Have you ever been surrounded by people – at a party, at the grocery store, at work, whatever – but felt completely, terrifyingly alone?
If you’re nodding your head, know that you aren’t the only one. In fact, people today are lonelier than ever before, with 54% of respondents in a recent survey admitting that they feel like no one understands them. At all.
The scary part? This loneliness epidemic is messing with our minds…literally.
The Connection Between Loneliness, Isolation and Mental Health Problems
Why? Well just consider a simple question: if you had to choose, which of these factors do you think would make you the happiest 80-year-old ever: having the genes of a supermodel? Enough money to buy your own private island? An IQ that would beat Einstein? How about an epic community and tons of amazing friends?
If you guessed answer D – an epic community and tons of friends – you’d be right! In fact, according to a Harvard study that followed people around for over eighty years (now that is dedication!), close-knit relationships are the number one indicator of happiness.
You don’t even need to have a bunch of besties, either. Even weak social interactions – like flirting with the cute barista at your favorite coffee shop or saying hi to the mailman every afternoon – can give your health a little extra va-va-voom.
But what happens when you don’t feel like you’re making any real connections, no matter how hard you try? It hurts. It makes you feel incapable and undesirable. Loneliness might even start to control and ruin your life…like it did with one of my past clients, Rosie.
Anxious or Depressed? Loneliness May be to Blame…
Rosie first visited me a few months after she moved to New York City. She came from an Italian family, and if you know anything about Italians, big social gatherings are almost as common as pasta dinners. She’d never had a problem making friends before, but after moving to a big, busy city, she was struggling to find real connections.
Even worse, her loneliness was trashing her mental health and self confidence. “I must be un-likeable because I’m overweight,” she told me. “Or I’m just not meant for city life. I must just suck at connecting with people in a big city.” Soon, she was feeling so bad about herself that she wasn’t comfortable socializing at all, which only made her loneliness and negative self-talk worse. In fact, the reason she actually came to me was for help with her anxiety…but we didn’t focus on diet or tapping. We focused on the core cause of anxiety for her: her loneliness and lack of connection.
Beat Loneliness, Anxiety and Depression By Making More and Better Friends
Because there’s a silver lining in all this research: if we know that loneliness tanks mental health and that social connections can help you get your groove back, making friends can actually be your secret weapon to beating anxiety and depression and improving your mental health!
Don’t get scared, introverts! I know It can be overwhelming to think that your mental health actually depends on connecting with other people, especially if you’re not naturally outgoing.
But here are 3 ways to make more and better friendships, no matter what kind of personality you have:
Making Friends Tip #1: Put in the time.
Even though weak social interactions can have their benefits, if you want real friendships, you need to put in some real effort and time. But how many hours of quality time actually adds up to a strong friendship? According to a recent study, it takes about 50 hours of socializing to make a casual friend, 90 more hours to make a “real” friend and at least 200 hours to make a “close” friend.
So when you’re thinking about how to make new friends, don’t put a lot of pressure on yourself to find a soul sister (or brother) in just one night! Friendships and relationships evolve and take time. So, consider signing up for a club or a class that will naturally involve spending time with people. Bonus points if that time includes overcoming something, learning something new or tackling a challenge together!
In Rosie’s case, she shopped around New York for a class that would really fit her interests and schedule. In the end, she decided to take a cooking class and dedicated herself to attending that class. Every. Single. Week. As she and her classmates learned new cooking techniques and laughed while being covered with flour, she naturally started developing friendships with them. (Talk about getting your cake and eating it too!)
Making Friends Tip #2: Don’t be afraid to get real with your conversations.
Think about all the social interactions you have on a daily basis. How often do you sit down and actually talk to someone about a fear you’re facing, a mistake you made or some other vulnerable topic? Probably not very often. Instead, most of our conversations tend to be surface level. Things like: How’s the weather? What are you plans for the weekend? What did you think of the office party last week? You know the drill.
And, sure, you are interacting with people during those surface-level conversations…but these kind of superficial talks may just feed your loneliness. After all, it’s pretty impossible to feel “connected” to or “understood” by someone if all you ever discuss is the weather!
That’s where self-disclosure comes in. With self-disclosure, you actually open up your own heart and soul about some of the more deeper, real things going on in your life and mind. About the fears you’re holding. The joys you’re experiencing. And everything in between!
And, I know. Self-disclosure is pretty. Freakin’. Scary. But revealing your more inner thoughts and emotions will not only make you feel more connected to the person you’re talking to, but also make you more likeable. So if you’ve talked with some cool people a couple times now and think they’d make awesome friends, consider going a little deeper with your conversations the next time you see them.
For Rosie, this step was as simple as inviting her cooking classmates over dinner and talking about some of the challenges she’d been facing after moving to New York. As she opened up, so did they…and their friendships grew even stronger.
Making Friends Tip #3: Change the way you think.
If you’re feeling lonely and isolated, it can be easy to start viewing your social interactions in a negative light. Let’s say that you met me at a party and you didn’t really talk to me. If I’ve been feeling lonely and isolated for awhile now, I might remember you not talking to me and think, “Oh, she doesn’t like me. I must’ve rubbed her the wrong way.” Instead of, “Oh, maybe she’s an introvert too or maybe she was just busy talking to other people.”
So how can you change the way you think from assuming you’re the problem to reflecting on what your social interactions are really like? Start by shifting your focus to moments of connection. Instead of thinking about the awkward silences, recognize when you had a really great conversation with a colleague or met someone who seems really fun and caring at a party.
Next, give people the benefit of the doubt. So if people aren’t talking to you or bonding with you, don’t assume it’s because you’re “not good enough.” Assume that they struggle to break the ice with new people, just like you do.
For Rosie, changing her thinking about herself and her social interactions was THE most important change that helped that helped her beat anxiety naturally. Instead of blaming herself – or her weight or her “failure” to adapt to city life, etc – for not connecting with others, Rosie reminded herself that city life was busy, and that everyone else was busy too. So she needed to invest a lot of time to make friendships develop…and once she did that, she would find the community and connection she needed.
Need More Help With Making Better Friends and Improving Your Mental Health?
I know that all of these steps about making better friends and improving your mental health are easier said than done. Hell, during high school, I used to be so terrified of trying to connect with others and failing that I’d hide in the bathroom every lunch hour. But I also know how amazing it feels to not only connect with people but also feel confident in my ability to make those connections.
And because I want everyone to be able to experience that same feeling, I’ve created a special meditation to give you even more guidance. This meditation is all about building relationships and being vulnerable with people, and it will teach you how to open your heart to those with whom you want to feel more close and connected. So if you’ve tried and tried and tried again to connect with people and still feel like there’s a wall, this meditation is exactly what you need to visualize and experience love, and authentic connection. Learn more here.
The Bottom Line about the Tie Between Loneliness and Mental Health
When Rosie first came to me, she was stuck in a painful spiral of loneliness, self-hate and anxiety. But once we started working on tackling her loneliness, she started making huge strides in her mental health in just one month!
So if your depression or anxiety stems from a feeling of isolation or loneliness, know that you can change and you are worthy of meaningful connections. And on days when the isolation feels all-encompassing and you think you’re totally alone…well, you always have at least one person who understands and wants to help:
Which of these three tips would enrich your social interactions the most? Tell me in the comments!