Learning to overcome the dreaded feeling of loneliness

By psychologist Angie Willcocks

Loneliness is the unpleasant emotional experience of being alone or feeling disconnected from others. Humans are social creatures designed to live in groups, so we’re prone to suffering when we feel disconnected emotionally or physically from others.

Loneliness is probably just part of the normal human experience, but it’s true that people vary enormously in their ability to handle it. Some people accept loneliness as part of life and just get on with things, but others find it so hard to bear that they try to avoid it at all costs: refusing to be alone; or abusing alcohol or drugs to stop the feeling.

Coping with loneliness is an important part of making FIFO work for you and your family, and the good news is that you can learn skills to manage loneliness better.

One of the first steps in coping better with loneliness is recognising what being lonely is like for you. How does your body feel? What are your lonely thoughts and what do you do when you’re lonely? So this means looking at:

1. What you THINK when you’re lonely. People who struggle to cope with the experience of loneliness think thoughts like, “I’m so lonely, I can’t cope”, “Loneliness is terrible”, “I can’t bear this”, “My family is far away and I’m here all alone” and “No-one cares about me”. They might also imagine that everyone else is happy, connected and having fun without them.

2. What your body FEELS like when you’re lonely. Some people describe loneliness as an ache in their chest. Others say they feel an ’emptiness’ in their tummy. Many people describe the feeling of loneliness as an uncomfortable longing for another person.

3. What you DO when you feel lonely. Some people hate the feeling of loneliness so much that they do whatever they can to avoid it. Sometimes trying hard to avoid an unpleasant feeling (like loneliness) can lead to problematic behaviours such as overeating, misuse of drugs, alcohol, pornography and infidelity.

Here are some tips for dealing with loneliness in a more positive way:

Thoughts

People who cope well with unpleasant emotions don’t think any amazingly complex thoughts to help them cope. Actually, coping thoughts are pretty dull and repetitive, for example: “I’m OK”, “I can cope”, “This will pass” and “I’ve handled things like this before”.

Here are some examples of the sorts of thoughts you could try to cope better with loneliness:

Feelings

Most people find that the idea of feeling lonely is worse than the actual feeling. Noticing how loneliness actually feels in your body can help you manage it, partly because loneliness rarely feels as bad as you think it will. Once you realise it’s as bad as you think it will be, you don’t need to spend so much energy trying to avoid it.

Also, like all other feelings, loneliness passes relatively quickly if you get busy doing something else and stop thinking lonely thoughts. So, after noticing how loneliness feels for you, get on with doing something that keeps your mind busy.

Behaviours

Activities that engage your brain can distract you away from lonely thoughts, which will help you to feel better. Here are some ideas of positive behaviours you could try:

Also remember to take advantage of any opportunities for social interaction that come your way. This isn’t always easy (if you’re on a remote mine site or oil rig, for example!) or if your partner is away and you have children. But sometimes it’s too easy to say no to people, or assume you won’t be able to do something.

For example, a lot of FIFO workers think they can’t participate in sport because they work away. While it’s true that you might not be able to make the top cricket team if you don’t go to training, I know for a fact that many sporting clubs are very happy to have FIFO workers participate whenever they can.

For more information on coping with unpleasant emotions like loneliness, check out the Mindfulness Skills CD and the book The Happiness Trap by Russ Harris. You can buy them online at www.actmindfully.com.au/bookshop.asp.

Note: Loneliness should be a passing emotion that goes away when you’re with people who know and care about you. A chronic sense of loneliness and not belonging can indicate depression. If you feel lonely day in and out, and it seems like you just don’t belong or that no one “gets you” or likes you, it’s worthwhile considering that you might be depressed. If that’s the case, please have a chat with your GP and/or visit www.beyondblue.org.au.

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