Loneliness Can Pull You Down a Dangerous Rabbit Hole. How to Combat It and Find Joy Again
Feeling lonely can emotionally be like going down a rabbit hole. And there’s a big price to pay physically, too, such as a higher risk of heart disease, neurological issues, premature death and even suicide.
You can climb out, however, though it may not be easy or swift.
Humans are social animals. We need our circles and our groups to help us get through the ups and downs of everyday life and some of the tougher periods, too. We both have our close friends and Greek Choruses of women who we turn to in times of need. They have kept us afloat during the most traumatic periods in our lives.
How lucky we are at our advanced ages if we have close friends who are still in our friendship constellation and some from long ago, even decades. Recently, we read in the St. Louis Jewish Light digital newsletter about two men in their 90s who have been friends for 85 years. They met in first grade and currently they’re planning a 75th high school reunion. The two have led parallel lives in so many ways and their close long-standing friendship transcends social isolation and loneliness as they age and lose friends and family along the way.
Eleanor Cummins and Andrew Zaleski said it well in a New York Times article, “If Loneliness is an Epidemic, How Do We treat It?" (July 14, 2023). They quote neuroscientist and author Stephanie Cacioppo who says, “We are each other’s key to a long life and healthy life. We need to be accountable for the well-being of our friends and teammates and others.” Opinion | How to Treat Loneliness With Medicine - The New York Times (nytimes.com)
Some 52 percent of Americans report feeling lonely while 47 percent report their relationships with others are not meaningful, according to Christie Hartman, PhD, Psychology, in The Roots of Loneliness Project, (June 9, 2023). www.rootsofloneliness.com/loneliness-statistics
What brings on our loneliness? Do you feel lonely because you recently lost someone? Perhaps your relationships are not bringing fulfillment? Do you live alone and have trouble making friends because you feel unlikeable or are afraid of being judged? Or maybe you may not know how to begin a conversation. Are you afraid to venture out in public and be around others if you’ve been socially isolated for the last three years of Covid-19? The pandemic undid many people’s social ability. They found it hard to be convivial.
Allowing loneliness to sink in can actually be a brain-changer. There are strategies to find joy again and retrain our lonely brains to form these connections that include rejiggering our relationship expectations and feeling less lonely. However, there is no pill for doing so. As we’ve re-emerged into society, we’ve thought about when we were lonely before and also asked others how they did so without too much angst.
Brenda found a way even though she lacked a support system, was divorced and childless. She was determined not to let loneliness define her life. As she aged, she decided she needed a small, walkable community where she could make friends and build a social network. She found one by doing the research online and then going to check out the communities she liked best based on walkability, size and services/hospitals nearby.
Margaret experienced extreme loneliness after her husband of 42 years died and the attention she received began to wane. She knew she had to be strong and okay for her mother, father, mother-in-law and three children. Slowly, she returned to socializing and the land of the living, as she wrote in our book, Suddenly Single After 50. But to do so she had to force herself to go back to work and join groups, see friends, attend events albeit alone. It was important for her to feel part of a larger community. Slowly, doing so felt less uncomfortable and gatherings even sparked joy. She did so again after the pandemic, which had kept her isolated in her new home in New York City. She found groups to join and meet new people, some of whom have become friends.
After Barbara’s divorce, she moved from St. Louis to the East to be closer to her aging mother and two daughters. Forming new relationships was initially a challenge but also part of her adventure. She wrote in a blog on the topic in10/20/2017, titled “How I Learned Better to Handle Loneliness.” When she moved from St. Louis to Chicago in 1988, she remembers standing outside her one daughter’s school to pick her up at the end of the first day. She knew nobody, could not engage right away in discussions about summer vacations and upcoming plans. She stood like a statue and felt…yes, lonely. “The same feeling of loneliness crept in on me like a dark cloud when I moved to my current town in the East and knew nobody. Would anybody care if I got up in the morning? Initially no and I felt adrift since I thrive on friendships,” she wrote.
She knew from a prior move from New York to St. Louis years earlier that the lonely feelings of being without friends in a new place would be temporary, compared to the lonely feelings she felt when she was in the last year of her 31-year marriage. Her house was eerily quiet as her former husband “barely talked to me as we shared our family home,” she also wrote. She found the silence deafening and worse than if she had lived completely alone.
At the same time, there are those—usually older--who have learned to live with their loneliness and see its positive upsides. Many perfected this skill when living in isolation during the pandemic. They got to know themselves better and to “love themselves” in the process. In the New York Times “Letters to the Editor” re: the loneliness piece written by Eleanor Cummins and Andrew Zaleski, Keith de Lellis wrote: “In the past couple of years, I have come to terms with my loneliness. Covid was a game changer for me. It taught me to be more accepting of it. It enabled me to find workarounds for social situations that made me uncomfortable.”
Sharon Pitts of Buffalo, NY, wrote: “For senior citizens, it is hard to start over. You have options: join senior centers, volunteer and if you have family and friends, do things together. But what if you have few friends? What if your family members are just about all dead? How can you join in on conversations when people talk about their spouse or grandchildren when that doesn’t apply to you?”
(Rabbi) Scott N. Bolton of New York wrote: “Why did the authors leave out religious affiliation? Nourishing the mind, body and spirit by participating in prayer and study of sacred sources links us together and solves loneliness. For many, now is the moment to journey back to sacred centers of social gathering. Let the glue of song and prayer bond lonely souls. Let us seek true joy through shared experiences of supporting one another in times of loss and joyous celebrations.”
Ronald W. Pies of Cazenovia, N.Y., a psychiatrist and medical ethicist, wrote: “This generally helpful piece neglects the important distinction between loneliness and solitude…Put simply: Not everyone who is alone feels lonely, and not everyone who is lonely is alone. Some people truly enjoy their solitude. Conversely, many individuals are surrounded by friendly and sympathetic people, yet still feel a gnawing sense of loneliness…In my view, relinquishing loneliness begins with being comfortable with solitude — which ultimately means being comfortable with oneself.”
Here are some more tips and strategies if you want to ease your loneliness. Know that it takes some amount of work and time, so be patient and know your efforts will be worthwhile.
Set goals. You might have to force yourself to do so—like try to go out once a day, even if it’s to the grocery store. Talk to the clerk or a stranger in line if you can. Then add on. Try to find something you have in common. Perhaps, you comment on a necklace they’re wearing and that starts a discussion i.e. “Oh, I made this,” and it leads to how she made it. Perhaps, it was in a class, and she asks you to come to it. Barbara recently took a walk in one daughter’s new suburban neighborhood. She was eager to help her daughter not feel alone with her family in a brand-new town. She engaged a neighbor walking a dog. “How long have you lived here? Have you loved it?” And she told him where her daughter lived, hoping he and his family might pop over, a neighborly thing to do.
Sign up for a class or activity that stems from a passion. If you like to travel, maybe do a Road Scholar tour or take a cruise. Go in a group, if you can, where you might meet that one person with whom you bond. Maybe, there will be two people.
Self-improvement. If you chose to stay home alone, read. It can take you to a different place and time and to another part of your psyche. Learn Pilates virtually or any type of exercise regimen. Go on social media and chat with “friends”. Call someone on the phone. It’s a way to engage with others. You’re doing them a favor, too.
Volunteer to give to someone else. This will broaden your world and shift the focus from me to others. Very old people living alone are often desperate for in-person visits and conversation, much more than any material object. Young children need help from volunteers who tutor, Margaret has found, and she relishes the give-and-take.
If alone, form a support system of your go-to people in case of an emergency. Print out the list and put it on your refrigerator and share it by email with some key people in your life.
Access community resources and how to use them. Services may include senior housing, home delivered products and services aimed at the aging solo market such as Meals on Wheels and doctors who make house calls. Consider a continuing care community or group living situation or, as some have done, a roommate situation. Barbara took daily walks and introduced herself to shopkeepers who were among her first friends in her latest ‘hood. She signed up for a book club, art, painting and Pilates classes. She engaged in dinner party gatherings hosted by a local shop with a kitchen. Not everybody wanted a new friend, she found, and she wasn’t hurt by the lack of reciprocity she extended. But several were eager. Bottom line: You only need one or a few to pare loneliness.
Seek out religious friends. A house of worship is a safe place and a spiritually oriented environment, which makes it a good place to meet people with whom you have something in common. It doesn’t even have to be your religion, but a place which you’ve heard welcomes others and hosts activities. Margaret joined a temple soon after moving to New York and has become involved with several groups there and made friends.
Get enough sleep. (See our blog “Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep” June 15, 2018, https://lifelessonsat50plus.com/blogs/news/now-i-lay-me-down-to-sleep-if-only-it-were-so-easy-part-i?_pos=1&_sid=c2d923522&_ss=r )
Don’t let habits keep you hibernating. If you’re a knitter, for example, do so in a group or sit outside in a courtyard where there might other folks around. You can knit, pearl and schmooze. Head to a library; many offer community events such as working on a big jigsaw puzzle or collage together, again better than alone.
Get professional help. Group therapy might get you back in the game or individual therapy can help you explore reasons for loneliness and ways to extricate yourself from it.
Loneliness can surface at unexpected times. A book or movie may trigger it; the anniversary of a milestone of a death of a family member or friend can also set the cycle going. If you want to avoid going down a lonely rabbit hole, take a risk and slowly let others into your life. You will feel so much better when you’ve got a friend, or two or more.