In late 2019, the team I work with at PsychAlive decided to offer a webinar on overcoming loneliness that would run in April of 2020. At the time, we had no idea that a global pandemic would give the subject of loneliness an entirely new meaning to us as individuals and as a society. Many of us are experiencing isolation in a way we never have before.
As of now, 95 percent of Americans are under order to stay home to help stop the spread of COVID-19. While social distancing is an absolutely necessary life-saving measure, this new state of solitude can affect people’s mental health. In fact, the National Suicide Prevention Hotline has recently seen a 300 percent increase in phone calls.
Loneliness itself is associated with a range of mental health outcomes, such as suicidal ideation, depressive symptoms, greater feelings of helplessness and threat, substance abuse, impaired executive control and self-regulation, and diminished willpower to exercise and eat healthily. It is also associated with physical outcomes, including weakened health, increased morbidity and mortality, and decreased sleep quality.
While being alone has increased dramatically in this time, neither loneliness nor its effects are new to us. Even before the pandemic struck, loneliness was widely considered an epidemic in this country where 61 percent of Americans over age 18 struggle with feeling lonely. Among this group, 79 percent of Gen Z-ers, 71 percent of millennials, and 50 percent of baby boomers said they felt lonely.
The question is, when we combine what we already know about loneliness with our new, strange, and isolating circumstances, how can we respond with resilience? How can we cope with and ease our loneliness? The first thing to accept is that loneliness is not the same as being alone. Yes, many of us may be alone right now, and of course, we will feel a natural level of loneliness. However, what our minds do with our sense of isolation can be even more powerful than the isolation itself.
This is in large part because the less time we spend with others, the more time we spend with a critical inner voice inside our own heads. This “voice” always has the tendency to get louder when we’re alone. Because loneliness generally has a lot to do with how we think about our circumstances and not just the circumstances themselves, we can ease a lot of our suffering by doing the work of dealing with this inner critic. And what better moment to start this work than now when many of us are forced to spend our time amongst only ourselves?
The critical inner voice is like an internal enemy, feeding us a stream of cruel commentary and self-limiting advice. This voice can fuel feelings of loneliness by sending us warnings, criticism, and instructions that undermine us and make us feel insecure and unlovable or unwanted. The demoralized and shameful feelings perpetuated by our inner critic make it much more of a hurdle to reach out and connect with others or take any action that may counter our feelings of loneliness.
In this uncertain time, we are all more vulnerable to our voices. We may experience thoughts that put us down: “You’re all alone. You’re so pathetic. You can’t handle this. You’re a mess. You’re so selfish, lazy, useless, out of shape, etc.” These voices may target us in relation to other people: “Nobody misses you. You’re a burden. They don’t want to hear from you. You should deal with this on your own.” The voices may even target the people with whom we're in still daily contact: “You can’t get along with your family. Your kids don’t even like you. You’re a terrible parent. Your co-workers think you’re lazy.”
The first step to overcoming these attacks is to recognize when you’re having them and what actions they may be inspiring. For example, many people feel anxious before they go to bed at night when their mind is allowed to roam. They may run through their day, beating themselves up, or stress over what’s coming tomorrow. Anything from specific tasks, like trying to homeschool our kids, to certain interactions, like talking to our partner about practical arrangements, can trigger our inner critic. A wide range of things can set off our inner voice, and it’s valuable to get to know what triggers yours.
The trouble is, most of us fail to catch on to when our inner critic has taken over, and instead, we blindly believe its perspective as the truth. When we tear into ourselves about being alone, we often believe some deeper attack, telling us that we’re unlovable or deserve to be on our own. When we face a tough time, instead of telling ourselves, “This is hard now, but I can get through this, and things will get better,” we may have voices falsely telling us just the opposite. If we can start to identify when our thinking gets hijacked by our inner critic, we can at least question, if not fully reject its cruel perspective.
A good exercise is to write down our voices in the second person as “you” statements. This helps separate them from our real first-person point of view. We can sit down and do this exercise at one time, or we can jot down our voices as we notice them throughout the day… or both.
The next thing we can do is counter these voices by speaking up for ourselves and, in effect, take our own side. We should write down our responses in the first person. For example, if our voice attack was, “No one cares about you; you deserve to be alone,” we could respond by writing, “I have people who care about me. I’m a good person, and I’m worthy of people’s time.”
Finally, we should try to pay particular attention to the behaviors being advocated by our inner critic. For example, it may encourage us not to call a friend or not open up to anyone about how we’re feeling. It may tell us to keep reading the news or engage in activities that make us more stressed and afraid. It may make us feel defensive or irritable toward those close to us, and therefore, we act in ways we don’t like toward them. It may even seem soothing, as it lures us to engage in behaviors that it later beats us up for with thoughts like, “One more drink won’t hurt. You don’t need to exercise today. Don’t bother getting out of bed this morning.”
The actions dictated by our inner critic are designed to perpetuate our misery and loneliness. Breaking away from these patterns and taking specific actions that help us overcome our loneliness are topics I’ll address in Part 2 of this series.
To read more about the critical inner voice visit PsychAlive.org.
Watch a free recorded webinar from Dr. Lisa Firestone on "A Way Out of Loneliness."