How to Deal With Loneliness

Let’s call this an unconventional holiday special.  Loneliness afflicts millions of Americans and the holidays are particularly hard for those who feel stuck out in the cold.  This holiday season, Savvy Psychologist offers 8 tips to deal with loneliness.

Ellen Hendriksen, PhD
7-minute read
Episode #49

This time of year, every commercial, magazine cover, and store window sends the message that, from Thanksgiving through New Year’s, we should be attending festive holiday parties, merrily clinking champagne flutes, and spending time with people.  Lots and lots of people.

But Americans are a lonely bunch.  Back in 2004, a large-scale survey found that 1 in 4 Americans had no close friends at all.  And I’ll bet you a lonely partridge in a pear tree that the percentage is even higher now.  

With so many people feeling isolated, you’d think everyone would be talking about it.  But no one does.  There’s a stigma to admitting you’re starved for company.  

Defined, loneliness is perceived social isolation.  It’s “perceived” because you can feel totally alone in the midst of a crowd, or you can feel connected and supported even when you’re by yourself.

But even if loneliness is perceived, there are lots of lonely people out there.  Entrepreneurial sorts, for better or worse, have even started professional cuddling businesses.  Yes, have someone come to your house and hold you for an hour.  There’s even an app to match you with others in your area who just want to cuddle..

That’s definitely not an official tip, but let’s turn to them now.  This week, we’ll cover 8 tips feel more connected.  Expanding (and then maintaining) a social circle takes work and time, but rest assured, your people are out there:

Tip #1: Reconnect with Old Friends

Start with your existing but neglected social circle; it’s easier to reconnect with old friends than to start from scratch.  Think about who you’ve lost touch with.  If they’re far away, give them a (gasp!) old-fashioned phone call to wish them happy holidays and catch up.  If they’re local, so much the better.  Invite them out for dessert or a drink, catch a holiday tree-lighting, or whatever strikes your fancy.  Personally, I say try to avoid movies - the whole point is to talk and catch up, not stare at a screen together.

If you’re hesitant to contact someone after some time away, turn the tables.  How would you react if they called you?  Probably delighted.  Assume the same for them and make the call.

Tip #2: Challenge Your Expectation of Rejection

The lonely among us, it turns out, see the world differently.  In a 2014 study, lonely and non-lonely college students watched video clips of lunchtime at college dining halls.  In the scenes, there were always both positive and negative social interactions happening at any given time.  The study participants might see positive interactions where someone smiles, nods while a friend talks, or leans into a conversation.  But they also might see negative interactions, like someone turning his back or ignoring another person.

Here’s where it gets really interesting: Researchers used eye-tracking technology to see what parts of the scenes the study participants focused on. Lonely individuals immediately fixated on the negative interactions.  They picked up on signs of potential rejection right away, perhaps better to avoid it and protect themselves.  

See also: How to Grow a Thick Skin and Handle Criticism


This makes sense.  If you’re already feeling vulnerable, you’re naturally on guard for situations that could kick you when you’re down.  But zeroing in on threat means that when you’re lonely, you see potential rejection everywhere.

But here’s the thing: The fears of lonely people don’t play out.  Even though lonely people anticipate rejection, several other studies find they don’t actually get rejected.  Instead, their expectation of rejection leads to avoidance or half-hearted attempts at socializing, which in turn makes others believe they’re simply not interested.  Basically, it’s a big misunderstanding on both sides.

So what to do?...  


All content here is for informational purposes only. This content does not replace the professional judgment of your own mental health provider. Please consult a licensed mental health professional for all individual questions and issues.

About the Author

Ellen Hendriksen, PhD

Dr. Ellen Hendriksen was the host of the Savvy Psychologist podcast from 2014 to 2019. She is a clinical psychologist at Boston University's Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders (CARD). She earned her Ph.D. at UCLA and completed her training at Harvard Medical School. Her scientifically-based, zero-judgment approach is regularly featured in Psychology Today, Scientific American, The Huffington Post, and many other media outlets. Her debut book, HOW TO BE YOURSELF: Quiet Your Inner Critic and Rise Above Social Anxiety, was published in March 2018.