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Alone or lonely? There's joy in solitude, but not loneliness

Alone or lonely? There's joy in solitude, but not
Living alone and spending time by yourself can be joyful, according to experts, who say not everyone alone will feel lonely. So, how do we achieve happiness when we're suddenly alone, maybe for the first time in our lives? And how do we know if it's negatively affecting our mental health?

HealthTimes spoke to a psychologist and a high-performance consultant who share their advice on loving alone time and beating loneliness if it creeps into your life.

Sarah Lorimer, THIS WAY UP Clinical Psychologist, says time alone can be good for us in many ways, but it's different to loneliness.

"Finding joy in alone time can be considered a form of mindfulness, which is generally defined as giving your whole attention to the present moment, without judgement.
"This means it doesn't matter what you do, as long as it captures your attention. It could be relaxing, like having a hot bath, engrossing, like reading a good book, or challenging, like learning a new skill.

"If you're stuck for ideas on what kinds of activities you could do, aim for something enjoyable, or something that gives you a sense of achievement."

Whether you're planning time alone or simply are alone, the trick is to give yourself your undivided attention to benefit most.

"If can you, try not to multitask, like scrolling through your phone while you're in the bath, as this divides your attention and makes it more difficult for you to find joy in the activity you're doing," says Lorimer.

It's important not to confuse time alone with loneliness, as the latter can significantly negatively affect your mental health.

"There could be many signs that loneliness is impacting your mental health. Some things to keep an eye out for are self-critical thoughts, especially about your own worth or about how others see you, having intense negative emotions, or trying to numb negative emotions with unhealthy coping strategies, like drugs or alcohol."

If being alone turns to loneliness, friends, family and community groups are an important support network to share your feelings.

"See if you can organise a few more social events together, especially events where you can talk and connect. It might be easier to catch up over coffee than at the cinema.

"If you don't have family or close friends, try spending more time in places where you can connect to others casually, like ordering a coffee at a cafe or reading in the library.

"It might also be helpful to try and increase your opportunities to form new relationships, like joining a sports team, book club, or community group."

Professional help is also advised if your support networks are not easing the feelings of loneliness and you're concerned about your mental wellbeing. 

"If you're concerned about your mental health, it's important to talk to a mental health professional.

"Your GP is a great place to start - they can explain what services might be available in your area and organise referrals for you."

Dr Jo Lukins, a psychology and high-performance consultant, says the difference between being alone and loneliness is that one's physical and the other is emotional.

"The first consideration is to define the difference between having solitude and being alone versus loneliness.

"Seeking solitude or being alone is a physical state. It is a time when you are separated from others. In contrast, loneliness is an emotional state.

"When we are lonely, we are aware of a need to connect with others when that availability is not present.

"For some, there is an argument that we seek resolution from loneliness as it has an evolutionary element to it. Loneliness is our sign that we don't have sufficient quality social connections."

While loneliness is not good for our mental wellbeing, being alone is important whether it's a choice or a reality, says Dr Lukins.

"Becoming comfortable within yourself when you are alone is a powerful independence strategy.

"When you are alone, through your choosing, recognise the value in the quiet time that you can create for yourself.

"When you are alone, without your choosing, recognise it as an opportunity to self-reflect and enrich the moments you have."

If you fear being alone, and it's not a choice, it's helpful to think about the control you have in your life.

"Think about how you spend your time and what you can control – your nutrition, sleep, physical activity, engagement in hobbies, a new project and things you enjoy.

"Practising gratitude is a valuable activity that can give you great comfort when alone."

A mindful scan of your behaviours and feelings will offer feedback on the impact of loneliness on your wellbeing, explains Dr Lukins.

"I would also recommend people consider the strategies people use to mask feelings of loneliness, such as using food, alcohol, television, and social media to numb away from the problem.

"We also know that loneliness has high physical and psychological costs, with some research supporting its impact on the risk of dying prematurely."

Recognising loneliness as a trigger for action can be helpful, says Dr Lukins, and will prompt important behavioural changes, such as:
  • Seeking someone to talk to (friend/family/counsellor)
  • Engaging in any activity that connects you with others
  • Volunteering – a great way to do good and feel good
  • Taking a break from social media can also help. It might sound silly, but social media is often anything but social – many people come off social media feeling worse than when they went on it.
  • Spending time outside in nature to enhance your wellbeing

Being aware of our mindset concerning loneliness and recognising helpful habits and ways of thinking is empowering, explains Dr Lukins.

"It's challenging, but trying to be social, even if you don't feel like it, is part of the bravery to help people get through loneliness. Loneliness is usually temporary and best changes when you seek out new connections.

"If you are struggling and not sure how to manage, seek out counselling and support. You don't need to go through loneliness by yourself."

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Haley Williams

Haley Williams has a Bachelor of Communication in Journalism and over a decade of experience in the media, marketing and communications industries.

She is a widely published journalist with a particular interest in writing magazine features on parenting, health, fitness, nutrition and education.

Before becoming a freelance journalist, Haley worked as a writer for NeoLife (a worldwide nutrition company), News Limited and APN News & Media.

Haley also has extensive experience as an SEO Content Writer and Digital Marketing Strategist.