Humans have evolved to require deep and meaningful connections. It’s a survival mechanism which drives us to connect with others.

But realistically, those deep connections we crave are not easy to find. When people fall short of the connections they desire and their only choice is superficial socializing or nothing, they can get lonely.

At some point in our lives, the chances are that you and I will feel lonely.

Researchers define loneliness as perceived social isolation, a feeling of not having the social contacts one would like.

In a study to find out how many people feel this way in three rich countries, the researchers found that over 9% of adults in Japan, 22% in America and 23% in Britain always or often feel lonely, or lack companionship, or else feel left out or isolated.

Feeling lonely is not the same as being alone (solitude). We can be lonely but not alone, and we can be alone but not lonely.

Solitude is a constructive state of engagement with oneself. Time planned and spent alone to disconnect from distractions, to think and do and be as you please is not the same as loneliness.

“Solitude is a time that can be used for reflection, inner searching or growth or enjoyment of some kind. Deep reading requires solitude, so does experiencing the beauty of nature. Thinking and creativity usually do too,” argues Hara Estroff Marano, a writer of Psychology Today. Solitude gives us a chance to regain perspective.

But when you lose all sense of how to reconnect and withdraw in a wearying circle, you can easily get caught in the loneliness epidemic.

Loneliness feels draining, distracting, and upsetting

Loneliness is a feeling of disconnection from society.

If you’re lonely for a few months after your beloved relative or close friend passes away, that’s normal. But if you’ve been lonely every day for months, or years, something is wrong. A sign that loneliness has gone out of control is that you’re always lonely.

Chronic loneliness has roots that are both internal and external, a combination of genes and social circumstance.

Although loneliness is usually temporary, when it becomes chronic the consequences can be serious. Loneliness has been linked to depression, anxiety, interpersonal hostility, increased vulnerability to health problems such as cancer, diabetes, heart disease, even to suicide.”

For many people, loneliness can significantly impact their quality of life and their physical and mental health. Chronically lonely people tend to stay away, no matter how life circumstances change — social interactions makes them anxious even though they desperately need more sociability in their lives.

Chronically lonely people are social perfectionists, argues Lars Svendsen, the author of “A Philosophy of Loneliness”. He explains:

“social perfectionism … is more common among lonely individuals than non-lonely. The lonely person thinks that they are unloved and that no one will befriend them, but perhaps the problem is rather that, because they place such impossible demands on friendship and love, they are not capable of loving or befriending someone.”

When someone is lonely, they long to be witnessed, accepted, desired, at the same time as becoming intensely wary of exposure. Lonely people do not have a true relationship with themselves or others. They meet and validate themselves only in the reflection they see in others’ eyes.

Sophia Dembling, the author of Introverts in Love: The Quiet Way to Happily Ever After writes, “When you’re lonely you can start to feel as though you don’t have what you need to bring to social situations, you don’t feel safe in those situations. So you start to retreat and the more you do that, the lonelier you become, and it becomes this vicious circle that you can’t get out of.”

According to research carried out at the University of Chicago, the feeling of loneliness triggers what psychologists call hypervigilance for social threat — feeling socially isolated which then leads to increased surveillance of the social world and an unconscious focus on self-preservation.

The result is a vicious circle of withdrawal, in which the lonely person becomes increasingly suspicious, intensifying their sense of isolation. In a study, researchers found that lonely people’s brains perceive social threats automatically and more quickly than the non-lonely.

Recognizing loneliness for what it is and deal with it in the healthiest ways

Loneliness hurts. It’s a complex mental and emotional phenomenon but the good news is that it’s often temporary. It’s important to realize why we feel lonely, because only then can we see how we might address it.

Loneliness is a feeling and the more you pay attention to it and focus on yourself, the more you become self-centred and self-absorbed which makes it even more difficult to focus on others or maintaining meaningful relationships.

To feel less lonely start focusing on the needs and feelings of others — the less attention on your lonely thoughts and feelings the better. Make some effort to reach out to others, to initiate conversation and face time even when you don’t feel like it.

In her book, The Friendship Cure, recommends we start prioritising meaningful connections outside our families. She writes:

“The only way we can end this era of acute loneliness is to start a new era of proper, loving, restorative camaraderie between human beings. That means prioritising friends in our lives. It means deliberately, brazenly choosing who deserves to be in our lives in the first place. It means investing time and energy into people outside our own families and marriages.”

You can also break the cycle of loneliness by finding and spending time with people who enjoy the same activities as you. Meet people who share your interests — its a natural basis for beginning a friendship. You have a lot to talk about. You ask more questions and focus on something else other than yourself.

“By opting to cope with our loneliness by seeking out social support, we create more social moments with the people in our lives who matter to us, which usually reduces our loneliness,” argues Tchiki Davis, Ph.D., a consultant, writer, and expert on well-being technology.

Get curious in others and don’t expect perfection. If you are interested in others, they will be attracted to you because you are giving them your attention. Guess what, you will get attention in return.

Curiosity about others also takes your focus away from those lonely feelings that tend to make you hide and sulk.

Practice kindness. Spread good vibes and compassion to the people in your life and even strangers. Smile at a stranger. How do you feel when someone smiles at you? In most cases, it makes you feel warm and happy, and you probably smile at them as a result.

Use your coins to make change in someone’s life. Don’t just say “happy birthday” on social media. Send a real card instead. Unexpected cards are the best, and they’ll make a lasting, positive impression — guaranteed.

If you can, consider donating to charity or cause — you can always give a couple of dollars to someone in need. Or better still raise money for charity on our birthday.

Choose to volunteer some of your time. It’s a meaningful way to connect with others and make new friends. You can significantly improve your sense of community and social support when you volunteer.

If all your efforts are failing to help you overcome loneliness, seek help. Speak to a professional. Find a safe environment to talk about how you feel and get one-to-one time with an expert who can help you.

Originally published on Medium.

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