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How to deal with loneliness

It’s normal to feel lonely. It’s okay to feel the indescribable sadness that accompanies this feeling, too. And as isolated and disconnected as you might feel, the experience of loneliness doesn’t mean you have to be cut off from the world. There are ways to feel less alone.

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Everyone experiences loneliness at some time in their life. It could come after a divorce or a break up, or after moving to a new area, or when we have spent too much time on our own, whether that’s due to age, illness, or, as with the COVID-19 pandemic, social restrictions.

Some people can feel lonely even in a crowded room or in a relationship, especially if they recognize within themselves an inability to connect with others on a deeper, more intimate level — which in turn, can fuel negative feelings around self-doubt and self-worth.

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When we feel lonely, a common tendency is to escape the feeling and look for an external distraction. It could be something as simple as taking out your phone in a public place to appear busy. Or maybe you cancel social plans because you’re exhausted, only to stay home and mindlessly scroll online for hours.

Of course, at the other end of the spectrum, people can feel unmotivated and depressed, and the emotional pain can make them retreat, not wanting to engage socially or online. And when we are in a lonely place, this withdrawal exacerbates the sense of isolation, and we feel stuck.

However loneliness expresses itself, just know you’re definitely not alone in experiencing this. In fact, most people don’t know how to deal with being lonely, or how to deal with being alone. As the co-founder of Headspace and former Buddhist monk Andy Puddicombe puts it: “In a world where we are seemingly ever more connected [via our devices], so many people say they feel increasingly disconnected, isolated, or lonely.”

So what’s the antidote to loneliness? How can we accept being lonely and at the same time learn to feel at peace in our own company? Such questions might well sound impossible at first, especially when loneliness seems so hard. With meditation, there is a way.

Feel more connected to the world around you

Find a greater sense of ease with the situation and circumstance you’re in by learning to look inward and investigate feelings of loneliness.

Listen to Reframing Loneliness: Session 1 - 10 minutes

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Understanding loneliness

There are so many reasons and circumstances as to why we experience loneliness that the only real common denominator is the feeling itself. And half the battle of how to deal with loneliness is to understand what it means to feel lonely and how that differs from being alone.

The first thing to say is that if you are feeling desperate, pick up the phone and reach out to a family member, a friend, or even a support group — we’ve compiled a list of trusted mental health resources from around the globe.

Letting someone know you are struggling is the first step in acknowledging loneliness and doing something about it.

Beyond that, the more we try to push away feelings of loneliness, the more we can’t begin to understand what’s under the surface of those feelings, and, without that understanding, the void of loneliness might well continue to feel overwhelming.

Of course, sitting with ourselves at such times isn’t easy; it might even feel intolerable. But the key to dealing with loneliness is to find a skillful way to work with it. When we investigate it, examine it, and understand how it begins, the resulting awareness can help us find a greater sense of ease with the emotion itself.

“In some ways, the antidote to loneliness is to be more present,” says Andy. “Not caught up in the story of loneliness, but rather resting in the present moment.”

Try this 5-minute meditation to feel more present

Allow yourself to unwind when no one's around.

Listen to Alone Time - 5 minutes

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When we use mindfulness meditation exercises to connect with the present moment, only then can we begin to uncover the origin of the way we feel and discover more about ourselves. As we stay in the present — rather than allowing the mind to fuel the story around loneliness — we begin to discover that we are not alone; we begin to discover the connection we have to the lives of others and to the world as a whole.

Meditation for combating loneliness

Meditation can help lessen the impact of loneliness, and the more we practice, the more we allow ourselves to feel the benefits.

“There's a tremendous sense of shame that people who are lonely feel. I say that as someone who felt ashamed of being lonely as a child and even at points during adulthood,” says former Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy.

“I think part of the reason is that saying you're lonely feels like saying you're not likeable, you're not lovable — that somehow you're socially deficient in some way. The reality is that loneliness is a natural signal that our body gives us, similar to hunger, thirst. And that's how important human connection is.

“Thousands of years ago, our ancestors knew this. They knew there was safety in numbers. And when separated from each other, it places our survival at risk. And it puts us in a physiologic stress state. But when it's prolonged, then it can become a chronic state of stress, which leads to inflammation in our body [that] damages tissues in blood vessels and, ultimately, damages our physical, as well as our emotional, health.”

Meditation can have a significant impact on our physical health as well, but in a positive way: a 2012 study from the University of California — Los Angeles (UCLA) showed that elderly people who took part in an eight-week meditation program targeting mindfulness-based stress reduction not only reported reduced feelings of loneliness, but that meditation positively impacted the genes and protein-markers linked to heart disease.

"Our work presents the first evidence showing that a psychological intervention that decreases loneliness also reduces pro-inflammatory gene expression," said Steve Cole, a UCLA professor of medicine and psychiatry.

When you are feeling overwhelmed by loneliness, it can always be helpful to stop, take a minute, and take a few deep breaths.

Watch Mini-Meditation: Breathe - 1 minute

How to make your alone time more meaningful

It’s important to note the difference between aloneness and loneliness. Dr. Claudia Aguirre explains, “While aloneness helps us cultivate presence, self-reflection and even creativity, loneliness has adverse consequences for health.”

But many of us don’t know how to spend our alone time in a positive and meaningful way. Through relaxation techniques like a daily meditation practice — along with exercise and structured alone time for productivity — you can make your alone time a beneficial experience. As you practice sitting with yourself, you’ll gradually begin to free the mind, learn self-compassion, better understand what it means to be independent, and keep the bleaker thoughts around loneliness at bay.

As Andy explains in the 10-day Headspace course, Reframing Loneliness (available only to Headspace subscribers), “We can only be lonely as an individual if we think about ourselves as being separate from others and from the world around us. As soon as that thought and idea is gone, then loneliness can’t even exist as a concept.”

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