Combating loneliness by learning how to be alone

Loneliness is a killer. It diminishes our physical, mental and cognitive wellbeing. Research has shown quantifiably that how lonely we feel determines how much our cognition declines.

It can be lonely at the top.

Whether you are a mountaineer, a leader, manager or self-employed, being at the top of your game can feel lonely. Whilst all that effort and hard work may have paid off, and the sounds of the cheers of your supporters still ringing in your ears, you may be thinking “now what?”

Of course you don’t have to be alone to feel lonely either. The loneliest I have ever been was during the time I rented a bedsit in central London. I moved amongst and talked with people every day, yet was aware of an increasing sense of disconnect, despair and despondency.

Loneliness leads to an elevation of the stress hormone cortisol, our sleep pattern becomes disturbed and our world can take on a negative greyish hue. It produces structural changes including a loss of grey matter in the area of the brain (pSTS) associated with social perception and processing visual cues. In other words being lonely makes us more anti-social, causing us to further avoid social contact and making it harder for us to break that pattern of behaviour to return to forming more social relationships.

However while loneliness is miserable, spending time on your own may be something you yearn for and relish. It’s that time when you no longer have to consider the wants and needs of others. Hurrah! Parents of young kids will well recognise the joy of being able to take a shower or even go to the loo on your own, without having to take the entire family including the dog with you. It’s not about being narcissistic, merely a chance to press pause and just be with yourself. Whether you take 5 minutes, five weeks or five years, learning to travel solo has many benefits with the greatest being the ability to be alone without feeling lonely.

The benefits of time spent alone include:

Time to recoup and re-energise.

Introverts especially use time out alone to restore energy, however even the most hardened extroverts who gain their energy from being around others, benefit too.

Time to reflect and think.

In our crazy busy world where we spend so much time rushing around it can be good to spend even a few minutes touching base with our own thoughts about how we are travelling in life, love and work.

Time to check in on how we are feeling.

It’s easy to get sucked into perpetual busyness, doing things for everyone else, and forgetting to check in on our own emotions. Ignoring how we feel denies us the opportunity to readjust, which is especially important if you have been feeling low or anxious. Left unchecked this can potentially lead to a downward spiral of anxiety or depression.

Time for self-acceptance.

With the societal pursuit of always seeking to achieve more, we can lose sight of knowing how much is enough and remember that giving our best is more rewarding to our brain than chasing the myth of perfection. Time spent alone allows us to notice our capabilities and achievements, while also promoting acceptance of our fallibilities, imperfections and inadequacies.

Time to remember loneliness is a feeling not a fixture.

When we feel lonely we experience feeling dissociated from others. By reminding yourself this is a temporary state you can consciously choose a different state of mind. Being alone allows you to enjoy the peace and tranquillity of your environment, to meditate and tune into yourself building compassion, creativity, energy and focus while reducing stress. It’s about feeling gratitude for everything we have and for being alive.

Better brain health requires our ongoing attention and vigilance.

Choosing to take time out and enjoy the benefit of being alone provides you the energy, resilience and focus required to ensure loneliness doesn’t have to feature on your daily menu.

Connection with others is crucial to our health, well-being and performance. Knowing how to effectively disconnect to recoup, restore and re-energise matters too.

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