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Loneliness

The Practice That Can Ease Loneliness

People saw real benefits after just two weeks.

Key points

  • Practicing mindfulness helps reduce negative feelings, including loneliness.
  • Mindfulness involves paying attention to the present moment without judging it.
  • Recent research shows that acceptance is a crucial mechanism for reducing loneliness, perhaps because it reduces perceptions of social threat.

Many people have struggled with feelings of loneliness during the COVID-19 pandemic. In late 2020, after months of social distancing, 36 percent of U.S. adults reported experiencing “serious loneliness.” Of course, loneliness was a significant public health concern even before COVID hit: A 2018 study found that 22 percent of adults reported they often or always felt lonely.

Fortunately, research shows that there’s a simple way to feel less lonely, even during a pandemic.

The key is to stop resisting loneliness. Loneliness is a miserable feeling, but it’s also an adaptive one. Loneliness is the brain’s way of telling us that our fundamental social needs are not being met. Just as hunger motivates us to find food, loneliness drives us to seek out social connection. In this way, loneliness is quite helpful.

Yet, many of us resist loneliness when it arises. We attempt to fight against—or suppress—those feelings, and this resistance can worsen our sense of isolation. As the saying goes, what you resist, persists.

So how, exactly, do we stop resisting?

Practice Mindful Acceptance

Research shows that practicing mindfulness can help alleviate negative feelings, including loneliness. (Perhaps that’s why millions of people use smartphone-based mindfulness apps like Calm and Headspace.) However, a recent study suggests that mindfulness apps won’t work if they’re missing a crucial ingredient.

In this study, Emily Lindsay of the University of Pittsburgh and her colleagues noted that mindfulness practices usually involve two components: monitoring and acceptance. Monitoring involves paying attention to the thoughts, feelings, and sensations we’re experiencing in the present moment. Acceptance involves welcoming these experiences with an attitude of nonjudgment, openness, and receptivity. In other words, acceptance involves a willingness to remain present with our experiences without trying to change them.

Lindsay and her colleagues wanted to find out whether acceptance is a key mechanism of mindfulness. They randomly assigned participants to complete one of three smartphone-based training programs: a traditional mindfulness program that taught monitoring and acceptance skills; a modified program that covered only monitoring skills; and a control program in which participants learned problem-solving skills (with no mindfulness content). Participants were instructed to practice their new skills daily throughout the two-week program.

For three days before and after the training program, participants recorded their feelings of loneliness and the number of social interactions they had. The results showed that participants trained in monitoring and acceptance skills were less lonely and more socially engaged after the program, but participants in the other two programs did not change.

These results confirm what the researchers predicted: Paying attention to our present-moment experience is not enough to reduce suffering. We must learn how to welcome these experiences with an attitude of acceptance, even when they’re unpleasant.

So practicing mindful acceptance is key.

How Does Mindful Acceptance Ease Loneliness?

As I discussed in an earlier post, we have been shaped by evolution to view social isolation as a threat to survival. As a result, when we feel isolated (i.e., lonely), our brain snaps into a self-preservation mode, making us hypervigilant to social threats. We become mistrustful of other people and anxious in social situations, often without consciously realizing it. This can make social interaction more difficult, thereby perpetuating a cycle of loneliness.

Lindsay and her colleagues believe that acceptance reduces our perceptions of social threat, which allows our lonely feeling to dissipate and makes us more open to social connection.

So the next time you’re feeling lonely, sit with the discomfort. Relax your body and allow the feeling to flow through you. You might say to yourself, “I feel lonely, and that’s OK. I can feel this without pushing it away.” Or, as Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh recommended, say, “My dear loneliness, I know you are there. I hope to take care of you.”

You can develop the skill of acceptance through a mindfulness practice like meditation. (Try this meditation by renowned teacher Sharon Salzberg.)

Keep in mind that acceptance is a skill, and it takes time to develop. The participants in Lindsay’s research saw benefits after practicing daily for two weeks. Also, accepting your feelings of loneliness doesn’t mean that you have to accept the circumstances that contribute to your loneliness. If you want more (or more meaningful) social connection in your life, take steps to make it happen. Just tune in to yourself before reaching out.

LinkedIn image: Xavier Lorenzo/Shutterstock. Facebook image: panitanphoto/Shutterstock

References

Lindsay, E.K., Young, S., Brown, K.W., Smyth, J., & Creswell, J.D. (2019). Mindfulness training reduces loneliness and increases social contact in a randomized controlled trial. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 116(9), 3488-3493.

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