Reaching out to others is key. This may be helping others in need, becoming a volunteer in providing services in your community, or joining a community organization. The process not only helps extract you from physical isolation, the gratitude of connecting with others is a relief. We also know that the process of giving releases oxytocin in the brain, and this is instrumental in feeling attached.
The process of talking about your own story and hearing the experience of others is often really helpful in not feeling so alone. Humans respond empathetically and in other emotional ways to the stories of others. Since lonely teens may have increased empathy, these interactions enhance mutual feelings of affirmation and validation, and improve self-esteem.
There is a wealth of research on the value of pets for emotional well-being. These relationships also cause the release of oxytocin as a consequence of attachment. Oxytocin is a powerful chemical in the brain that promotes feeling soothed and in touch with others. Pets provide emotional support and connection. Caring for pets is a joyful experience.
Loneliness is your subjective feeling and perception. Many folks who are lonely experience their situation as “the way life is.” If you see this as your fate, it may well lead to a lack of motivation to change things, a self-fulfilling prophesy.
Remember that thoughts are not facts. So, nailing down some specific negative thoughts you have about your feelings of loneliness may be a start in helping you to realize how exaggerated they are. Things like, “I’m not worth anything, nobody likes me” or “There is no hope for connecting with others, they all like somebody else” are examples of how we all have thoughts that are overblown or just wrong.
The point of this kind of mindful awareness to change emotions is to identify the thoughts that are exaggerated or distorted and then work (with a therapist, and then on your own or with a family member or friend) to change this way of thinking.
You may feel lonely because of a significant loss, by being excluded from a group or a community, or because of your state of mind, even in the company of others. It’s really important to understand that loneliness is a personal feeling. Not everyone who loses someone feels lonely. Some just feel sad. If you feel lonely even in a crowd, it may be that earlier in life you did not have people around you who encouraged connection, understanding, or empathetic communication. By figuring out from where your personal loneliness stems, you can then find ways to address it. The key is that emotional struggles that require change can only be solved if we find the root cause, so we can take the best next steps.
While you may find yourself alone at times, engaging in the arts can often provide relief. When we read a good book, watch a captivating movie, or lose ourselves in music or a work of graphic art, we may be able to distract ourselves from the painful feelings of loneliness and improve our mood. The arts are not only distractions, but also have healing properties in themselves.
We humans are pack animals, not hermits. Our brains are wired for social interactions and connection. Communities are organized around missions – religious, spiritual, political, and others. They bring us together with common goals. They also help us feel that we are part of something bigger than ourselves.
Keep in mind, while we hope you’ll share these tips with a young person in your life, they are great for anyone, regardless of age. It’s not pleasant to feel lonely, and it may take some effort to overcome the painful feelings of isolation. But with personal effort and the support of others, there are ways we can feel connected and renew a sense of personal well-being.
By // Dr. Gene Beresin
Dr. Gene Beresin is the executive director of the Clay Center for Young Healthy Minds at Massachusetts General Hospital. For more information, visit mghclaycenter.org.