Monday, March 04, 2013

Can you “catch” loneliness?

Stress for Success

March 5, 2013

Loneliness can be painful for anyone from time to time. But some people live with it daily for years on end draining them emotionally, inhibiting them from forming healthy relationships, and stunting their psychological growth.

But, is loneliness contagious?

In a ten-year study John Cacioppo, University of Chicago psychologist and a leading expert on loneliness, suggests loneliness can be infectious. Researchers examined how loneliness spreads in social networks and found that people close to someone experiencing loneliness were 52% more likely to become lonely themselves.

Cacioppo offers these tips to overcome this state of mind:

• Accept your loneliness is a symptom that something needs to change.

• Understand the effects it has on your physical and mental life.

• Consider volunteering to help others or doing something you enjoy. Both endeavors would put you into a position to meet others who share your interest. You could possibly cultivate new friendships or at least increase your positive social interactions.

• Put energy into developing quality relationships with others who share your attitudes, interests and values. You can find like-minded people in religious environments, sports, hobbies, political activities, etc.

• Instead of assuming you’ll be rejected when you reach out, try assuming the other person will be open to you. Look for the positives in a relationship rather than protecting yourself against the assumed negatives.

Here are additional ideas to treat loneliness:

• Question your expectations of your relationships with others. Lonely people often have very unrealistic expectations, like expecting perfection from others or from themselves. Set realistic expectations regarding what you can reasonably get from relationships.

• Learn to differentiate your emotions if you, like many lonely people, misidentify them. For example, it’s common for lonely people to assume they’re depressed, which can lead to behaving in depressed ways, making everything worse.

• Distinguish between aloneness and loneliness. Being alone can be very healthy. Alone time offers you the opportunity to reflect upon your life in ways that are very difficult when surrounded by people.

When I worked in mental health, I encouraged many clients to live alone for at least a period of time. When you are surrounded by people, it can be difficult to come face-to-face with your demons because they’re bouncing off your interactions with others, allowing you to assume the problems you’re having are the others’. Spending a great deal of time alone can force you to come to grips with them.

• Learn that you are capable of handling loneliness by dealing with its accompanying anxiety. Learn first-hand it doesn’t have to rule your life.

• Reframe loneliness: rather than aching to have a close relationship, identify other options that can also be satisfying, like pursuing an interest you’ve allowed to remain dormant. By experiencing what’s of interest to you, you’ll learn that you are in control of your moods. You’ll learn they do not control you – unless you allow them.

• Polish your social skills and learn new ones. Since lonely people often attribute their loneliness to something lacking in those around them they tend to be unaware of their own lack of such skills. Seek professional counseling if you find this difficult.

• Increase your awareness of how often you put yourself down when you’re lonely. You probably blame both yourself and others for your unhappiness. Learn to accept that relationships are not always good. They go through normal ups and downs. Nothing is perfect. To expect perfection sets you up for frustration and distancing yourself from others.

• Loneliness, like depression, can be very self-absorbing; narcissistic even. When self-absorbed you can easily be hurt by others and conversely easily inflated. This is another reason volunteering helps because it provides a natural balance to this self-absorption tendency.

• Set measurable and realistic goals like meet one new person each week this month.

Millions share your loneliness every day. When dragged down by this state you miss innumerable opportunities to meet others, to improve your life, to learn, and to enjoy life. Once you identify that it is loneliness from which you suffer, you can begin to work your way out of it. Doing so may lead you to a better life than you ever dreamed possible.

Jacquelyn Ferguson, M. S. is an international speaker and a Stress and Wellness Coach. Order her book, Let Your Body Win: Stress Management Plain & Simple, at Email her to request she speak to your organization at