One of the major reasons that I’ve gotten into bad relationships—and I assure you, I have gotten into some very bad relationships—was due to loneliness, or fear thereof. After my last split, one of those obnoxious-type friends who can isolate your flaws with pinpoint accuracy and then gleefully point them out to you, suggested that the only time I should look for a romantic connection is when I feel good about life and my place in it. Since I was single, that had to include learning how to spend time alone and even cope with occasional bouts of loneliness—facing it rather than trying to escape it.
At its root, loneliness is an automatic stress response genetically ingrained in all social animals, from ants to wolves to elephants to humans. When we’re separated from our collective, we become easier prey for predators.
As a matter of survival, the body created the intense discomfort of loneliness to encourage us to rejoin the tribe, lest we be eaten by a saber tooth tiger while bumbling around solo.
Ongoing, prolonged loneliness can be risky, even in a city with no tigers around. Research shows that, from a physical standpoint, lacking social connections can be as damaging to your health as smoking nearly a pack of cigarettes per day. Chronic loneliness can lead to obesity, addictive behaviors, high blood pressure, and other negative outcomes caused by a build-up of the stress hormone cortisol.
From a mental health standpoint, ongoing, chronic loneliness can intensify the effects of clinical depression, increase the risk of suicide, impair cognitive function, and even accelerate the onset and effects of Alzheimer’s.
For me, though, and for most of us facing divorce, loneliness is not a chronic condition but rather a natural reaction to going from being part of a couple to living alone. We can get through it long before it becomes a serious health risk.
We’ll also likely find plenty of others seeking to soothe a sense of isolation.
While our loneliness is caused by divorce (and maybe the bad marriage the preceded it), some research suggests that far more Americans are feeling lonely than ever before. This is important to remember, because as University of Texas psychology professor Kristin Neff explains, a sense of isolation, a feeling that we’re the only person experiencing difficulty, can serve to further alienate us.
I’m an only child who was raised by parents who were largely absent. I’m introverted by nature, and enjoy working in solitude. As such, my social needs aren’t great. However, this doesn’t render me immune from feelings of disconnectedness. I’ve got a close circle of friends, but their schedules and mine don’t always mesh. While I don’t care for crowds, I did need to find a way to get more social stimulation during and after my divorces.
Here are four steps that worked for me:
1. Put your ancestral panic in it’s place.
The first step to countering loneliness is recognizing that there’s nothing urgently wrong. Your body is just reacting to the risks of an earlier millennium. While it’s true that I’m by myself in my apartment, save for my lazy hound snoozing in her chair, my immediate needs are met. I’m capable of handling things in my life. I have survived up until this point, and will continue to do so. No saber tooth tigers are roaming the halls of my apartment complex. Right now I am alone, whether or not totally by choice, but there’s no reason to panic.
2. Bring the coffee shop home.
You can take steps to make your home feel more populated, even if you live alone. Having a TV or radio on in the background provides what the experts call “social surrogacy”—the chatter of others deactivating that ancient warning alarm. I also found it surprisingly helpful to log on to coffitivity.com, a free site that sends ambient restaurant sounds from one of six different locales into your living room. I could be sitting at home but listening to the buzz of a Texas teahouse or a Brazilian Bistro. Coffitivity effectively turned my apartment into the audio version of a bustling coffee shop, and made me feel part of a collective.
3. Talk it out.
Talking to a friend was is a great relief for me in my divorce—one I felt comfortable sharing negative feelings with. Sometimes just reaching by e-mail and keeping things light helped me get through; I knew friends were just a PM away. Skype or FaceTime can feel nearly as good as a face-to-face with someone. For others, talking to a family member, counselor, therapist, or clergy member helps loosen the grip of loneliness.
4. Take it live.
It may seem like social media sites such as Facebook would counter loneliness, but some research suggests that the opposite may be true. One recent study by University of Michigan psychologist Ethan Kross found that the more frequently people used Facebook, the more worried, lonely, and dissatisfied they were. This has led to coining of the term “Facebook depression.”
What this meant for me was that I’d have to get myself into the company of real people instead of relying on the digital realm. It turns out that it’s easier than ever to do this, whether you’re new to an area, or merely newly single. Technology can connect you to all sorts of local groups, perhaps one that is meeting this very evening. Meetup.com is a great way to find events and groups of people meeting around various interests, and there are plenty of singles’ Meetups, single parents groups and divorce support groups.
SportsVite.com allows you to search your area for teams recruiting players in a diverse array of sports. Volunteering is one of the best ways to break out of a negative mental spiral and remind yourself that you have something to give; volunteermatch.org connects you to causes you care about and ways to volunteer.
And, of course, there are the singles sites from Match.com, eHarmony and OK Cupid, to Plenty of Fish, Bumble and the like.
While it may take some weeding out to find someone you click with romantically, even a bad date can ease the feeling of solitude.
The old-fashioned methods of meeting others work, too. I could go someplace where people congregate, such as a coffee shop or restaurant. I could check the local events listings online or in the local paper, and find things to do to be around others. I could rely on a fail-safe choice like catching a matinee or going to the museum. Even if you arrive alone, the presence of others can break through the sense of isolation. You might even start a running list of "Easy Social Fixes" and hang it on the wall as a reminder that there are others out there besides your once-spouse; your social life is in your control.
Snuggle up with a non-human companion. My hound, who remains snoozing in her chair, is a big asset. Animals can provide real companionship and help counteract loneliness. The body can’t tell the difference between cuddling a person or a pet. It releases oxytocin, the chemical that contributes to our sense of connectedness and well-being. Petting an animal improves the circulatory and immune systems, and playing together releases dopamine and serotonin. Not to mention that dogs, a natural conversation-starter, are a great way to meet people while out on walks.
Not everyone is up for long-term pet ownership in the midst of divorce. While the animals in my life have always found me, you can tell your friends you’re available to pet-sit, or even borrow a pet by fostering one on petfinder.com. If your home isn’t pet-friendly, consider volunteering at your local humane society or other animal shelter; most welcome an extra pair of hands. Not only will you make new furry friends, you’ll get to spend some time with the two-legged variety as well.
David T. Kruchowski is a freelance writer who lives in Minneapolis with his two dog daughters. He writes about relationships, dating, technology, history, and managing anxiety and depression.