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Loneliness and How Can We Overcome It

Loneliness and How Can We Overcome It

Is social isolation a recipe for loneliness? We don’t think so.

Sometimes we find ourselves feeling alone in a dark place. Sometimes it shows up with thoughts suggesting that no one loves us or cares about us, our experiences or our feelings. Other times, we feel an intense sense of loneliness even in a sea of people.

For those of us who may feel extremely alone in the world and empty inside, it can be a scary experience. We might cling to the adage of “fake it till you make it” as we navigate our days and time with other people, but when it comes time to return home we hide out and feel isolated and alone.

In the TV show Dexter, they talk about a concept called the Dark Passenger. While it’s often discussed in connection to addiction, I think it also applies to those of us who feel lonely. The Dark Passenger refers to the secrets we bury deep inside and try to hide even from ourselves. We repress trauma and negative thoughts which creates internal turmoil. Eventually, the Dark Passenger transforms into feelings of loneliness and pain that we carry with us as we navigate our world.

Loneliness has a serious impact on physical and mental wellness. It increases the risk of depression, anxiety, heart disease and other illnesses. Fortunately, some countries are speaking out and addressing the issue. The United Kingdom, for example, created a Ministry of Loneliness that made headlines around the world in addressing this epidemic with research-backed interventions.

Loneliness in the Workplace

According to Harvard Business Review, loneliness in the workplace is a “growing health epidemic” and “associated with a reduction in lifespan similar to that caused by smoking 15 cigarettes a day.” Even entrepreneurs may feel like no matter what they do, success is always slightly out of reach. Meanwhile, workers feel increasingly detached from their work and role in society.

Indeed, loneliness is an epidemic but we can take steps to combat the suffering at its source with reflection, connections, and psychotherapy.

Being Alone Doesn’t Always Cause Loneliness

Any introvert will agree that being alone doesn’t necessarily trigger negative emotions or feelings of worthlessness. For many of us, it can be very peaceful. We don’t always need to be surrounded by other people. Spending time with ourselves can actually inspire and energize. Solitary time on a retreat, for example, can help connect us with a higher power or meaning in life. Spending time alone to reflect and enjoy our own company is healthy.

It’s a matter of perspective, as well. Many people feel alone even surrounded by loved ones. The sources of loneliness are much deeper than that.

What’s Triggering Our Loneliness?

“We’re born alone, we live alone, we die alone. Only through our love and friendship can we create the illusion for the moment that we’re not alone.” – Orson Welles

Most of us didn’t feel lonely our entire life. We can remember feeling loved and accepted at certain points. So, what changed?

In some cases, our life experiences skew our self-perception. In other cases, we do things against our values to avoid feeling lonely, which only perpetuates self-criticism and self-imposed isolation.

Let’s look at some of the major triggers of loneliness:

Grief and Life Transitions

Grief shatters our world as we know it. Whether a mother or father, partner, best friend, or sibling, losing someone close is devastating.

The person we could always count on is suddenly removed from our lives and there’s nothing we can do to restore or replace the bond. Of course, everyone knows grief is a natural process but that doesn’t make us feel any less helpless and isolated while we go through it.

Indeed, we must relearn and rediscover the world around us. When managing a protracted war against grief, it can be helpful to connect with support systems.

I read Dr. Lucy Horne’s book, Resilient Grieving: Finding the Strength and Embracing Life After a Loss That Changes Everything last year which helps us learn to cope. Local bereavement groups are also worthwhile.

My colleague, Megan, wrote a post on grieving called “Am I Doing Grief Right?” explaining there is no “normal” way to manage grief.

Remember too that grief doesn’t only accompany death. We can also grieve our lost health, jobs, divorces, and other traumatic situations. Loss can also open the door to loneliness and transitions which I’ve written about in the past.

Breaking Up

Of course, breaking up is another form of loss. However, even people in committed relationships sometimes feel alone. People often stay in toxic or abusive relationships because they fear loneliness. However, this is nothing more than a negative prediction rife with underlying assumptions.

We assume that if we are alone, we will always be alone, we will never be happy, and we will die alone.

These thoughts create a self-fulfilling reality. Of course, being alone doesn’t guarantee misery. In some cases, breaking up leads to freedom and happiness.

Other times we fear facing life alone because we don’t want to face our true selves. However, if we want to create a healthy relationship, we must help ourselves before anything else.

Feeling alone in a relationship doesn’t have to be permanent. We can first work on the issue with our partner.

Many people assume life will never be the same after a breakup. They’re not wrong. In many cases, life becomes much better as time passes.

Shame

Sometimes we aren’t aware of our true selves. We want friends but struggle to form connections and feel alone.

Albert Einstein once said, “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again but expecting different results.”

It’s common for us to cling to unhealthy or unproductive behaviours. We don’t recognize the detrimental impact they have on our lives. Take smoking for example. Most people know it’s dangerous and costly but can’t bring themselves to quit.

These repetitive actions trigger internal distress, loneliness, and self-crisis. When we feel shame over such things, like a failed marriage, lost job, or any action we perceive as negative, we feel alone. But 1+2 doesn’t equal 5 no matter how hard we try to force it.

We think our situation is horrible, unmanageable, and our behaviour is or was so shameful that we punish ourselves. Being lonely is the by-product.

Feeling Disconnected from Family Due to Trauma

Family is a curious thing. Society tells us we should feel a sense of home in our family members. We are expected to feel connected to family. However, families are also rife with trauma. No family is perfect but pretending they should be perfect leads us to feel lonely, misunderstood, and detached around our parents and siblings.

We should develop strong boundaries and manage our personal expectations. Maybe our attachment style isn’t the best fit for our family members.

Therapy and identity rebuilding are essential to overcoming family trauma and the associated loneliness.

We can’t choose our family but we CAN choose our friends. If we feel lonely when we hang out with friends that could mean we’re not expressing our needs properly. Or, perhaps we could stand to choose better friends. Other times, we expect unreasonable things from our friends and feel invalidated when they don’t live up to our standards.

Depression / Other Mental Health Conditions

Depression is a genuine medical condition. It’s common for people to invalidate our feelings when we tell them we’re depressed. They’ll say “you just need to…” or something equally insensitive. We may even invalidate our own feelings.

It’s important for everyone to educate themselves on mental health conditions like depression, especially for anyone feeling chronically lonely. Talking to a doctor or therapist is critical.

On that note, several mental health conditions overlap with depression symptoms. Plus, we can experience multiple conditions at once. Again, that’s why it’s so important to bring up these concerns with a family doctor. We can never take our mental health too seriously.

How to Overcome Loneliness

While this is far from an exhaustive list, I hope to provide some food for thought. Feel free to take this loneliness quiz for something to reflect on.

First, we need to think about what benefits our loneliness brings to our life. Next, we should analyze the cost. The pros and cons.

Sometimes when we engage in unhealthy strategies to cope with problems, we forget why we started bad behaviours in the first place, such as compulsive drinking or seeking out a “high” from love. People do all kinds of things to avoid loneliness and self-reflection. We even push people away. Ironic, huh?

Many times, taking stock of our lives is enough to drive the motivation we need to change.

Finding Purpose in Life

Some people search their whole lives to find a “true calling” that never appears. We must ask ourselves, what does it mean to find purpose in life? Do we have to climb Mount Everest? Find a cure for cancer? Solve world hunger?

Life isn’t so all or nothing. Leading a purpose-driven life doesn’t necessarily mean collecting achievements. The book Man’s Search for Meaning got me thinking about the true meaning of life and its power. I loved it so much I gave it away to anyone who’d take it.

This book taught me how to find my “why.” Sometimes, searching for our “why” is half the fun! It helps us clarify our values and what we don’t want in life. We can discover what we value in life and if we’re living a value-driven lifestyle.

Even the CEO of a Fortune 500 company might not have time for family and might consider their life still lacks a purpose.

Another Harvard Business Review article called How Will You Measure Your Life? is a classic on this topic. We must remember that if we’re not happy and we feel alone, it may be because we don’t have a true purpose or drive. Guess what? It’s never too late to find it if we keep an open mind!

Developing Social Connections

Having 1,000 followers on Instagram doesn’t mean we can’t feel alone. In fact, research shows spending too much time on social media can lead to social isolation and feelings of loneliness.

As Dr. Jeste’s research says, loneliness is “the discrepancy between the social relationships you want and the social relationships you have.”

Tribe by journalist Sebastian Junger speaks to the importance of connections in our lives to prevent feelings of social isolation. We need meaningful connections. I would encourage everyone to think about who they can count on in their life. Who can support us financially or emotionally? Who gives us the straight truth when we ask for it?

Many times, lonely people look at who isn’t in their lives. However, I wonder how often they make themselves available to people who need them in a meaningful way. Even superheroes don’t work solo. They always have a sidekick.

Enhance Our Emotional Supports

It’s common to look fondly on the way “things used to be” when we feel lonely. It’s also a universal rule that we always want what we can’t have. However, we can take a moment to evaluate our support circle and lean into it.

People often tell me making friends as an adult is a challenge. I think it only seems hard because we get blinded by comparing our future friendships to past ones. We must test things out before we write them off as miserable. We have to lean into uncomfortable situations sometimes.

The Gen Well Project, WeShare Housing Campaign, Eden Project, and The Loneliness Project all help people get out of their comfort zone and work on enhancing social support networks.

Unplug and Connect

I’m not saying we should avoid technology and social media completely. We can create meaningful connections with people all over the world online! We can also stay connected with old friends. In the past, this wasn’t possible.

However, we also tend to spend more time than we’d like to admit staring at our screens consuming content that, honestly, we often don’t care about. We must admit we’re using screen time to procrastinate and avoid loneliness. We must also acknowledge that every hour we spend scrolling through Instagram looking at lives we wish we had is an hour lost not making real-world connections with people.

Instead, reach out and volunteer. Get inspired to build community. Volunteering is more than just working in soup kitchens. Find something interesting and meaningful like wildlife preservation, education, children, peace-building, or senior care.

Even if we aren’t lonely, helping others or working on something bigger than ourselves can build character and gratitude. In Dr. T. Davis’s new book, Outsmart Your Smartphone: Conscious Tech Habits for Finding Happiness, Balance, and Connection IRL, she explains how to help us overcome negative repetitive behaviours that prevent us from leading a fulfilling life.

In her article, Feeling Lonely? Discover 18 Ways to Overcome Loneliness, she also provides some great tips to jumpstart progress right away.

Improve Social Skills

Let’s be honest. Even the best of us could stand to improve our social skills. Many people get lonely because they don’t have adequate social skills or they lack the right social skills for all situations. Other times, social anxiety prevents them from seeing their wonderful qualities!

Most of us can be pretty charming IF we allow people to get to know us. We don’t need to be an actor or a socialite. However, we can start with effective communication! We should learn the subtle art of communicating our thoughts and emotions by getting out of our own way.

The Fine Art of Small Talk and the classic, How to Win Friends and Influence People, are two books that can help develop strategies. It’s normal for us to ruminate on past negative experiences where we felt invalidated. However, the past doesn’t predict the future. We must produce a new game plan and put forth a willingness to experience and build relationships.

Psychotherapy Can Help

Loneliness doesn’t happen by accident. It happens when we lose touch with our life’s purpose and meaningful relationships. Psychotherapy can help you strengthen social skills, overcome grief, and put yourself out there to the wider community.

Ready to start working towards that goal? Schedule an appointment today!

7 Tips for Overcoming Dental Anxiety

7 Tips for Overcoming Dental Anxiety

It’s all too common that we avoid healthy changes towards wellness because they push us outside our comfort zones. Whether we’re starting a new workout, updating our diet, or improving our interpersonal relationships, healthy change involves some level of anxiety and discomfort. 

For many, dental anxiety is one of these major hurdles. While securing dental insurance can pose a complex barrier to oral health, data shows that millions of Canadians are avoiding routine dental work out of anxiety-induced fear. Nearly 15 million Canadians — 40% of the population! — have a fear of the dentist such that it prevents them from going for screenings or routine care.

Oral health is an essential part of overall health, and overcoming anxiety symptoms associated with visiting the dentist is a critical form of self-care. (Sorry, binging Netflix and cat videos won’t do the trick!)

Why is dental anxiety so common?

A cruel irony of avoiding routine checkups is that you’re likely to pay for that neglect later with invasive emergency dental treatments. At that point, your anxiety may seem like it was proportional to the experience. However, seeing a dentist for routine care might have prevented the need for invasive procedures in the first place.

From my own experience with clients working through dental anxiety, I’ve found there isn’t one glaring reason people fear the dentist. Rather it’s more of a combination of expectations and fears coming together.

  • Societal stereotypes: TV shows, movies, parents, and siblings all paint a scary picture of what going to the dentist is like. Stereotypes about the dentist often start at an early age and are easy to find everywhere.

  • Past experiences (often at a young age): A scary or painful experience at the dentist — especially as a child — can stick with us throughout our entire life if we don’t address the problem.

  • Fear of discomfort: Many dental procedures can be painful, especially if the dentist doesn’t explain the treatment or offer proper numbing options. Plus, drilling, grinding, and scraping can feel strange and uncomfortable.

  • Lack of control: There’s something about laying on our back with our mouth open while a doctor digs around that just gets to us. A high level of trust is essential.

  • Shame: Some folks who neglect their dental health often feel embarrassed or shameful about the condition of their oral health.

Tips for Overcoming Dental Anxiety

Overcoming a phobia or event-related anxiety takes time. They don’t occur overnight and they aren’t resolved overnight. Here’s a list of strategies to get you started:

1. Run a Cost-Benefit Analysis. Focus on the pros of visiting the dentist: a healthy mouth, a beautiful smile, improved heart health. Make a list and it’s easy to see that the pros far outweigh the cons.

2. Communicate and Build Trust. Most dentists know that people are afraid of them. Most are happy to chat through email or a phone call about any specific fears and insecurities. Building trust and comfort is key. Desensitize yourself by asking the dentist or staff to walk you through the process step-by-step. Staff should understand and want to help.

3. Source Multiple Experiences. Those of us with anxiety tend to overgeneralize, jump to irrational conclusions, and turn into catastrophists. Laws of probability and rationality go right out the window. In this era of online reviews, a single negative review can cost a business 22% of potential customers — even if 99% of the reviews are glowing! We tend to overvalue bad press. Ask multiple people for their most recent dental experience (and don’t pry for bad press).

4. Ask about Pain Management. Dentists understand dental anxiety and have the tools to help patients cope with pain. Be vocal about any concerns and ask detailed questions. If a dentist doesn’t seem to care, go somewhere else.

5. Plan a Sedation Strategy. Sedation dentistry has come a long way over the past decade. Nitrous oxide (laughing gas), pill sedation, and general anesthesia offer various levels to meet each patient’s needs.

6. Try Distraction Techniques. Many modern dentist offices come equipped with iPads, tablets, and TVs to help patients distract themselves during uncomfortable treatments. Progressive muscle relaxation exercises and an awesome Spotify playlist can help tremendously.

7. Talk to a Therapist. Therapy can also be valuable to address dental anxiety that helps you get to the root of the problem. Many people find techniques like cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) very effective.

Dental anxiety doesn’t have to be permanent. By laying the groundwork, we can ensure success and have positive experiences at the dentist’s office moving forward. Everyone deserves a healthy smile, and changing our mindset can help make wellness a reality.

How To Thrive In Your Environment

How To Thrive In Your Environment

As you read this blog, I strongly encourage you to give some thought to your environment and how it affects your mental health and wellbeing.

This is water

In his now-famous commencement address, David Foster Wallace delivered this parable: “There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says ‘Morning, boys. How’s the water’ And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes ‘What the hell is water?’“

I remembered this story recently as I’ve been thinking about what that mysterious water is in my own life. I’ve been considering how the choices we make concerning how we occupy and conceptualize space define us and affect our mental wellness.

Take a walk on the wild side

I recently read an article about how walking in nature really does have a calming effect on people and can assist with managing stress. This doesn’t surprise me at all.

There is an entire discipline—called environmental psychology—which looks at the environmental impact of stress on humans. Studies on the dynamics of lighting on performance and similar studies of how temperature and noise impact our physiology and stress levels have revealed interesting evidence in this field. Consistent exposure can lead to the build-up of cumulative stress, or can in some cases, help to ease symptoms.


Declutter and organize

One of the tasks I’ve set for myself this year is to declutter and organize my space to increase my own mental health and wellbeing. While I’m not finished yet, the sheer fact that I set this goal, gave it importance, and can now see my progress makes me want to continue. The whole process makes me feel calmer and more in control of myself and my environment.

Redesign your space

Ask yourself the following questions about your current environment:

  • Do you feel calm when you go home or before you go to bed at night? If not, what is one thing you can do to make your space feel more calming to you?
  • Do you feel calm when you walk into work? Sitting in a small cubicle all day can have a negative effect on your psyche. What could you change?
  • How do you feel when you’re stuck in rush hour traffic and trapped in public transport? Could you walk or bicycle to work rather than feeling packed like a sardine?

How you manage your space has a reciprocal impact on your sense of wellbeing. This includes how you choose to design your space at home, at work, and in your community. I encourage you to spend some time thinking about the space in other people’s lives as well as your own. Try paying special attention to the silent space during conversations. It can lead to some helpful insights.

Learn more to keep yourself healthy and curious

If this topic interests you, I found an interesting podcast, featuring former Toronto Chief City Planner Jennifer Keesmaat, about the importance of green space on health. I also enjoyed reading both The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing by Marie Kondō, and The Little Book of Hygge: The Danish Way to Live Wellby Meik Wiking. Kondō’s book has been turned into a Netflix series worth checking out.

Whether you like it or not, your immediate environment affects you. Becoming aware of how, and of how you interact with it, can empower you to make positive adjustments and improve your mental health.

7 Tips for Changing Negative Behaviour

7 Tips for Changing Negative Behaviour

Sometimes we catch ourselves behaving in a way that surprises us.

Sometimes the feeling is a positive one: we accomplish a major goal that we weren’t sure we were going to accomplish, we crush that job interview that we were certain was a total failure, or we find the courage to ask for that big promotion at work.

However, there are times when we do or say something that surprises ourselves, but in a negative way. We snap at our coworker for taking too long to finish a report or we have an argument with a loved one that ends in tears.

So, what can you do when you find yourself engaging with others in a negative way?

Did You Read the Situation Right? If you find yourself responding aggressively to another person’s comments to you, it might be helpful to take a moment to double check that you read the situation correctly. Did your friend intend to insult you or were they simply making a joke? Sometimes, we or the people we love say things that we don’t mean. Taking a moment to determine if that was the case might help put things into perspective.

Be Accountable to Yourself. If you find yourself in a situation where you’re surprised by your negative behavior or someone close to you calls you out on it, try your best not to make excuses for it. Attempting to justify hurtful behavior or getting defensive isn’t a step in the right direction. Before you can start to make changes to your behavior, you first have to accept that you do those things in the first place. If you can’t do that, then you’ll trap yourself in a vicious cycle where you won’t be able to break the pattern and move toward a better mental state.

Don’t Put Yourself Down. When we become aware of our hurtful behaviors, it’s easy for us to fall into the trap where we feel guilt and shame for the way we acted. While this is certainly better than celebrating the fact that you just made a stranger cry by yelling out the passenger-side window at them in traffic, it still isn’t a productive reaction. If you get into a routine of shaming yourself into oblivion every time you display hurtful behavior, you might convince yourself that it can’t be changed. Acknowledge the incident and look for solutions that’ll help you not do it again.

Put It in Context. What was going on when you snapped at your coworker? Did you not get enough rest the night before? Were you stressed about a major deadline and felt the pressure? When you find yourself in situations where you exhibit this negative behavior, take a moment to reassess what might have been the cause of your stress or act out. Oftentimes, when we are feeling a certain way, we fail to notice other important contributing factors that might explain it.

Find the Pattern (So You Can Change It). If you can catch the pattern of decisions that you make or certain situations that feed directly into those negative behaviors, then you’ll be able to know how to correct them. If you regularly notice that not getting enough sleep at night contributes to a cranky morning the next day, then work to change your sleep schedule so you don’t put yourself in that cranky situation. Even making a slight change to your routines can help you find a steadier emotional state.

What Sets You Off?Sometimes certain people, situations, or places can contribute to our negative emotional states. For some people, it may be running into the wrong people at the bar or a coworker who loves to do exactly what you find annoying (like always talking to you about their personal life). A registered therapist can walk you through those moments where you found yourself unnecessarily agitated and help you find the things that set you off.

Once you have an idea of what those things are, you can then work on them. If you pinpoint those environments that push you over the edge, you can then work to change, accept or disarm those triggers. For others there may be need to engage in activities that ‘spark joy’ or add value to one’s life. That is because sometimes we engage in negative behaviours because we are unhappy. The simple act of taking a walk during your lunch time or even talking to a trusted friend can do wonders for your emotional state.

Practice Forgiveness. Forgive yourself and practice forgiveness with others. Humanity is messy; we all have our own personal problems that can lead to sticky situations when we interact with one another. Practicing forgiveness and working together to make interactions less of a negative experience can take the stress off and help us all feel a little bit better.

Therapy Can Help.If you find yourself engaging in harmful behaviour but you’re unsure of how you can start making changes to those behaviours, working with a registered therapist is a great place to start.

Therapists are trained to help you navigate through your emotional confusion and pinpoint the areas that are causing you the most grief. They can act as an unbiased third party that will help you examine those moments of anger or anxiety and work toward long-lasting solutions. That way, there won’t be so many surprises in the future.

How Not To Sabotage Your Self-Care

How Not To Sabotage Your Self-Care

Several years ago, I received a speeding ticket while rushing to get to my regular yoga class. The class was important to me as it was part of my self-care regimen.

The combination of poor planning plus an inability to accept that I just wasn’t going to make it to class that day brought me to an important realization: self-care, or at least a hyper-focus on a self-care routine, can sometimes become counter-productive.

How Important Is Self-Care?

Self-care is essential for reducing stress and all its associated problems, both physical and mental.

That said, not everyone understands what it really is and many people aren’t sure what to do.

Here are a few places to start:

Dr. Kristen Neff offers some great advice in her book, Self Compassion. Her TED talks are also helpful. Guy Winch’s, Emotional First Aid, is another book that I recommend as well as his TED talks. For some further reading, I recommend this piece on self-care in the digital age and this list of self-care ideas.

Creating your own self-care regimen will help you to develop and maintain positive mental health and wellness.

You’ve Got This!

Self-care for ourselves or others can be deliberate and planned, but often we’ve already built some self-care into our daily routines. Going to the movies, talking to a close friend, or taking time to read a book can all be acts of self-care.

Self-Care vs. Self-Sabotage

Sometimes, we find ourselves avoiding discomfort by hiding under the guise of self-care. It can often prevent us from showing up, growing up, and increasing our self-efficacy and self-esteem. For example, is it self-care or avoidance if you take a break from study during finals? It’s a trick question, really, because it could be both.

On one hand, a break will give you some much-needed respite so that you can regroup and come back to your study with fresh eyes. On the other hand, too many breaks or breaks that last too long can be procrastination. It’s important to remember that avoidance keeps you stuck and prevents you from connecting to your feelings.

Ask Yourself: Is This Self-Care or Avoidance?

If the activity feels nourishing, helps you grow, and moves you forward towards your goal, it is self-care. If it takes you away from your goal, then it’s avoidance. Using techniques such as mindfulness can help you to acknowledge your feelings, and understand rather than avoid them.

Make 2019 the year you fine-tune your self-care routine (and avoid nasty surprises like speeding tickets).