• Megan Johnson, Ph.D.

Combating The Cycle of Loneliness

Recent research has revealed that more than one quarter of the population feels lonely. And this is often a topic of conversation in my office. One of the things I have been chatting with clients a lot about these past few weeks is the feeling of loneliness. Loneliness can often feel like a helpless cycle entirely dependent on the actions of others. But in reality, there are practices you can adopt that can actually disrupt the cycle of loneliness and invite the presence of others.

Loneliness is rooted in feelings of sadness that are triggered by perceived social isolation. These feelings of sadness can cause an individual to spiral emotionally and cognitively into the cycle of loneliness. Here’s how that plays out.You start by feeling lonely, which is a common feeling we all experience from time to time. We as humans all have relational needs. Just as we have a need for water that is signaled by thirst and a need for food that is signaled by hunger, we also have a need for human connection that is signaled by loneliness.

While our relational needs are natural and adaptive, these needs are not always perfectly met by our community. When we feel chronically detached from our  support network, feelings of loneliness crop up.  Feeling a sense of loneliness both motivates you to connect, but can also trigger anxiety within you that makes you hypersensitive to social threats, meaning you pay extra close attention to the words, actions, and intentions of those you interact with. While this is natural, it is not always helpful because it can result as you showing up as something other than your authentic self. And when this is how you participate in interpersonal dynamics, it serves to distance others. When others feel distant, it is often experienced as punishing or rejecting, due to the increased anxiety related to social threats, and can promote the use of avoidance as a coping strategy, which perpetuates the cycle of loneliness.

Although being caught in the cycle of loneliness can feel overwhelming, it is not a helpless place! Below are some ways to combat loneliness and interrupt the cycle so you can find authentic connection.

  • Recognize that you are an active participant in your social world, as opposed to merely a victim of interactions. Adopting such a belief can instill a sense of agency in you, which is motivating.

  • Focus on quality of connection over quantity. You won't connect with everyone, so when a particular relationship is causing you more distress than comfort, let it go and invest in those relationships that provide support.

  • Talk back to your inner critic. Notice where you are at in the cycle and listen to the story you are telling yourself. Are you judgmental? Harsh? Hopeless? Identify the messages you are telling yourself and talk back to that inner critic. The things we tell ourselves are powerful, but they are not always true.

  • Show up as your authentic self. Get clarity around your values and commit to showing up in your relationship as a person who embodies those values.

  • Intentional engagement with community. Resist the urge to isolate and continue to seek out social interactions. Recognize that this may be uncomfortable for you and enlist support from a therapist, friend, or family member to help you press in.


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