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Overcoming Loneliness

For many students, college is a time of much excitement and exhilaration that comes with change, growth, and new horizons. However, most students experience brief periods of loneliness from time to time during their college years. For some, the experience of loneliness can be extended and debilitating. It can have a negative effect on academic performance and on personal growth and development. Still, loneliness is a normal experience that students can learn to cope with constructively and effectively.

Loneliness is not the same as Being Alone

We can experience loneliness even when we are around many people. Loneliness is a painful emotional feeling of being disconnected, cut off, or isolated from the rest of our world. It is a feeling that something is missing from our lives.

What Causes Me to Feel Lonely?

Almost everyone experiences loneliness at some time in his or her life. There are many factors that contribute to feeling lonely. Making a major life change such as leaving home to go to college, ending a relationship, changing jobs, or moving to a new geographical location can put a person in a position to experience loneliness. When we are separated from familiar people and places, we often feel disconnected, like we don't belong, for a time. Usually, as we meet people and become familiar with places, the feeling subsides fairly quickly.

Some people fell disconnected or left out because they don't know how to approach or contact others socially. Many fear being rejected so they don't attempt to make friends or develop relationships.

The real culprit though is how we interpret being separated or alone. Intense feelings of loneliness are generally accomplished by thoughts like "I don't have lots of friends because I'm not really worthy of them." or " I'm not interesting enough to be noticed or attractive." People with low self-esteem often believe that others would not be interested in knowing them and that there loneliness is evidence of their weakness as a person.

How does loneliness affect people?

People experiencing loneliness often feel depressed, anxious, and/or angry. Some may experience physical symptoms such as headaches, stomach pain, and reduced energy. They are often overly self-critical and self-absorbed in their unhappiness.

A primary problem with loneliness is that when people experience it, they often engage in defensive behaviors that may provide some immediate relief from the pain, but in the long run perpetuate the feelings of loneliness. For example, some people who feel lonely withdraw from many of their existing social contacts or from opportunities for contacts with others because they fear rejection. They retreat to the security of their home after school or work and narrow their activities to reading, watching television, or hobbies they can do alone. While learning to spend enjoyable time alone is important and helpful, avoiding social engagement is counterproductive.

Others compensate for their feelings of loneliness by over activity. By working long hours, immersing themselves in campus activities, or occupying themselves with another types of constant activity, they avoid the painful feelings that loneliness can bring. Still others unintentionally sabotage their relationship by exhibiting overly possessive, clinging, depended behavior. Some attempt to anesthetize themselves with food and/or alcohol and other drugs.

All of these behaviors are self-defeating because, while they may provide immediate emotional relief, they tend to confirm the lonely person's irrational self-beliefs about not being worthy of others' friendship or companionship.

Overcoming Loneliness

There will be times in all of our lives when our life situation may result in us being alone or separated from familiar people and places and from our support systems. We will all feel disconnected from time to time. When you experience one of these times, there are a number of constructive steps you can tale to cope effectively with loneliness. Here are a few suggestions:

  • Challenge the reality of your pessimistic or negative thought. Much of what we experience as loneliness comes from irrational interpretations of our current life situations. You may not even be aware of negative thoughts about yourself, so the first step is to try to identify negative self-thoughts you may be having about your current life situation. Then look for contrary evidence to your irrational thoughts (e.g. you've had friends before, you've been in a good relationship, you've had positive working relationships, etc.) It's almost always there.
  • Take advantage of this particular time in your life to do some things you want to do for yourself. This is probably a time when you have fewer time commitments and obligations to others, so enjoy it! You can do more of what you want to do, when you want to do it.
  • This is a good time to focus on you and learn more about yourself. Take time to develop personal interests that you may not have had time for before.
  • Get involved in activities that are interesting to you and that will put you in a position to meet, work, and socialize with others. Getting involved with campus activities, volunteering, or working for a cause you believe in will help you to meet people with similar interests and values.
  • Try a new recreational activity. Exercise and physical activity will increase your energy and help you to feel better about yourself.
  • Work on developing relationships with others. Avoid impulsive, desperate and "clingy" behaviors that tend to drive others away. Some helpful tips on developing relationships are included in the TxState brochure, Meaningful Relationships: How to Attract Them, Nurture Them and Keep Them.
  • Work on your listening and communication skills. Ask others about themselves and seek their opinions. Listen attentively and actively.
  • Present a positive self-image. Greet others with a friendly smile, a strong handshake, and direct eye contact in a n assertive manner. Let others know from your body language that you welcome their communication with you. People who act shy or timid are often avoided by others who fear being too intrusive or overpowering.
  • If loneliness seems overwhelming, seek help. Contact the TxState Counseling Center at 245-2208. If you are away from the campus community, contact local community mental health agencies or local hotline.

Remember

Loneliness is a common experience among college students that can be overcome. Much of the emotional pain we experience as loneliness comes from our negative interpretation of our current life situation. To overcome loneliness, take positive, rather than defensive action. Avoid withdrawing. Challenge your irrational self-thoughts, take time to develop personal interests and self-awareness, and seek contacts with others through a wide range of school, work, personal, and social contacts. Maintain a balance involvement and enjoying your time alone.