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Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Overcoming Loneliness and Social Isolation

As a psychotherapist in NYC, I've noticed that more clients are struggling with feelings of loneliness during the past 10 years or so than I've encountered with clients in prior years.

Overcoming Loneliness and Social Isolation

Why Are People More Socially Isolated and Lonely Now Than in the Past?
There are many reasons why people are more socially isolated from one another and, as a result, more lonely than before.  

A Decrease in In-Person Social Contact
As a society, we have less in person contact these days than we used to before.  We rely more on email and text messages now.  While there are definite advantages to these technological advances, there have also been disadvantages, especially for people who live alone and have few close friends or family members.

Young adults, many of whom rely almost exclusively on text messages or social media to communicate, often don't develop the social skills necessary to communicate with potential friends or romantic romantic partners.  Many of them complain to me that they feel awkward talking to new people, and they don't know how to start a conversation at a social gathering.

Loneliness vs Depression
Loneliness is often confused with depression, and many people would prefer to say they're depressed and seek antidepressant medication from their doctor than admit that they're lonely.

While there can be a connection between loneliness and depression, very often, loneliness can be confused with depression.

Loneliness and Shame
For many people the shame of admitting that they're lonely is so great that they might even have a hard time admitting that they're lonely to their therapists.  

Loneliness and Shame

Admitting to feeling lonely often involves a certain emotional vulnerability that many people can't tolerate.  Many of them feel that by admitting that they're lonely, they'll be judged and people will think there's something wrong with them.  They feel that admitting to being lonely puts them at risk for people thinking they're not likable, and they might have their own fears about this.

Being Willing to Extend Yourself
If you're feeling lonely, it can help to extend yourself to others rather than waiting for others to approach you.

If you have a particularly difficult time initiating social interactions, you might want to consider doing volunteer work.

When you volunteer for a cause or a particular group, you're usually given a particular task to do and talking to others is easier because you're interacting within the context of doing the volunteer work. 

The following scenario, which is a composite to protect confidentiality, illustrates how a client was able to overcome feelings of loneliness:

Bill
When Bill graduated college and moved to NYC to take a job as a computer programmer, he didn't know anyone in the city.

Bill interacted with coworkers at work, but most of them were older and married.  As a young, single man in a new city, Bill often felt lonely when he was home alone.

He kept up with college buddies and friends from his hometown mostly via text messages.  He also called his parents once a week.  And these interactions were the extent of his social interactions outside of work.

After a few months, Bill thought he was depressed, so he came to see me for help.  It became apparent early on that not only was Bill socially isolated, but he felt uncomfortable initiating social interactions with new people.  Even when he was in college, most of the other students that he became friends with were people who were more outgoing and approached him first.

As we talked about what Bill thought were depressive symptoms, it turned out that when he went home and saw his family and friends, he didn't feel sad.  He also didn't have most of the other symptoms associated with depression, so I surmised that Bill was really lonely as opposed to being depressed.

When I work with clients, whether it's about problems with loneliness or other emotional issues, I tend to be interactive.  So, Bill and I talked about what he would be willing to do to be less socially isolated in NYC.

Since Bill was very fond of animals, he came up with the idea of volunteering his time at a no-kill animal shelter.  From the start of his volunteer work at the shelter, the dogs and cats, who longed for attention, gravitated towards Bill and he loved spending time with them.  He even adopted a dog and a cat.

Having Pets Helped to Ease Bill's Loneliness


He loved his pets, and having affectionate pets, who waited eagerly for his arrival when he got home, made it a lot easier for Bill when he came home.   

But Bill also wanted human social interaction, so we talked about what type of volunteer work he would like to do to meet new people.  As it turned out, Bill was very interested in local politics and there was a particular local candidate that he liked.

When he looked into volunteer opportunities with this local political candidate, he discovered that the campaign had a real need for volunteers.  So, Bill spent a few hours each week volunteering his time.

Initially, Bill felt awkward because most people already knew each other and he was the new volunteer.  Breaking into a new group, especially if someone is self conscious and somewhat shy as Bill was, can be difficult, so Bill had to lower his expectations at first.

But after the second week, one of the other volunteers, Ed, told Bill that there was a group that went out for burgers afterwards, and he asked Bill to join them.  

Over time, Bill became friendly with a few of the other volunteers, and he began to socialize with them more.  And, as he developed friendships with these people, he realized that he no longer felt lonely.  He also realized that his problem wasn't depression after all--it was social isolation which had resulted in loneliness.

Overcoming Social Isolation and Loneliness Can Be Challenging For the Elderly or People Who Are Home bound
For people who are either elderly or home bound due to health problems, social isolation and loneliness can be challenging because they might not interact with others.

Overcoming Social Isolation and Loneliness Can Be Challenging for the Elderly or People Who Are Home Bound

Being isolated, they're also more at risk for health problems that might not be detected because they have little or no social interactions with others.

In some communities, religious organizations and social service agencies have volunteers who can visit the elderly or the home bound.  In many major cities, like NYC, there are senior centers with free transportation where the elderly can meet other people and engage in social activities.

Social Anxiety Can Complicate Efforts to Overcome Social Isolation and Loneliness
See my article:  Overcoming Social Anxiety

Feeling Lonely in a Relationship
Loneliness doesn't just occur because people are socially isolated.  People in relationships where their emotional needs aren't being met are often lonely too.


Getting Help
If you've been unable to overcome feelings of loneliness and social isolation, rather than remaining isolated and unhappy, you could benefit from seeing a licensed psychotherapist who has helped psychotherapy clients to overcome this problem.  

I am a licensed NYC psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR and Somatic Experiencing therapist who works with individual adults and couples.

To find out more about me, visit my website:  Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist

To set up a consultation, call me at (212) 726-1006 or email me:  josephineolivia@aol.com

Also, see my article:  Solitude vs Loneliness




photo credit: Gwenaƫl Piaser via photopin cc

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photo credit: Scott Kinmartin via photopin cc

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