Podcast: Pushing Back Against Feelings of Loneliness

Jenn talks to Dr. Lisa Coyne about how to combat feelings of loneliness. Lisa answers questions about how to manage loneliness, embrace alone time, and form meaningful connections.

Lisa W. Coyne, PhD, is an assistant professor of psychology in the Department of Psychiatry, part-time, at Harvard Medical School, and is a senior clinical consultant at the Child and Adolescent OCD Institute (OCDI Jr.) at McLean Hospital. Dr. Coyne is the author of “The Joy of Parenting: An Acceptance and Commitment Therapy Guide to Effective Parenting in the Early Years,” a book for parents of young children.

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Episode Transcript

Jenn: Welcome to Mindful Things.

The Mindful Things podcast is brought to you by the Deconstructing Stigma team at McLean Hospital. You can help us change attitudes about mental health by visiting deconstructingstigma.org. Now on to the show.

Hi, folks, and thanks so much for joining our session today to talk all about combating loneliness. I’m Jenn Kearney, and I’m joined today by Dr. Lisa Coyne. We’ll be discussing how to manage loneliness, embrace alone time, and more.

If you are unfamiliar with Lisa, Dr. Coyne is a senior clinical consultant at the Child and Adolescent OCD Institute at McLean Hospital and author of several books on anxiety, OCD, and parenting.

So I was wondering if maybe you could talk a little bit about the difference between being lonely and being bored, because there is a difference between the two of them, but sometimes it’s really hard to differentiate, especially if you’re by yourself and feeling both of those things.

Lisa: And yeah, I’m happy to do that. And we might even back up just a little further and talk about why is it important to have social connections. And then talk about what does it mean to be alone versus lonely and lonely versus bored.

So there’s a really well established literature that humans need social connections. And when we don’t have them, it’s harder for us to handle things on our own because there are some issues in the world and there are some problems that are best dealt with as a community.

And we have, and there’s just other, there’s tons of pieces about how we’re affected by loneliness. How one becomes lonely is part of an issue. That’s something that I hope our listeners will ask some questions about.

Is it a choice? Is it something that you feel happens to you? Are you opting out because of social anxiety or past trauma? Is it just too hard ‘cause you’re feeling depressed? Do you feel awkward? Do you feel like you’re not good at small talk?

I used to feel and I used to really avoid being out and talking. There’s lots of different ways for this to happen. And some interesting research from Kip Williams, who’s a social psychologist on ostracism, when one becomes lonely by being ostracized or feeling left out.

And what he discovered was when you feel like you have been ostracized, the area of your brain that typically registers whether you’re experiencing physical pain is what lights up.

So just think about that for one second. That when you are ostracized, your brain registers that as physical pain. That’s really stunning to me.

And on the flip side, I work a lot with teenagers and children of all ages, and there’s pretty profound research from the developmental psychology literature that even one friend, even one person who you have in your social world can mitigate a whole host of poor outcomes if you feel lonely.

So we are herd animals. We’ve evolved to be herd animals. And yes, some of us are introverts. I am one, I love my downtime. I love hanging with my dogs and that’s great. And I also, and you also, need connections.

So just intro to why is it important that we talk about loneliness. So what’s the difference between loneliness and boredom?

Well, I think they’re very, very different, when we’re talking about different emotions, and one is about feeling like you desire and wish for social connections and they’re not available to you.

And the other one is just are bored. You feel like you can’t entertain yourself. And that also can reflect sort of a skills deficit in terms of like, oh, what do I do?

One of the things that we talk about as child psychologists a lot is what happens to our children when we over-schedule them all the time, and every single little slice of their day is taken up by some structured event that we did.

Now that’s a vast difference, not to date myself, but from when I grew up and my generation grew up and we were tossed out of the house and told to come back for dinner. I cannot imagine parenting my kids like that now. And yet that is a major, major cultural shift in parenting.

But what does that mean for kids in terms of their ability to entertain themselves? And so how do we help parents support their children in doing exactly that? Without just going to gaming, without just going to a screen.

And things are very different. We’re not immune to contextual changes in our culture, in our tech, in our development of all of those things. So anyway, I don’t know if I answered your question, but loneliness and boredom, very different. (laughs)

Jenn: No, I think that’s super helpful and I love how you did touch upon being an introvert and wanting to have some of your alone time. I, myself am an extroverted introvert, which means that I am, if you do the Myers-Briggs personality test, I’m right on the, I’m 51 49. Extrovert introvert.

Lisa: Wow.

Jenn: Yeah, so.

Lisa: You’re very half and half. You’re very balanced. (laughs)

Jenn: Hmm, not quite. People rejuvenate and exhaust me at the same time. So it’s something like that I know--

Lisa: That needs to be a T-shirt. (laughs)

Jenn: That is exactly how I feel about it. I was wondering if you could talk about people who tend to internalize and isolate themselves, especially when they feel like their problems are too burdensome for the people that they care about or the people that they’re closest to.

Lisa: Yes, yeah. And that is something that humans sometimes do, myself included, and I’m sure you too included, Jenn. Not that we’re going to convince anyone to change their choices, but it’s worth considering what’s important to you as a person.

And it’s worth considering how to engage with folks and trust that they can make their own choices. And so instead of deciding for them, like, oh, I don’t want to burden you, I don’t want to say anything.

And I’ve had this conversation with my mom, for example, who’s like, oh, I know how busy you are. I’m not going to call you. And I keep, no matter how many times I can say, please call me, you’re retired. You have the time. And I will call you right back if I’m in the middle of something.

But thinking about trusting other people to be able to make their own choices about where to set limits, about what’s too burdensome for them, is really empowering for whoever you’re in a relationship with. And the other thing I would suggest is having what we call in ACT, Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, values and vulnerabilities conversation.

It’s really, I’m struggling. I’m mindful that I don’t want to feel like a burden to you. And it’s also important to me to connect and let you know what’s going on. And I’m going to ask you, if this is too much, just let me know. And I really want your honest feedback about that.

And yeah, people will not tell you, honestly, probably the first or second or third time you have a conversation with them, but over time, if you stick to that, they will come to trust.

And you’re building intimacy through those kinds of conversations, which is something that we all crave as well. ‘Cause there’s being with people and then there’s having solid, trusting, authentic, genuine, intimate relationships with your friends. Where you know all the pieces of what’s going on with them and you know you can call them when you need.

So those kinds of conversations can really help. ‘Cause I think the quality of our relationships is worth talking about too, in the context of loneliness, ‘cause you can be surrounded by people and feel completely alone. I think we’ve all felt that at some point.

Jenn: Yeah, exactly. Could you talk a little bit about maybe that tipping point into having healthy alone time and knowing when it might be a warning sign that there’s something going with their mental health?

Lisa: Sure. And this is one that I used to struggle with because I think, having grown up with social anxiety and really always fearing evaluation in my teens and my 20s and things like that, one thing that showed up for me as a young adult, and I’ll tell a story just to illustrate the point.

I had a friend group who went out all the time and I struggled because I felt, oh my goodness, I’m so socially awkward. I know I should go out. All the cool kids are going out. And I don’t really want to do it.

So I would either, this is back when things were not working so well, I would either make myself go out and be miserable the whole night ‘cause the whole night was organized around like, ugh, I didn’t want to go out, but I’m going to try and put on a brave face and I hate this and I’m not going to small talk and this is awful and nobody wants to talk to me anyway and all of that.

But if I stayed home, I’d feel relief, but also desperately lonely and wanting to connect. So neither of those two things work.

So if you’re feeling, so my criteria for noticing, what’s the tipping point, is it might be a better question to say, how do you know if, how do you kind of take care of yourself and your social relationships in a way that feels vital to you? That feels like it feeds you and doesn’t bring you to that point of overwhelm. And it has to do with really listening to your heart and listening to yourself.

You can organize your behavior based on what you think other people want you to do. And I promise you, if you check with yourself and see how that feels, you might notice that that feels kind of like a struggle or it feels a little empty. You may also notice that that connection that you’re craving is not being fed.

But if you really listen to your heart, and you listen to, what is it that I most need right now? And then you choose to take a step in that direction and see how that works. That’s a better way to really notice it.

So noticing, I think things to notice are it’s great to get your downtime and it’s great to have your alone time, but has it lapsed into, are you starting to avoid things? Is your mood going down? Do you feel disconnected? Do you feel guilty for not talking to your friends? Are you trying to get into a conversation with yourself about talking yourself into it?

I think all of those things can be signs that you need to kind of listen to your heart some more and see, even though I don’t really feel like going out, would this be a good idea if I value my relationships with these people.

And can I make that choice about something that’s really important to me, like supporting my friends, like having some connection, like being a good friend, or building some intimacy with somebody new or taking some risks.

Now those steps are not without fear and risk sometimes. That’s not what this is about. But it’s about being willing to take those steps and to experience that scary feeling of risk in the service of developing good, intimate, solid, authentic relationships. That’s something that can lead you out of loneliness.

And the other cool thing that happens if you start to really listen to yourself and behave really with integrity to your values, those things that you hold most dear, is when you’re alone, when you’re alone, you might really start to enjoy your own company instead of feeling lonely. And that’s really something.

Jenn: Can you talk a little bit about starting to enjoy your own company and having that respect for yourself and your alone time? ‘Cause I, so it must’ve been several years ago that I saw, I saw something that was like, you are who you are when no one is looking.

And how you can actually, and I’ve always been curious about how you can be comfortable being yourself even by yourself. And a lot of mental health stuff comes with the caveat of you don’t necessarily like yourself. So how do you start addressing that to become more comfortable in your alone time?

And I know that that’s a super complex question with four of them in there. So I’m sorry.

Lisa: No, such a good question and it’s a fascinating question too, ‘cause I remember really distinctly when I did not feel like that and then when I started to feel like that. And it was something that you kind of live yourself into.

But so, okay. So there’s a lot of pieces to that, and that’s correct. So the first thing to mention is that we have pretty critical minds. And we’ve talked about this before in other episodes, I suppose, that our mind has evolved to be our threat detector.

And you remember earlier on that I said that your brain experiences ostracism as physical pain. So in service of that, your mind is going to really be keeping an eye on, are you doing all the things to connect?

Do you have enough friends? Is it okay? Are you keeping up with the Jones’? Are you as good as they are? Do they like you? Are they laughing at you behind your back? Maybe that’s just my mind.

Jenn: And then if you go, yes, they like me, your brain goes, you sure?

Lisa: No, they don’t. Exactly, exactly. And so it naturally looks at those things because that’s a potential threat to your wellbeing. Now sometimes that information is really useful and sometimes it’s not.

And the only way to really tell is to step back and notice that the process of your thinking, notice that this is just an activity that your mind is doing. Huh, maybe I should pay attention to that. Let me see, let me notice.

And also, if you do that move where you kind of step back from your thoughts, and actually, we call it defusion. D-E, not D-I. Defusion, stepping back and noticing, wow, my mind is really having a field day with me and these social interactions today.

That gives you a little space to choose. Do I want to be paying attention to these things? Is this really important? Or do I want to organize my choices in some other way? And so that’s important.

And again, sometimes if we get hooked on these negative unwanted thoughts and these negative social evaluations, you kind of get stuck organizing your behavior around avoidance. Which is one of the things we wrote about in the new book. And you might really not be behaving consistently with those things that you care about the most.

That’s one of the things that leads to this, I don’t really like myself. Because there’s a piece of you that wants stuff and you’re not feeding that piece. You’re feeding, instead, your behaviors may be organized by fear of evaluation, for example.

So the way I think, and this is one way to kind of live your way into a different kind of way of being where you’re comfortable with yourself as you change your criteria for success. And instead of choosing, am I keeping up with the Jones’, am I adequate in some way that my mind says I should be compared to others, say, am I being true to myself today?

Am I being, if it’s important to me to be a kind person, have I been kind? If it’s important to me to be a good friend, have I done one thing today that’s consistent with that? Whether or not that person was home, did I call them?

And small, engaging in small steps like that, that are within your control, small choices over time really can kind of give you a sense of self efficacy, self-esteem, but also just comfort with yourself.

And the more you do it, the more strength you have in terms of noticing when your mind is kind of having that field day with all of your perceived flaws, and being willing to step back let it talk its talk and do your thing anyway.

Jenn: So what if we’re the person that’s always helping other people and we don’t know how to ask for help for ourselves or--

Lisa: Oh my God, did someone plant that question and tell you to ask me that? (laughs)

Jenn: No. At least, I don’t know. Melissa might have.

Lisa: I’m kidding. (laughs) Melissa!

Jenn: Sometimes it’s, people don’t want to be seen as being weak or needy, even though they need something. And a lot of times it’s hard for people to recognize that, recognizing that you have a weakness or perceived opportunity is actually a sign of strength to know that. But how do we get started asking for help for ourselves?

Lisa: We deal with that. Right, and it is hard. And I am guilty of that myself. So I can absolutely relate to that. But here’s what I’ll tell you. When you’re on an airplane and you’re traveling with a younger person or a vulnerable person, they always tell you, put on your own oxygen mask first.

And that is something that we’ve written about for supporting families during COVID, we’ve talked about it all over the place. That if you do not take care of yourself, if you do not value yourself, you will not be able to effectively show up in your relationships with the people you love, if you are a professional with your clients, you will be struggling yourself and you will not bring the best of yourself to those things.

And so self-care often means setting limits to the things that you do for others. Which your mind might, again, jump on you for it and say, but you should be doing social things. Don’t you value being a friend?

And it’s really important because here’s the other piece of that. In doing that yourself, what you’re doing is you’re opening up a space for someone else to do it too for themself.

When I am training my team, if I know I am overextended, I say it. I tell them, I own it, and I say, please don’t be like me. I’m working on this. This is a work in progress. And I look to them to make sure that the clinicians who work for me are engaging in their own self-care, and I support it wholeheartedly.

And I’m always asking them, are you paying attention to when you’re doing too much? What’s that balance? And they may not know, but I can keep asking and I can keep seeing if they can shine the light there.

So I think it’s really important. We get stuck, I think, feeling like we have to be enough all the time or else. And that’s another mind thing. That’s another sort of threat detection mind. Kind of like, if you’re not doing everything, all the things, you’re a terrible person, or you’re just not effective or you’re not productive.

And really noticing, again, what’s organizing what I’m doing here? What am I up to? Am I doing stuff because I feel like I have to? That’s oppressive. That’s not invigorating, that’s not vitalizing. Or am I doing this because I choose?

And because it’s important and it’s consistent with this value that I hold. That is enlivening. That feels vital. And again, it’s hard ‘cause yeah, you’re going to disappoint some people if you do that. And making a space for noticing that and letting yourself feel it and choosing anyway in the service of your values is very, very important and can be so helpful.

Jenn: I did want to talk a little bit, we had someone ask about half of an elderly couple that’s very social, but is also the caretaker for their partner that doesn’t want to leave the partner alone much, but they get depressed without having social contact.

Any suggestions for what this person can do, and understandably the caretaker role is so difficult—

Lisa: It’s so hard.

Jenn: Especially when it’s your partnership. At the same time, it’s caretakers that are stay-at-home parents who are with toddlers while their partner’s at work. Any advice for caretakers who are feeling depressed or alone, even when they’re not alone?

Lisa: Yeah, and thank you so much for the question. It’s so important. And there is a pretty large, well established literature on caregiver and caretaker stress across the board, whether it’s caring for a partner, child, child with a disability, partner with a disability, et cetera.

And people who are caretakers are at risk of higher stress, depression, anxiety, feeling overwhelmed, all of those things. And so if you are feeling that, you are not alone. And I’m glad you’re asking the question.

So I think the first thing I would suggest is stop, breathe, and really notice like, yeah, this is really hard. Let yourself kind of have that feeling. Let yourself notice that. And think about if there are small ways that you can reach out to connect. See if you can do socially distant walks.

I have some elderly clients who are wonderful and they plan to take walks with their friends. And they’ll meet somewhere to park and they’ll chat and they’ll walk a couple miles together. They get outside, they get a little exercise. That’s a really good thing.

As much as we are all Zooming these days, it is actually useful. And so lots of us are separated from family and friends who are struggling. And so making sure that you connect and use the social media, and if you’re uncomfortable with social media, and you might be, ‘cause this is all new to some of us.

We’ve all had to learn a lot about which platforms to use and how they work and when they don’t work, what do we do and all of that. But kind of getting connected. There’s a lot of cost-free ways, if you have internet or if you have access to a place that has internet, to connect, to see each other.

There’s also just quick phone calls, texting, write letters. But I think notice that your heart is saying to you, you need some connection. This is a heavy burden. And reach out and let people know you’re there, just to feel connected. And make sort of a routine of it. Pick a few friends or people in your family that you can call every week, even for a quick call, just to say hello, to ping them.

How submarines ping each other to see where one is. Just a little ping, just letting you know I’m there. Just letting you know I’m there. And to those of you who are not struggling, think about your friends who might be and ping them. If we value each other, if we value ourselves as a community, it can be really helpful to kind of think about, how can I be kind, and reach out to your friends who you maybe haven’t talked to in a while.

Jenn: I feel like you teed me up perfectly for the next question. How would you respond to either a client or a person if they say they don’t want to ruin the mood by sharing that they’re either angry, sad, lonely with friends because it’s been a long time since you’ve connected with someone?

Lisa: Hmm, yeah. And I think we’ve all probably found it that way. So I think, again, think about what is the most important thing in those conversations. And usually when we’re angry with each other, anger is sadness’ bodyguard or anger can be fear’s bodyguard.

It’s sort of like we’re hurt and we’re going to (groans). We want to kind of push back. So is that the most important thing? Or maybe is it, like, I would like to let you know you matter to me and I’ve been sad ‘cause I haven’t heard from you. And I really hope that we don’t go so long without talking again.

So sometimes what I will do to see what is the thing that is the right thing to do is I’ll just kind of, I’ll kind of think about, what if I said this, and I’ll notice, does that feel like it’s vital? Does that feel like it’s consistent with my value?

And I will, if it feels like a struggle, if it feels like I’m just doing this to kind of bite someone back if they’ve hurt me, that’s probably not the most important thing. It might feel okay in the moment. But is that, in the long run, going to get you what you want?

So I’ll kind of wait and see and be like, hmm, yeah. That feels like the right thing. And it can feel very vulnerable sharing your thoughts and sharing your disappointment with someone. And yet, I would guess that for many of us, we’d want to hear if one of our friends was unhappy with us ‘cause we love them, we care about them and we’d want to do better, or we’d want to at least know.

So I think one important piece of these kinds of conversations is choosing to let go of the outcome ‘cause we’re not in control of how that friend or that partner or that person is going to receive what we say. You’re only in control of what you choose to do and how you choose to do it, and then you have to let the rest go.

And being willing to do that is hard, and it can also be so healthy and it can be so foundational in continuing to build intimacy and genuineness in a relationship with someone.

Jenn: So it’s like you can actually see the questions as they’re coming in because the next one is about friendships as well, and navigating advice to give them.

An introvert wrote in that said their very extroverted close friend lost their full time job and has been having a hard time, but they’re leaning on their introverted friend a lot, and they found that really hard to manage.

Lisa: I bet.

Jenn: Any advice about giving, how to approach the topic of seeking professional help or encouraging spreading the wealth of sharing the burden with other friends and family members?

Lisa: Yeah. That’s a hard one because the conflicting values are, how do I show up for my friend and also how do I take care of myself? And I think again, think about, step back, notice. Well, what’s the most important thing here and what am I willing to do and what am I not willing to do?

Am I willing to gently set boundaries with this friend so that I can care for myself and for them better? Do I really think they need actually to talk to someone? Then by all means.

Thinking about, why am I not doing that? Is that because I don’t, I’m scared of what they’ll think? Does that feel like the right thing? Does that feel vital? Or is that me choosing maybe to do something ‘cause I want to avoid their displeasure with me?

Now, I don’t know the situation. None of that could be true. But I’m trying to give examples of some of the things that might show up for people when they’re making these choices.

Can you have an honest conversation with them and go, I love you and I know you’re going through the hardest time and I got to tell ya, me too. And I’m trying to really take care of myself and I’m finding I need some alone time to recharge. And that might be weird to you ‘cause you’re more of an extrovert, but that’s how I go.

And sometimes, when people know what you need, sometimes they’re more likely to be attentive to that. But it’s not fair and not helpful to kind of want something and they get mad at the friend if they’re not giving it to you and you haven’t told them. And I know that all of us have been in that situation before.

So looking for things like that. That happens in couples a lot too. And it’s really funny ‘cause my husband and I have been married since, oh my God, 1996. A really long time. And we’re not sick of each other yet. There are times. And we’re really different people. I’m a psychologist and a talker and he’s an Irish guy who plays music.

It doesn’t, feelings? We don’t talk about feelings. So we’re opposite ends of the spectrum and yet we’ve gotten really good over the years at talking about, asking for what we need and not assuming the other person knows, ‘cause they don’t. And that’s a lesson in and of itself.

And teaching each other really gently and asking for things is really, it’s amazing to me that after all this time, he can still surprise me. And I’ll be like, really? You think that? Wow, okay. And I also love that we know each other really well, so.

Jenn: And I feel like part of it too is I have been, and I am not the expert here, but to the person who wrote in about this, I’ve been the receiving end of people’s questions, grief, so on and so forth.

And I have suggested, I’m always going to be here for you. I’m always going to listen to you. But my ability to offer you advice has reached the end of its road. And I don’t know how much more I can help you without you getting other people involved.

And that has actually softened the blow a little bit. So being able to say that I’m here for you, I’m willing to listen, but if you ask me what I should do, I don’t know at this point.

Lisa: It’s always okay to say, I don’t know. I care about you, I love you, and I’m not really sure how to help. That’s really important. I love that.

Jenn: So a psychologist wrote in asking, what advice can I offer to a patient who was involved in a scandal and is now feeling publicly ostracized and lonely?

Lisa: Ooh, that is really hard. And that’s a really tough one. And any public figure I think would, might’ve experienced something like that. So I think, again, acknowledging the difficulty of the situation, which sounds like it’s probably beyond control, that it is hard.

But there’s two pieces of the difficulty there. There’s the actual, whatever the scandal was. I don’t know what it was. And then there’s the meaning our mind kind of overlays on that. What does it mean that this happened? And what do I make of that? What do I make of me that this happened? Is this my fault? Am I a terrible person? Or whatever it is for that person.

And so in ACT, what we would do is we would spend a lot of time noticing kind of what are the emotions that are showing up, and then stepping back from the process of our thinking. We’re getting attached to meanings.

The other thing is we get attached to events like that as defining who we are. And they do not define us. We can let them define us, but helping your person connect with a sense of, that sort of observing part of themself, that’s existed and has been there since they’ve been born.

And they’re the same person in this difficult scandal moment as they were at their best moment when they had a success. And when they were really helpful to a friend and loving. It’s teaching. We call this piece of ACT self as context.

And it’s noticing that each of us carries around a story about who we are. And that story predicts what we can do, what’s possible for us, what’s not possible. And sometimes those stories are helpful and sometimes those stories are constraining.

And so really noticing that, if you notice that as a story, you can step out of it and you can choose, you can still choose to direct your choices and your actions and your behaviors in a way that’s consistent with your most deeply held values.

Or you can spend your life trying to avoid recriminations, consternation of others and things like that. And I think that that’s a really important thing. It’s really interesting.

It’s making me think of a story when I was 19 or 20. I can’t remember, I was very young. And I had been in college and I had been interested in theater and taking classes and I was a stage manager and I was really interested.

I did a little acting. I wrote a play that was produced, that was fun. And I took a job with someone I had worked for before as a camp counselor, as the director of the theater program at a summer camp. And I thought, I’m going to rock this. I’m awesome.

And I can tell you, I absolutely failed at it. It was terrible. I did such a crappy job. And at that age, I thought, my God, I am a complete failure for the rest of my life. I will never ever, I mean, this is so shameful. Scandalous, everyone knows. Oh my gosh.

And had I held onto that story, I would have been stuck and I might have organized my choices around that. And I might’ve looked for exemplars. Is this true? Yeah, see, I am a failure.

But instead, stepping back and noticing, minds do that to us sometimes. And I can either stick to that, get stuck in that story, or I can move past it and you can move forward.

So that’s the skill, and I would look into ACT. Actually that would be a really nice thing. There’s some, I’m thinking of some good books. The common ones that people read if they like that approach are “The Happiness Trap,” it’s a Russ Harris book on ACT.

“Stop Avoiding Stuff,” it’s a new book, not a bad thing. Actually, really quick and easy to read. But one of my favorites actually that’s just come out recently is if your client is a woman, is called “Be Mighty” by Dr. Jill Stoddard.

Jenn: I actually bought that a couple of weeks ago. “Be Mighty.”

Lisa: Did you look at it?

Jenn: I’m 25 pages in because there’s journal prompts and all of this. I would say, I described it to one of my friends, heavy but helpful because there’s a lot to unpack in it.

Lisa: There’s a lot.

Jenn: But it’s awesome so far.

Lisa: Did you feel seen when you read it?

Jenn: Yes, between that and I’m going to sound like Oprah’s Book Club, but between that and Glennon Doyle’s Untamed timeframe, I was like, these women are writing for me. So I’m sorry for derailing the conversation.

Lisa: No, do it. But I’m trying to give resources, so put those, both of them up. That’s awesome.

Jenn: So yes. “Be Mighty” by Jill Stoddard. I also highly recommend over here. So I know you work a ton with kids and teens. We had someone write in about an introverted freshman on campus that’s having trouble meeting peers, even though they’re living in a dorm, a lot of their peers are on the same floor as them.

And they’ve always had trouble making friends, but were really looking forward to the campus experience. Do you have any advice for them?

Lisa: Yes, I do. And I would say, again, you’re not alone. And here’s a big secret that nobody tells you. We all walk around looking at everyone else, like, oh my gosh, they’re all so put together and I’m such a hot mess.

Did you know that everybody walks around thinking that? It’s really rare when you meet somebody who doesn’t think that at least sometimes.

Jenn: Social media does not help that, by the way.

Lisa: Social media does not help at all. So what I would suggest, if you’re feeling a little nervous, is join clubs. Join clubs, do structured activities. Pick, even if it’s an acquaintance, like a roommate, if you can go with them.

Use your RA, if that’s helpful. Ask them what would be good things to do. And get involved in things that are consistent with your areas of interest ‘cause you’re going to meet like-minded people. And study together.

I mean, you don’t have to, one good way to kind of see if you like people and get to know people is just, you don’t have to be friends right away, but strength in numbers. Sometimes it helps to just study with people, if you can do this in a socially distanced way. Small study groups and things like that.

Ask people if you can sit with them at breakfast. And all of these things can be really daunting for introverts. But just taking even really small, tiny little opportunities. Like when you walk into a classroom, give a nod to the person to your right and to your left.

Just be friendly because if we’re all really truly looking at each other like we’re scary, that can make someone else comfortable and things can grow from even things that are as simple as that.

Jenn: So we had someone write in saying many of their friends are either married or thinking about having children or both. Likely not in the cards for them and they are totally okay with it, but they worry about getting left behind.

They are an introvert and don’t think they’ve made a new friend in about the last five years. Any thoughts about how to not be lonely when friendship might become a lower priority for friends who are moving into different milestones?

Lisa: Yeah, and I talk to a lot of people who are making choices like that actually. And having kids is not for everyone. It’s just not, and you should not feel guilty or bad about making that choice for yourself if that is the life that you want.

And there are other people out there that are making similar choices. So I think the same thing too is if there are things that you enjoy, activities that you enjoy, get involved in those activities Do you run? Join a running club. It’s a great way.

We’re lucky in our family because when we, other points where people feel scared and like, oh gosh, it’s a transitional period where you’re moving from one area to another and you’re in a new city or a new location or new job, you’re like, how do I make friends?

And so our family, for example, plays music, all of us. And music’s a really important thing. And our closest friends, we got to know through music. Not because we talked, but because we just found ourself in similar places over and over and over and over, and that’s the kind of thing that can help.

So I would say engage in the things that you’re interested in and you will meet fellow travelers. And there’s lots of online meetup groups and things like that. I don’t know if people still do Meetup or not, but get involved, go to lectures, go to classes. Talk to the person next to you, see what that’s like.

And those are just different ways to meet. And it is hard, I do want to say that. And especially since now, people are starting to rely so much more, when they’re dating even, on online apps and things like that. But still, you can still connect in those ways as well.

Jenn: So, very important question came in. They’ve all been important, but I feel like this one hits home for a lot of us these days. Does depression lead to loneliness, and if I’m feeling depressed, how do I really feel connected?

Lisa: That’s a really great question. And when we think about what is depression, so we know what the characteristics are. Low mood, feelings of hopelessness, feelings of just overwhelm at everything, feelings of sadness, et cetera, sometimes feelings of wanting to end things.

All of those things are associated with depression. And when we think about when that stuff shows up, lots of times people kind of slow down. They kind of isolate more. They kind of, since it’s difficult to do things, they opt out.

And when those behaviors, which are avoidance behaviors, start to kick in, what happens is we find ourselves in what, I’ll nerd out just a teeny bit, a reinforcer thin environment. Where we’re not having access to the things that we once found reinforcing.

And I do know also that you might be feeling like, that stuff doesn’t feel good to me right now. I’m depressed, yes. But the evidence based treatment for depression is called behavioral activation.

And what that is is even though it’s hard, even though you don’t want to, even though you’re not motivated, and even though you’d rather kind of sleep, that’s one of those points to really notice.

Is this serving me? Is this helping me stay in my life or feel better? And for most people, it’s not, of course, if you’re opting out. So behavioral activation is re-engaging in small, systematic ways every day in pleasant things.

Or if you’re an ACT person, meaningful things. Things that you value. Things that make you remember who you are. Remember who you want to be in the world. And staying involved in them even when it’s challenging, that will help you come out of the depression.

And yes, it can lead to loneliness. Because what happens for some people is that situation where you’re like, well, maybe you start to miss your friends, but then you feel guilty ‘cause you haven’t contacted them in so long. And then they might be mad at you, so you avoid that ‘cause you don’t want to talk to them if they’re mad at you and then you don’t want to be a burden is another thought that often shows up.

So remember, people love you and they want you in their life. And even when it’s hard, think about how can you choose to move back into your life in small ways. Even when it’s hard. And be kind to yourself as you do this.

One of the things that happens with depression is people often just beat themselves up for everything. And noticing that, and noticing is that helpful to me, is that useful to me, and thinking about, are there ways that we can practice self-compassion and gentleness and care, because you deserve love and you deserve care. Even if you don’t feel like that is true, you do.

Jenn: So how does feeling empty relate to loneliness and how can we address emptiness as a feeling?

Lisa: Great question. That’s a great one. I don’t know, because I think that that could mean so many different things for different people. But what I might do if I wanted to know is I might get really curious about it.

And notice, does it somehow relate to being lonely? Do I feel kind of just empty or numb? Have I just been through a trauma that’s making me feel sort of empty? Where I’m having difficulty connecting?

And if that’s something that you want to explore, and you feel just kind of your own gentle curiosity about it and exploration isn’t enough, talk to someone. Do that exploration and be like, I don’t know what this is. I don’t know how I’m feeling.

Because I think that, again, that can mean something really different depending on the context of your life and what’s going on for you. But that might be a good one to just do some exploration with someone else, with some guidance and see.

Jenn: So we have about five minutes left. I do, we got a bunch of questions about spending time with loved ones or choosing not to spend time with loved ones. So I did want to dive a little bit into family dynamic.

Any specific strategies for addressing loneliness during the time of the pandemic, like when many of the usual strategies like spending time with loved ones is neither available or safe for us.

Lisa: Yeah, and I would say heavily leaning on sort of all of the social media and Zoom and conferencing platforms with video is going to be key. And also the old fashioned, I can write you a letter. That’s really fun.

Imagine kids growing up and not knowing, what does it mean to write a letter? I can send things in the mail. I can send pictures in the mail and things like that. And I think just making kind of a feasible but somewhat regular check-in, especially where you can do some sort of visual stuff is great.

And then engaging in, even if you can’t connect, engaging in caring behavior with your family member who might be far away, and checking in with them. And that gives me an idea.

So there are two young women who I admire greatly who have started a nonprofit organization to support individuals with OCD. And it is called Not Alone Notes. They are wonderful. Molly and Morgan are their names. And we can put up a link to that.

But the goal of that organization is to write letters to folks who might be suffering and who might be struggling with OCD to let them know that they are not alone. So if you are a person with lived experience with OCD or anxiety, as many of us are, what a great initiative. I’d love to hear you guys supporting their work.

Jenn: How do you combat loneliness if you don’t have a lot of friends and family relationships are a trigger for mental illness, you’re estranged from family members, you don’t have strong relationships. Any advice?

Lisa: Trust your heart. So I think when you have, we all have, families are tough and we love them and they can also be a challenge. So really noticing and giving yourself permission to set limits in a healthy way for you and for your own mental health and wellbeing is an important, important skill.

You may have guilt about it and that’s okay. So learning to make a space for that and also continue to choose to set boundaries in a way that serves you and that’s helpful to you.

And I think just noticing that if you feel like there’s something missing in your life, time to look for other places to connect with folks. And again, see if there are any online communities that are of interest to you. Start talking to people, start posting. See who you can meet that way.

And we never really know who we’re talking to online. So be careful. Because a lot of people, I have made friends online. I think all of us probably have at this point, at least made acquaintances that we’ve only met online. And so staying engaged in those kinds of ways, I think, are very useful too.

Jenn: From personal experience, online friends can be very helpful. I have had one for, oh my God, like 15 or 16 years at this point. We write each other letters. We Skype, Slack, Zoom, any of those. But yes, she is a real person and she is fantastic.

Lisa: Kids are doing this through gaming. There’s a lot of my online gamer person, and again, take care, be careful. And if you are a parent, you want to make sure that you are teaching good internet safety behaviors and understand that a lot of relationships for our young people now are online.

And sometimes they are the strongest relationships ‘cause you can kind of all come together in this platform that’s equalizing in some way. So that’s kind of a neat thing too.

Jenn: We did have somebody ask for advice on how to make online friends, community. My personal advice would be communities and interests that you have that are aligned with what you do normally. I joined a few writing communities because my background is in communications.

So my closest internet friend, so to speak, is somebody that I wrote a lot and she provided helpful feedback and vice versa. And we connected that way. One of my parent’s quilts. So they’re in online quilting communities at the age of 63. So things that you’re interested in, things that you’re passionate about.

Lisa: Not surprisingly, we belong to one on Portuguese Water Dogs. Several, actually. We’ve actually had visits from people who wanted their dogs to play with our dogs. And I just joined one on an environmental group that’s from the local, a local sort of farm share that we use in our family.

And one of my areas of interest is how do I use more native plants and support pollinators and do things even in our little patch of grass to support the environment. So I joined this group and I just learned a ton about these other people who are small farmers, who are really interested in this stuff too.

And that’s been really fun. Just kind of even interacting with them in that way. So I wholeheartedly second what Jenn says.

Jenn: Thanks so much for tuning in. This actually concludes our session. Until next time, be nice to one another, but most importantly, be nice to yourself. Thanks again, and have a great day.

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Don’t forget, mental health is everyone’s responsibility. If you or a loved one are in crisis, the Samaritans are available 24 hours a day at 877.870.4673. Again, that’s 877.870.4673.

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The McLean Hospital podcast Mindful Things is intended to provide general information and to help listeners learn about mental health, educational opportunities, and research initiatives. This podcast is not an attempt to practice medicine or to provide specific medical advice.

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