Everyone feels lonely from time to time, but for some, loneliness comes far too often. Feeling lonely can plague many people — including the elderly, people who are isolated, and those with depression— with symptoms such as sadness, isolation, and withdrawal. Loneliness can strike a person who lives alone or someone who lives in a house filled with people. “Loneliness is subjective,” says Louise Hawkley, PhD, a research associate in the psychology department at the University of Chicago. “You can’t argue with someone who says they’re lonely.”
Although depression doesn’t always lead to loneliness, feeling lonely is often a predictor of depression one year or even two years later, and it certainly leads to sadness, Dr. Hawkley says. Freeing yourself of feelings like being isolated by depression is part of the healing process.
How to Fight Depression and Loneliness
Feelings of loneliness don’t have to be constant to call for action, but you will need to give yourself a push to get back into the thick of life and re-engage with others to start feeling better. These strategies for fighting depression and loneliness can help:
- Make a plan. There are two basic types of loneliness. Acute loneliness results from losing a loved one or moving to a new place, for example. In these situations, chances are you know at some level that you’ll have to go through a period of adjustment to get through this feeling of loneliness. The other type of loneliness is the chronic subjective type, which strikes despite your existing relationships. Both require a plan of action. One strategy is making a point to meet people who have similar interests, Hawkley says. Volunteering and exploring a hobby are both great ways to meet kindred spirits.
- Do something — anything. In depression treatment there’s a theory called behavioral activation, which is a clinical way of saying, “Just do it.” If you’re feeling lonely and want to change it, any small step you take — even striking up a casual, friendly conversation with the barista at your corner café — is a good move.
- Explore your faith. There are only a few strategies that are proven to successfully protect against loneliness, and this is one of them. “People who have a personal relationship with their God or a higher power tend to do well,” Hawkley notes. There are a lot of factors at work here, one of them being that faith communities provide many opportunities for positive social encounters. You don’t have to have a close friend in the community to get the benefit, Hawkley says — just feeling that you belong in the group is enough. In addition, faith can help you accept the things in life you can’t control.
- Bond with a dog. “Pets, especially dogs, are protective against loneliness,” Hawkley says. There are many reasons why this strategy works: Dogs get you out and about, they’re naturally social creatures, and you’ll have a living being to care about. If you’re not in a position to own a dog, find ways to help care for other people’s dogs or volunteer to help dogs at a shelter that need loving attention. Other pets, such as cats and fish, can also help ease loneliness.
- Have realistic standards. “Loneliness is a mismatch between your ideal and what you actually have,” Hawkley says. Part of the solution may be to accept that you can have fun and light conversation with a variety of people, and that it’s okay if they don’t become lifelong confidantes. Also, reflect on whether you have any unrealistic standards that are making it hard to connect with others and stop feeling lonely, such as expecting too much from a new friendship too quickly or relying on another person too much.
- Think beyond yourself. Depression can make you feel very self-focused, meaning that everything is all about you. But remind yourself that if you ask a co-worker to join you for lunch and the person can’t make it, you shouldn’t automatically assume that he or she has rejected you. The person might have a previous lunch date or too much work to leave his or her desk.
- Reach out to a lonely person. Whether you’re feeling lonely now or just know how it feels, you may get an emotional boost from befriending someone else who’s lonely. Some people may view loneliness as contagious, and therefore lonely people often become even more isolated. “We believe there is a responsibility in the community to reach out to people who are suffering,” Hawkley says. In doing so, you can help others and yourself, too. Examples include volunteering for an organization that helps elderly people or visiting a neighbor who’s lost a spouse.
- Call, don’t post. Social networks are fun and can provide an essential social outlet for some people, but Hawkley says research suggests that, on average, people do best if more of their relationships happen face-to-face or over the phone. Use a pal’s post as an excuse to call and talk about it instead of posting a comment back.
- Make time for relationships. Everyone is busy, but relationships won’t wait until you’ve finished your PhD, raised your kids, snagged the next big promotion, or moved to your ideal city. Build them now. “No one on their death bed wishes they’d worked a few more hours,” Hawkley says.
- Talk to a trusted friend or relative. Get some feedback and ideas, as well as a sympathetic ear, from a family member or friend with whom you trust your thoughts and feelings. This person could have some ideas about groups you might want to join to meet positive people.
- Meditate. “Mindfulness teaches us that we are more than who we think we are,” says Jeffrey Greeson, PhD, an assistant professor of psychiatry at Duke University Medical Center. Developing a meditation practice can help you identify and release some of the thoughts that could be keeping you feeling lonely and undermining your efforts to meet new people.
- Explore therapy. If you just can’t shake profound feelings of loneliness, isolation, and other symptoms of depression, you might want to talk to a mental health professional as part of your depression treatment. Look for a professional with a cognitive behavioral background, an approach that’s been shown to help with depression and loneliness.