By: Brandi Stalzer, LIMHP, LPCC, LMHC
I have put this post off for quite some time because I want to discuss one of the most challenging emotions people experience. Unlike energizing emotions like anger or deactivating emotions like sadness, this emotion can feel empty and, if felt for too long, can make your life feel meaningless. You may have guessed it, but I want to talk about loneliness today.
Because this is such a distressing emotion, let's take a pause before jumping in. Get something soothing, like hot tea or a warm blanket. Get some oxygen to your brain by taking a few deep breaths. Remind yourself that you can handle almost anything for 15 minutes. Okay, let's jump in. If you are one that has a hard time doing visualizations like me, use this recording to help.
Think about a recent time when you were feeling lonely, and now picture yourself in that situation. What do you notice around you? What do you see, hear, smell, taste, or feel? Are there other people with you in this moment? What are you doing? Maybe you are alone watching television. Or perhaps you are with others but feel disconnected from what is happening. Whatever the scenario, sit in this moment for a few breaths, continuing to soak up the sensations around you. Now shift your awareness to your own body. If you notice yourself cognating about the memory, rather than being in the memory, thank your brain for doing its job and then turn your attention to your senses. Notice what you feel within your body. Does your body feel heavy or light? Do you feel hot or cold? How does your breathing feel? Do you notice tension in your muscles? Continue to feel the sensations in your body, observing them but not judging them. If you catch yourself trying to change the sensations, tell yourself, "I'm having the thought that I would like to change this sensation," and then let the thought pass. Sit with this feeling for a few more seconds, and take a deep breath. If your eyes are closed, start to open them, notice the environment around you, and bring your awareness back to the moment.
Did you get to a place where you felt loneliness again? I hope so, and if not, do this exercise again, this time allowing yourself to feel lonely. What does loneliness feel like, and what do you think the loneliness was communicating to you? If you need to, journal on these two questions for a few minutes before continuing.
I'm going to start us off by going through what I visualized (yes, I did the exercise too). One of my recent times of experiencing loneliness was a night I was looking at social media and noticed a few friends hanging out. It was a minimal intensity of loneliness that quickly turned to jealousy and no sooner dissipated. (So, if any of my friends are reading, I want to reassure them that pity, self-blame, or any other bad feelings are unnecessary as it was a fleeting emotion that most people experience when going through similar situations.)
Doing this exercise allowed me to suspend that moment in time for a bit and lengthen the experience of loneliness to feel it truly. For that brief period, the pit of my stomach felt empty. There were no butterflies or pain - just emptiness. The rest of my body felt heavy, as if a wave of humidity crept into the room, weighing me down. I didn't necessarily notice tension, as the prevailing sensation was "nothingness." I asked myself with eyes still closed, sitting in that moment, "What is this feeling trying to tell me?" and it answered back, "Fill the emptiness."
It makes a lot of sense why one of the most frequent triggers of binge eating is loneliness. All behavior is purposeful, and those who binge when triggered by loneliness are trying to "Fill the emptiness." And food can be an incredible comfort, yet, it can also become a problem when it is the only way a person knows how to fill an unmet need.
I want to take some time and go through four other needs loneliness may be signaling beyond food. First, we all, as humans, have an innate need to belong and connect to the life and world in which we live. And loneliness is our body's signal that we need connection. Connection can be experiencing intimacy with another person and being truly yourself with another. Connection can also be a walk through a park, noticing the sun's warmth, the coolness of the breeze, and your feet planted in the earth with each step. Connection can be attending a religious service and experiencing your Higher Power as you pray with others. Finally, connection can be spending a few minutes writing your thoughts down in a journal and connecting with your mind for a bit.
You see, connection really can be a lot of things. The four categories of connection that I want to review are social, spiritual, physical, and internal.
This is the type of connection we all jump to when we think of connection. But unfortunately, it is also one of the most challenging types of connection to fulfill. Filling social connection requires that others in our lives are available and willing to give. This is why so many when feeling lonely often turn to food or other things because the idea of attempting to connect and the need not being met can be paralyzing.
Ensuring that we meet this need requires you to examine the intensity of necessary socialization. For example, do you just need to hear someone else's voice? Or do you need to spend quality time engaging in an intimate conversation with someone?
When we feel empty, we just need to feel something - anything. This is why binging can feel so good, even though it can be painful.
However, as technology grows and employment expectations become more demanding, many find themselves tuning out of life. Let's face it; we're exhausted!
To experience sensual connection, we must be mindful of the moments that already exist. We can also add new experiences to amplify sensual pleasure. For example, instead of binge-watching Friends for the hundredth time, we can do something we haven't been able to do in a while. Anything that allows you to feel (while still being safe). Reading a book that makes you cry or watching a movie that makes you laugh hysterically. Anything that gets you feeling and sensing. In those moments, we also need to pay attention to our senses - noticing what we feel, see, hear, smell, and taste.
We all have some way of making sense of the world, whether religious or not. For some, that is religion. For others, it may be Mother Nature. Whatever that Higher Power is, when people feel lonely, they may feel spiritually disconnected.
How do you get out of a spiritual disconnection? The doctrine of your Higher Power gives you the answer. Prayer, attending a religious ceremony, reading spiritual material, and being in nature can help a person reconnect spiritually.
We also can disconnect from ourselves, and that feeling can be utterly awful. It feels like we are watching ourselves from above or in a movie. In my opinion, this is one of the more difficult disconnections we can experience because it is so hard to get out of it. It requires that we are first aware that we are disconnected and then the energy to reconnect.
I strongly encourage most people I work with to leave some time in their day for reflection. For some, that means journaling. For others, that means looking at their values and asking how they align. Whatever the means, reflection is how we reconnect internally.
Now that we have reviewed all four disconnections, I encourage you to get four index cards and label them "Socialize," "Senses," "Doctrine," and "Reflection." Then, jot down a few ideas about how to meet that need under each card. For example, under "Doctrine," you may write, recite a prayer, attend mass, read the Bible, and read a religious blog. Or under "Socialize," you may write calling Kate, shopping for greeting cards, hanging out with James, or getting a hug.
Finding solutions to how you feel can be challenging when you are in distress and you end up stuck in loneliness. However, writing out suggestions can offer solutions when you need them. So keep these cards handy, and use them as often as you need to.
Some of you reading this may be coping with chronic loneliness requiring more support than attuning to a fleeting emotion. In those situations, I suggest therapy with a trained professional. I am available to readers in Iowa, Nebraska, and Ohio. You can schedule a consultation here or contact me here.