No one wants to admit that they’re lonely. There’s sort of a “what’s-wrong-with-you?” stigma around loneliness.
And yet, in the busyness of life, and with the constant burden of the to-do list, it can be hard for high-performing, driven, health-conscious women to connect in meaningful ways with others and build real friendships.
Loneliness can be a feeling of sadness because you don’t feel like you have close friends or genuine social connections, or it can simply be a feeling of isolation and separateness from others.
For a high-performing woman who is tired all the time, loneliness can create and be part of a vicious cycle.
Loneliness drains your energy and impacts your health
Feeling lonely is incredibly draining; it causes low energy.
Low energy leads you to not want to reach out or plan a social event since you don’t have the energy to do it.
This is one of the many ways a woman who struggles with fatigue is missing her life: she doesn’t have the energy for social connection, and her lack of social connection further degrades her vitality.
On top of this, pandemic-induced isolation has not been kind to us. Because of lockdowns, closures, and social distancing, loneliness is now the secondary pandemic – and has serious, negative health effects as well.
Humans are social creatures – even you introverts out there.
A feeling of belonging is a survival need. Membership within a group creates safety: you’re much more likely to get eaten by a saber-toothed tiger if you’re by yourself than if you are a member of a tribe.
As such, our survival brains regard isolation, rejection, and lack of belonging as a literal threat to our safety. The body responds accordingly with a physiological stress response.
While this stress response is necessary for survival and acutely performance-enhancing, the body was not designed to be chronically in this stressed state.
The hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal axis is great at helping you run away from said tiger maybe once every couple of weeks, but not multiple times a day. Over time, the HPA axis itself starts to dysfunctional.
Since the body is a system of systems, anytime one system is out of balance, the rest of the body will also be out of balance. The result is myriad, seemingly unrelated health issues and symptoms – most of which are also energy-draining and fatigue-inducing.
Social isolation and loneliness create higher risks for high blood pressure, heart disease, a weakened immune system, anxiety, depression, cognitive decline, and Alzheimer’s disease.
PTSD and loneliness
Last week was Loneliness Awareness Week (June 14th-18th).
June is Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder Awareness Month.
While the overlap of these awareness events may have been coincidental to those who designate such things, they are absolutely, intimately connected.
PTSD is not always flashbacks and nightmares, though it certainly is that as well.
For many who struggle with PTSD, it can feel more like a personality defect. People with PTSD can be socially awkward, have difficulty making small talk – or make only small talk as a means to avoid closeness with others.
You see, PTSD causes the survival brain to perceive a threat when none is there.
The survival brain has a faster response time than the cognitive, rational brain. This makes sense: if you’ve encountered that saber-toothed tiger who wants to eat you, you need to respond quickly to save your life, not take the time to assess whether the tiger wants to eat you.
You don’t need to make rational sense of the situation, you simply need to survive it.
For someone with PTSD, the survival brain registers a non-threatening, safe situation as threatening.
Here’s an example of what that looks like in real life.
The other day I was working out at the CrossFit box where I train. The coach, who is awesome and I think of as a friend, started teasing me about my chosen configuration of weights. While in hindsight I remember that his tone was playful and funny, that is not what I perceived at that moment.
I responded as though I was being genuinely criticized – attacked, even. I defended my choice of weights, explained why I had arranged them the way I had. It took a full ten seconds for me to realize that he was not criticizing me. He said, “you know – I’m teasing you,” also in a light-hearted tone.
He was giving me some good-natured ribbing – which is by all accounts an indicator that I am safe and that I belong.
I missed it completely. Why?
Because my survival brain is faster than my rational brain. Because past trauma, social conditioning, and some very painful life experiences have made me sensitive to attack. Because PTSD has hijacked my ability to feel safe, and respond as though I am safe when I am safe.
This is just one way in which PTSD can create social separateness. People don’t want to be around someone who takes things personally. People don’t want to get close to a person when they don’t know which version of that person is going to respond to them: will they get the extroverted, cheerful human golden retriever? Or will they be snapped at before I even realize that I’ve snapped?
Experiences like this lead someone with PTSD to feel guilty for having inappropriately responded, to down-spiral into negative self-talk, and to self-isolate despite a normal need for belonging with and acceptance by other humans. One symptom of PTSD is to perceive that people don’t like you, even when this is not the case.
Bessel van der Kolk discusses these and other symptoms of and effective therapies for PTSD in his brilliant book, The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, Body in the Healing of Trauma. I highly recommend it.
PTSD and loneliness are connected. If we are to bring awareness around PTSD, we must also address the loneliness it causes. …and not just by doing 22 push-ups a day to stop Veteran Suicide. We must create communities in which those who are managing PTSD can feel safe and accepted.
I refuse to accept that PTSD is a permanent thing for me. Like every other aspect of my mind, I can grow in my awareness and evolve.
PTSD is something that I am in the process of overcoming. I feel incredibly grateful to have the tools required to do so. CrossFit is one of them. The body and the mind are intimately linked. Physical training is one of the many ways to help the brain learn how to respond appropriately to threats (and non-threats!) This is also one of the reasons that I recommend consistent exercise to the high-performing women that I serve: exercise is critical to healing and energy restoration.
Transplants and the need for community
Since moving back to New York a few years ago, and especially during the pandemic, I have experienced periods of feeling lonely.
While I do have close friends, most of them are from my time in the military, and therefore spread across the globe. It’s hard to get together for a hike, or hang out while running errands, or have dinner together when you’re not geographically co-located.
When we moved back to New York several years ago, my network of friends had moved on to their next military assignments. Now that my husband and I are civilians, we are outsiders to the military community here, since we’re no longer wearing the uniform. To the local community, we are also outsiders, because we were military and transplants. Many of the people I have met here already have well-established social networks – friends whom they have known and lived near for decades. They don’t require new friends.
Being a “transplant” is not unique to the military or military Veterans – lots of adults are relocating for work or other personal and professional reasons.
A close, local friend of mine and I have talked about this. She is also a transplant to this area and has also noticed that there isn’t a community like what we have experienced elsewhere. At places where she would normally expect to be absorbed into a community, like at church, there has simply been a void of inclusion or genuine connection.
The loneliness epidemic: you are NOT ALONE
I don’t think that I am alone in observing that many people are looking for social connection and not finding it, for myriad reasons.
A friend of mine recently shared a podcast that really spoke to her. In the episode titled, “The Secret to Healthy Relationships,” Jenny Allen’s “Made for This” podcast discusses how life’s busy-ness can get in the way of making real, meaningful friendships.
My friend and colleague, Debbie Ternes, actually founded an organization called Authentic Friendships because of this need. www.authenticfriendships.com
On her website, Deb shares that, “many adult women find it challenging to have drama-free, lasting and meaningful friendships. We (Authentic Friendships) have created a community where you can interact, learn how to make and nurture friendships in a genuine and authentic way.”
Deb goes on to share that “the risk of social isolation on survival is statistically comparable to the health risk of smoking up to 15 cigarettes a day. (Holt-Ludstad, Smith & Layton, 2010). This same study found that people with strong friendships had 50% increased likelihood of survival than those with weaker social connections.
Friendships are much more than ‘something nice to have’ in our lives. Loneliness is becoming an epidemic. Let’s stop it!”
Another friend and colleague of mine, Ellen White, founded Breathe + Be Outdoors, an organization that brings women together for connection and outdoor activity. https://www.breatheandbeoutdoors.com/
The Breathe + Be mission is to create empowering communities of women…to enhance mental and physical health, and provide tools and techniques to live more intentionally.
Ellen founded Breathe + Be because 1 in 5 women struggles with mental wellness. Ellen believes that it is imperative to improve health outcomes for women by offering scientifically-backed options for combating stress, anxiety, and loneliness. She does so through mindfulness principles and practices, physical exercise in natural settings, and social support, but offering free meetups – outdoors – that foster mental and physical well-being.
Deb and Ellen are both such impressive, compassionate, visionary humans that I’ve invited them both to be speakers at my upcoming Strength & Shield Coaching women’s wellness and leadership retreat. This retreat will create a luxury experience for high-performing women to rest, grow, and connect in meaningful ways. (Stay tuned for more details!)
5 Steps to take to overcome loneliness
If you have related to anything I have shared, there are steps that you can take to overcome loneliness and start the process of getting your energy back.
1 – Build community.
I recently shared with a friend that I was feeling lonely. She was shocked. Apparently, to outside observers, I appear to have it all together. I have a great job, run a thriving business, am physically fit and healthy, am energetic, and am normally really cheerful. Actually – I’m sort of annoyingly cheerful. #notsorry #humangoldenretriever (I think this is, in part, why it is so strange when someone experiences a triggered response from me. It’s out of character, which makes it all the more off-putting. But I digress. Bringing it back!)
It may be that people have no idea that you need a social connection. As a driven, high-performing, health-conscious woman, I can almost guarantee that you project the confidence that people don’t associate with the private pain of feeling alone.
But you are NOT alone in feeling alone. A 2019 survey led by health insurer Cigna found that 61 percent of Americans report feeling lonely. 61 percent! And that was before the pandemic!
(More on this in Jacob Sweet’s excellent article, “The Loneliness Pandemic.” https://www.harvardmagazine.com/2021/01/feature-the-loneliness-pandemic)
So maybe you don’t love organizing events and bringing people together. But if you feel isolated, building social connections will likely require that you do the asking.
Start by identifying the things that you enjoy doing.
Do you like hiking? Ask people to go hiking with you.
Are you a foodie? Ask people to go to a local food festival with you.
Do you want to feel like you’re part of a community, part of a group of friends? Build one.
2 – Join a community.
Feeling a little bit daunted at the idea of building community?
You can join the Authentic Friendships community at https://authenticfriendships.com/
You can look for a Breathe + Be Outdoors meetup at https://www.breatheandbeoutdoors.com/
You can find other meetups in your area at https://www.meetup.com/
Join your church and get involved in a small group Bible study.
Join a CrossFit box and never work out alone again.
Join a local club that is aligned with your interests. In many ways, technology and social media have contributed to the loneliness epidemic. But in this case, Google can be your friend. Search for your location + an activity you enjoy + group and see what you find!
3 – Make yourself available.
This is especially true if you are busy. And let’s be real – high-performing women are some crazy-busy people.
People likely want to spend time with you, but your calendar is so full that you’re not available when they ask you.
If you want meaningful friendship, you are going to have to make time for it.
4 – Use social media with caution, or avoid it completely.
One would think that “social” media is a good place for someone who craves social interaction.
There are certainly positive aspects of engaging on social media. It has made it possible to stay in touch with friends and family who are not geographically co-located. It has connected me with people who are now my close friends, who would not have been otherwise. It makes it possible for me to celebrate the wins that my friends are experiencing and share in the joy and awesomeness that people I care about are experiencing.
That being said, social media can also cause someone who is already struggling with loneliness to feel worse. It can sometimes reinforce the “I’m alone,” or “I’m not liked,” or “I’m not fill-in-the-blank enough” narrative that is keeping you from connecting and building meaningful friendships in the first place. It can also cause you to compare yourself to others, which leads to nothing but pain. Fact.
5 – Check your narrative by looking for evidence.
Loneliness can be rooted in a false narrative: that people don’t like you, that you don’t belong, that you don’t fit.
Sometimes this is true. But most often, it’s not.
I have shared that I have experienced feelings of loneliness. I have also called someone my friend multiple times throughout this article. That seems like a contradiction, right? That’s because it IS. When my mind starts trying to tell me bullshit stories about how alone I am, or about how I’m too broken or annoyingly cheerful or driven or whatever to be worthy of feeling loved, I check it against the evidence.
What evidence is there in my life that my thoughts are true? What evidence do I have that they are NOT true?
It takes a conscious effort, mental discipline, and a lot of practice to check feelings against evidence, remain open to new information and re-write a narrative that isn’t aligned with your values, goals, calling, or happiness. But you can do it.
Loneliness can drain your energy and harm your health. If you’re struggling with feeling isolated, take steps to create a social connection.
Sometimes the best thing to do is seek help from a therapist, Licensed Mental Health Counselor, or another professional who can help you work through your feelings.
You are not alone. You are loved and worthy of love. There are actions you can take to create meaningful connections.
Stop missing your life. Optimal is possible!
Photo credit: the amazing @westpointsmj and @liveloudphotographyny!
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