling of loneliness. We are constantly told that we shouldn't be alone on the holidays and shamed if we don't have anyone to celebrate them with. "Psychiatrists and mental health [professionals] are so busy during the holidays dealing with the contrast between what people are told about how their families should look like and how they actually function," she says.
The key is to get over the hype and defining what the holidays mean to you. "Getting passed this superficial prescription of what the holiday should look like and trying to find something that feels meaningful to you and is there a person you might want to do something special with," she says. "Hype is hype. [It] stimulates people's dopamine rewards systems and stimulates their anxiety and gets everyone worked up."
We are always supportive of doing things that are good for your mental and emotional state. But when you use that as an excuse to cut yourself off from the people in your life, you end up doing more harm than good. Everyone needs at least one person in their lives to depend on; our health depends on it. "We are such social animals," she says. "Our entire bodies and our minds are built to function best in healthy connection, in respectful healthy engagement. All of our systems are made that way. When we become isolated, all systems break down over time."
So remember that feeling lonely doesn't make you weak—it makes you human.