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Alcohol and Mental Health

7 Science-Backed Ways To Deal With Loneliness

October 5, 2023
20 min read
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Reframe Content Team
A team of researchers and psychologists who specialize in behavioral health and neuroscience. This group collaborates to produce insightful and evidence-based content.
October 5, 2023
20 min read
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Certified recovery coach specialized in helping everyone redefine their relationship with alcohol. His approach in coaching focuses on habit formation and addressing the stress in our lives.
October 5, 2023
20 min read
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Recognized by Fortune and Fast Company as a top innovator shaping the future of health and known for his pivotal role in helping individuals change their relationship with alcohol.
October 5, 2023
20 min read
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Reframe Content Team
October 5, 2023
20 min read

Picture an office lunchroom buzzing with chatter and clinking cutlery. Groups of coworkers discuss the latest episode of a hit TV series or vent about office politics. But there's one person seated alone, scrolling through their phone, creating an invisible barrier. They feel lonely, even amid the hum of social interaction. 

When loneliness hits, especially while trying to decrease our alcohol intake or quit altogether, it can seem insurmountable. So how can we navigate this tricky emotion? 

Loneliness: Not Just a State of Mind

Often perceived as a simple emotional response, loneliness is a complex human experience that can have substantial impacts on both mental and physical well-being. Loneliness is generally understood as a disconnect between the relationships we have and those we desire. It's not just about being physically alone; loneliness can affect anyone, regardless of whether they're surrounded by people. But what makes this feeling more than just an emotional state? Science offers some compelling insights.

The Brain on Loneliness

Loneliness is not merely an emotional state; it has neurological underpinnings, too. Research suggests that lonely people exhibit heightened sensitivity to social threats, a survival mechanism inherited from our ancestors. For example, imagine you're at a social gathering where you don't know many people, and you're feeling lonely. You overhear someone laugh after you walk by. Because your brain is in a state of heightened sensitivity to social threats due to loneliness, you immediately assume they are laughing at you, even though there’s a far better chance they’re laughing about something entirely unrelated to you. 

The brain's vigilant state keeps lonely people on edge, triggering elevated stress hormones like cortisol. This condition, known as "hypervigilance," primes the brain for fight-or-flight responses, which were useful for our ancestors but can be harmful when sustained over time.

Loneliness: Mental Health Impacts

The long-term effects of loneliness on mental health are far-reaching. Elevated cortisol levels can lead to sleep disturbances, a key factor in developing mental health issues such as anxiety and depression. Loneliness can also impair cognitive functions, including concentration and decision-making, and it can even lead to more severe mental health conditions like chronic depression and suicidal tendencies. Research has shown that the mortality risk linked to loneliness is on par with other risk factors like obesity and substance abuse, making it a serious issue that needs more public attention.

Loneliness and Physical Health

Surprisingly, the consequences of loneliness extend beyond the realm of mental health and into the body’s physical systems. Persistent loneliness has been linked to cardiovascular diseases, including hypertension and heart failure. When we’re lonely, we remain in a constant state of stress, which elevates our blood pressure and weakens our immune system, making us susceptible to a host of diseases.

A meta-analytic review involving several studies has shown that loneliness can increase the risk of premature death by up to 26%. Another study found that loneliness is linked to inflammation, which is implicated in a wide range of health issues, from diabetes to cancer.

When Loneliness Becomes Chronic

While experiencing loneliness occasionally is a normal part of the human condition, chronic loneliness is a different ball game. Chronic loneliness can be both a cause and a consequence of other mental health issues, creating a vicious cycle that is difficult to break. The extended activation of stress hormones disrupts the body’s natural cycles, affecting everything from hormone levels to the digestive system. In severe cases, it can lead to long-term health issues, both mental and physical.

In sum, loneliness is a significant issue that brings with it a series of domino-like effects impacting mental and physical health. However, it's not an unconquerable challenge; there are scientifically-backed ways to address and mitigate its effects. While the emotional toll of loneliness is often discussed, its far-reaching health impacts make combating this emotional state vital for our overall well-being.

Loneliness vs. Solitude: Two Sides of the Same Coin?

While both loneliness and solitude involve being alone, they're far from synonymous. Loneliness is an emotional state characterized by a sense of isolation and an unfulfilled desire for social connection. It's often involuntary, increasing its negative emotional toll. In contrast, solitude is usually a voluntary state of being alone without feeling lonely, often providing the space for self-reflection, relaxation, or engaging in activities that we enjoy. In solitude, the absence of others is not perceived as a deficit but as an opportunity for personal growth or simple relaxation.

Interestingly, the same neural pathways are activated during both loneliness and solitude, but the subjective experience varies significantly. Loneliness triggers stress responses, elevating cortisol levels, while solitude can reduce stress, offering a chance for the mind and body to relax. The key difference lies in our perception: solitude becomes enriching or rejuvenating because it is a chosen state, often pursued for positive reasons like introspection or recovery. On the other hand, loneliness is something that happens to us, often accompanied by feelings of helplessness. Understanding this distinction is crucial for mental well-being because what the mind perceives, the body manifests.

Loneliness in Alcohol Reduction or Sobriety

Changing our drinking habits is a commendable endeavor, often motivated by the pursuit of better physical and mental health, improved relationships, and overall well-being. However, the road to this goal is seldom linear. Along the way, almost all of us encounter various bumps and detours. One issue that may arise is loneliness, since the absence of alcohol magnifies feelings of isolation and disconnection.

Social Fabric and the Alcohol Thread

Many social activities are interwoven with alcohol consumption — parties, happy hours, tailgating, and simple gatherings with friends and family. Changing our relationship with alcohol can disrupt this social fabric. Refusing a drink can lead to questions and raised eyebrows. It's as if the mere act of saying no to a cocktail shifts the perception of us within our social circle. This change can range from subtle shifts in interaction to overt invitations for us to explain our decision, often putting us on the spot and increasing feelings of alienation.

Dopamine: The Neurochemistry of Loneliness

Alcohol acts as a quick and easy trigger for our brain’s release of dopamine, the neurotransmitter associated with pleasure and reward. When alcohol is taken away, a dopamine “drought” can occur, leaving a sense of emptiness in its wake. This absence often exacerbates feelings of loneliness. This reaction is not just psychological but also physiological. The brain craves the missing dopamine rush, and may interpret its absense as a form of loss, further elevating feelings of isolation.

Digital Screens as Faux Companions

When avoiding social events due to the alcohol trigger, it's tempting to seek refuge in the digital world. Digital devices offer a semblance of connection through social media and constant messages — but they can paradoxically contribute to feelings of loneliness. A “like” on a social media post does not replace the depth of a face-to-face conversation. The lack of genuine interaction can create a feedback loop, amplifying loneliness but offering no real solution.

Compounding Factors: Stigma and Misunderstanding

As we cut back on alcohol (or quit), we may also encounter misunderstanding or even stigmatization, especially if our decision to do so defies cultural or social norms. "What, you're not drinking? Are you okay?" Such questions may be well-intentioned, but they compound feelings of loneliness by creating a sense of otherness, of being different in a way that attracts scrutiny or pity.

The Role of Self-Compassion

Amid this complex interplay of social dynamics and neurochemistry, self-compassion becomes critical. Recognizing that the feeling of loneliness is a common human experience can alleviate some of its weight. It's not a sign of failure but a part of the challenging path toward a healthier lifestyle. Acknowledging this can be the first step out of loneliness as we cut back or quit. 

Loneliness will come up on this path but recognizing it for what it is — a temporary state shaped by various internal and external factors — can arm us with the insight and resilience needed to continue toward our ultimate destination: a healthier, more fulfilling life.

How To Deal With Loneliness: 7 Science-Backed Tips

Just as science explains what happens to our brains and bodies as a result of loneliness, it also provides effective coping mechanisms. Let’s take a look at seven of them. 

1. Engage in Physical Activity

Physical activity is more than just a regimen to burn calories; it’s a holistic approach to uplift our mood and keep loneliness at bay. When we exercise, our body releases endorphins — “happy hormones” — which act as natural mood lifters. For beginners in the world of fitness, there's no need to start with rigorous exercises. A simple 10-minute walk around the neighborhood can do wonders for the mind and soul. The trick is to make it a habit.

As your stamina builds, consider pushing your boundaries a bit — maybe by building up to a 30-minute jog or a quick swim. For those seeking social camaraderie, joining a group exercise class can kill two birds with one stone: staying fit while enjoying a social environment. Sports like badminton or tennis also offer an excellent way to mix physical activity with social interaction.

2. Cultivate Creativity

While loneliness can feel like an emotional burden, it can also serve as a catalyst for creativity. Creative activities provide an outlet for emotions that are otherwise hard to express. Whether it’s painting, writing, cooking, or playing a musical instrument, the act of creating something can be immensely fulfilling.

Community centers often offer art classes that not only help refine our artistic skills but also provide a platform for social interaction. For those who prefer the digital realm, there are numerous online platforms where we can share writing, photographs, or digital art. The point is to externalize the feelings, thus reducing their internal emotional weight.

3. Embrace Mindfulness and Meditation

Mindfulness and meditation practices are gaining global recognition for their numerous psychological benefits, one of which is combating loneliness. These practices teach the art of living in the “now,” helping reduce the ruminative thoughts that often accompany loneliness. The Reframe app offers several guided meditation exercises, which make it easier for beginners to adopt this healthy habit.

Just a few minutes each day can result in a significant reduction in stress and loneliness. These techniques teach us how to acknowledge feelings without judgment, an essential step in tackling loneliness. When observed neutrally, loneliness often loses its power, leaving peace and acceptance instead.

4. Foster Animal Companionship

Animals have a unique way of offering unconditional love and companionship, qualities that can alleviate feelings of loneliness. For those of us with the resources and time, adopting or fostering a pet can bring about a profound sense of companionship. Pets, particularly dogs and cats, often seem attuned to human emotions and can provide comfort during solitary times.

But what if pet ownership is out of the question due to lifestyle constraints or allergies? Animal companionship is still accessible. Volunteering at local animal shelters offers the joy of interacting with animals and gives the additional satisfaction of making a positive impact. Not only do these moments produce a surge of oxytocin — commonly known as the "love hormone" — but helping animals find their forever homes can be uniquely fulfilling.

5. Revisit and Reconnect

Many of us know people who’ve impacted our lives but have drifted away due to various circumstances. Reconnecting with these people can serve as a valuable emotional anchor — and it can be as simple as sending a thoughtful message or making a quick call. Start by listing out friends or family members who have been meaningful at different stages of life: childhood friends, college roommates, or former colleagues. A simple "Hey, how have you been?" can be the catalyst for reigniting a supportive and emotionally fulfilling relationship.

6. Seek Intergenerational Insights

There’s something enriching about conversing with people who are in different life stages. Elderly individuals can offer wisdom and life lessons that come only with experience, while younger people bring a fresh, unjaded perspective to the table. Many local communities and organizations offer mentorship or "buddy" programs that facilitate these intergenerational interactions. Such relationships provide the dual benefits of enriching our perspective and reducing feelings of loneliness. Through sharing stories, challenges, and wisdom, we can mutually benefit and create a rewarding relationship.

7. Find Virtual Communities With Shared Interests

The internet isn’t just for scrolling through news feeds and watching videos; it’s a treasure trove of communities based on shared interests. Whether it’s photography, hiking, vintage cars, or cooking, there's likely a forum or a social media group dedicated to it. Joining these online communities can offer a sense of belonging and an avenue for meaningful interaction without even leaving the house. These platforms provide a space to share experiences, seek advice, and even form connections that transition into the real world. Be sure to check out our Forum and daily community meetings on the Reframe app, where you can connect with others on a similar journey. 

There's Light at the End of the Tunnel

Incorporating these diverse strategies makes it possible to replace the ache of loneliness with various forms of connection and fulfillment. The nonjudgmental companionship of a pet, the emotional depth of rekindled relationships, the wisdom of intergenerational conversations, or the shared enthusiasm of virtual communities — each strategy offers a unique pathway out of loneliness. Taking action, even small actions, imbues our lives with a multi-dimensional sense of belonging and emotional well-being.

Summary FAQs

1. Does exercise really help in reducing loneliness?

Yes, exercise is proven to release endorphins, which act as mood lifters. Even a simple 10-minute walk can have a positive impact on your emotional well-being, and joining group activities can provide a social component.

2. How can creative activities help alleviate loneliness?

Engaging in creative activities like painting, writing, or cooking provides an emotional outlet and a sense of purpose. Plus, joining community art classes or online platforms can offer opportunities for social interaction.

3. What is mindfulness, and how can it combat loneliness?

Mindfulness involves focusing on the present moment, reducing stress, and alleviating feelings of loneliness. Apps like Reframe offer guided sessions that can help you practice mindfulness in just a few minutes each day.

4. Can pets really help in reducing feelings of loneliness?

Absolutely! Pets offer unconditional love and companionship. If owning a pet isn’t an option, volunteering at an animal shelter can offer similar emotional benefits.

5. Is it beneficial to reconnect with old friends and family?

Reconnecting with people who have been important in different life stages can provide a valuable emotional anchor. Even a simple message can reignite meaningful and supportive relationships.

6. What are the benefits of spending time with people from different age groups?

Interacting with people from different generations can offer fresh perspectives and reduce feelings of loneliness. Many communities offer mentorship programs to facilitate interactions.

7. How can joining online communities based on interests help?

Online communities offer a sense of belonging and can be a rich source of social interaction. They provide a platform to share experiences, seek advice, and even form real-world connections.

Build Healthier Drinking Habits With Reframe

Although it isn’t a treatment for alcohol use disorder (AUD), the Reframe app can help you cut back on drinking gradually, with the science-backed knowledge to empower you 100% of the way. Our proven program has helped millions of people around the world drink less and live more. And we want to help you get there, too!

The Reframe app equips you with the knowledge and skills you need to not only survive drinking less, but to thrive while you navigate the journey. Our daily research-backed readings teach you the neuroscience of alcohol, and our in-app Toolkit provides the resources and activities you need to navigate each challenge.

You’ll meet millions of fellow Reframers in our 24/7 Forum chat and daily Zoom check-in meetings. Receive encouragement from people worldwide who know exactly what you’re going through! You’ll also have the opportunity to connect with our licensed Reframe coaches for more personalized guidance.

Plus, we’re always introducing new features to optimize your in-app experience. We recently launched our in-app chatbot, Melody, powered by the world’s most powerful AI technology. Melody is here to help as you adjust to a life with less (or no) alcohol.

And that’s not all! Every month, we launch fun challenges, like Dry/Damp January, Mental Health May, and Outdoorsy June. You won’t want to miss out on the chance to participate alongside fellow Reframers (or solo if that’s more your thing!).

The Reframe app is free for 7 days, so you don’t have anything to lose by trying it. Are you ready to feel empowered and discover life beyond alcohol? Then download our app through the App Store or Google Play today!

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At Reframe, we do science, not stigma. We base our articles on the latest peer-reviewed research in psychology, neuroscience, and behavioral science. We follow the Reframe Content Creation Guidelines, to ensure that we share accurate and actionable information with our readers. This aids them in making informed decisions on their wellness journey.
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