Whether you're feeling down about the number of comments on your latest Instagram post, or just have that sense that no one else really gets you, you've experienced it. Feeling lonely is, perhaps ironically, universal.
But, what is loneliness, exactly? Simply put, "it's the discrepancy between what you have and what you want from your relationships," says Stephanie Cacioppo, PhD, an assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral neuroscience at the University of Chicago, who specializes in the study of loneliness and social cognition.
It’s not necessarily about being physically surrounded by people—because you might feel especially lonely in a crowd—but about your mentality. When you feel lonely, it’s usually because you aren’t quite satisfied with what you have, whether it’s in that moment or throughout your life, Cacioppo explains. And until you're able to pinpoint and then address what you're dissatisfied with, you'll feel isolated, left out, and in need of companionship.
The upside: Feeling lonely isn't necessarily a bad thing, Cacioppo notes. It's a reminder that something's off about your social environment and that you need to prioritize your happiness.
Chances are, though, you're not too grateful for loneliness while you're experiencing it. In fact, the feeling makes you more likely to interpret reality negatively, which can bring on a ton of self-loathing and self-criticism, she says. The key to turning your mood around? Adjusting your social lens to one that’s more positive.
Easier said than done, right? Thought you might say that. But here are 17 things you can actually do to feel a little less lonely, a little more confident, and way more connected.
1. Admit you're lonely.
As with a lot of things, the first step to moving forward is getting real about what you're going through. Most people try to deny they're lonely, or they assume they must just be anxious or depressed. Why? "Because there's a lot of stigma surrounding loneliness," says Ami Rokach, PhD, clinical psychologist, course director at York University, and author of Loneliness, Love And All That’s Between.
Many people are ashamed to admit they feel lonely because they associate the experience with social isolation and otherness, he adds. But refusing to come to terms with your loneliness means putting off your chance to do something about it.
2. Remind yourself it's not just you.
"We're not alone in our loneliness," Rokach explains.
Now, this doesn't mean you should necessarily lean into the loneliness simply because others are dealing with it, too, Rokach warns. It's a great opportunity to remember that, just like anyone else, you have the power to get yourself out of this situation.
3. Be realistic.
Though there are things you can do to help yourself feel less lonely, they're not all foolproof. "Sometimes you won't succeed," says Rokach. People won't want to make connections with you, they'll be too busy, or you'll still end up feeling lonely—it happens.
Those moments will be tough, he explains, but the key is to persevere anyway. You won't want to at the time, but if you set out to tackle your loneliness knowing it's a win-some-lose-some game, you won't be so quick to give up.
4. Don't deny or distance.
Because of all the shameful and self-critical feelings that accompany loneliness, a common reaction is to kid yourself into thinking you don't actually need anyone, things are better this way, and you'll do just fine on your own, Rokach explains. You might actually believe that for a while, too.
Down the line, however, this response will be harmful—to your mental and physical health. People need people, and everyone needs to feel loved. So, as soon as you can put a label to your loneliness, it's time to try and do something about it.
5. Write down positive memories.
This is one of those pieces of advice you've surely been given before, but never actually committed to. Now's the time to give it a real shot. Just dedicating 15 minutes per day to jotting down special moments you've shared with friends and family can be enough to overcome negative feelings, Cacioppo explains. (Don't have 15 minutes? You can still cherish your most special memories with a One Line A Day journal.) The process will remind you you're not alone, and the memories are bound to improve your mood.
Smiling at yourself in the mirror is an unusual ask—Cacioppo gets it. So, she recommends closing your eyes and thinking of the last time you made someone smile or laugh and let your body do the rest. Will it feel strange? Yes. But, will it help? Also yes.
Just thinking of a time when you were feeling giddy will automatically bring a smile to your face—a move that will set off all those feel-good neurotransmitters in your brain and trick you into feeling happier than you were just a few secs before. Once you're feeling a little better, hold onto that feeling by leaning into something that makes you feel really good, such as cracking open your favorite book or going for a run.
7. Take note of all the things you're grateful for.
When you're lonely, you'll bury yourself in your thoughts—usually bummer ones—but, as they say, "gratitude turns what we have into enough." To get yourself out of that headspace, write down a few things you're grateful for (think: your job, a roof over your head, and a supportive family). Doing this will shift your thoughts from ones about you and your slump, to those about other people you care about and positive factors in your life.
"Loneliness isn't dangerous by itself, it's what we do with it and how we recover that can be dangerous for our physical and mental health," says Cacioppo. To make sure you're letting loneliness drive you toward the right thing, consider signing up to volunteer.
Dedicating a day to working with the elderly or making meals at a soup kitchen will fulfill your desire to feel needed and draw you away from the self-centered mindset that loneliness brings on. Plus, the time you spend getting to know the people you're serving will bring out some of the intimacy and connection you've been craving.
9. Get a pet, or spend time with someone else's.
This one's great for a ton of reasons. But when it comes to loneliness, interacting with animals has the power to release dopamine in the brain, which is a biggie since the chemical is associated with pleasure and rewards. More than that, walking your dog or taking your cat to the vet for a checkup is an opportunity to start up conversations with other pet owners and maybe even make a new friend, says Cacioppo.
10. Join a club or take a class.
It might make you uncomfortable at first, but it might also be totally worth it. Sign up for a pottery class or a club for fellow true crime documentary lovers, for example. Oh, the club you want doesn't exist? Start one. Interacting with people with whom you share a common interest makes for a better chance at forming meaningful connections, Cacioppo says, which is usually what lonely people are missing from life.
11. Make a schedule for yourself and stick to it.
Yeah, you probably already have waking up, working, eating, and exercising down pat, but maybe your life's in need of a little more structure, suggests Cacioppo. Feelings of loneliness often feel like they'll last forever and there's nothing you can do to escape the dark cloud hanging over your head, but that's not true. It can be hard to remind yourself that loneliness is usually temporary, so Cacioppo recommends a strict schedule.
It's harder to feel alone when you "have a plan and a purpose," she explains. So, set alarms for an early-morning meditation, a phone call with your sister, and an evening face mask. Pre-planning them will instill you with a sense of control, too. Once you've come up with a schedule, stick to it as much as you can. It'll be tough sometimes, but as long as you take it one day at a time, the structured routine will feel more and more natural, she adds.
12. Go for a walk.
It gets your body moving, gives you a chance to clear your mind, and even offers opportunities to run into a neighbor for a quick chat—all reasons why Rokach is a big fan. Even if you don't interact with anyone, studies show walks have significant effects on mood. Just a few minutes outside can stop your mood from worsening and can help combat feelings of dread that loneliness brings on.
13. Pick up the phone.
Call someone you love and who cares about you. Rather than exchanging the same old how are yous and fines, actively listen to and really engage with the person on the other line. When they mention something about their lives, ask them for the backstory and let them talk. (Need some inspo? These 200 questions can help spark a meaningful conversation.)
"People are thirsty for this kind of interaction," Rokach says. Everyone wants to be heard, so give someone in your life the gift of really listening to them, and let their stories take you out of your lonely headspace for a while.
14. Talk to a mental health professional.
A psychologist won't be able to bring you out of your loneliness—only you can do that—but "they can help you come to terms with the situation," explains Rokach. They'll remind you of how much power you have to move forward from this by helping you pinpoint what in your life might be off-kilter and contributing to your loneliness. Once you isolate the cause, a therapist will help you come up with a game plan to address it.
15. Take a social risk.
If you're feeling lonely because you don't believe any of your relationships are substantive, now's your chance to do something about it. Yeah, you might get rejected, but eventually you'll find a someone or even a whole tribe who ~gets~ you.
Start off somewhere you feel comfortable. Take your workout class, for example: Approach the person who high fives you after each segment or notices when you miss a class. Strike up a conversation as best you can, and you may just hit it off. (Yes, new friends!) Stuck at home? Try reaching out to an old friend via Instagram DM to see what's new with them.
16. Turn your loneliness into solitude.
While they might sound the same, solitude is different because it's a choice, explains Rokach. You could let your loneliness consume you (let's face it, sometimes you can't help it), or you can turn your loneliness into solitude—time spent alone doing something that's meaningful to you.
Maybe you express how you're feeling by painting, writing a short story, doing a puzzle, learning a dance routine, or recording a cover of that song you can't get out of your head. Since loneliness can stick around for a while, it helps to have an outlet.
Btw, at-home workouts are a totally WH-approved outlet for solitude, too.
17. Don't busy yourself.
"Many people try to run away from loneliness," says Rokach. "They'll busy themselves with needless things like second jobs or extra hours at work when they don't need the money as a way to stifle loneliness." That's not the right move. It might help you forget you're lonely for a bit, but you'll only end up feeling worse in the end.
The key is to slow down for a bit and focus on something you really love or something you've always wanted to do but never did because sticking to the mundane won't help much.
ARYELLE SICLAIT Assistant EditorAryelle Siclait is an assistant editor at Women's Health where she writes about relationship trends, sexual health, pop-culture news, food, and physical health for verticals across WomensHealthMag.com and the print magazine.