Imagine yourself at a gathering. Big or small, it doesn’t matter (because with anxiety, even the smallest things can seem gigantic). Perhaps it’s a family get-together, coffee with acquaintances, a meeting, or a pancake feed for your kids’ school. You’re there, others are there, and your anxiety is there. How do you feel?
Perhaps your mind races with thoughts of worry and what-ifs and worst-case scenarios. Surely something is going to happen to negatively affect your life or someone else’s. You’ll be judged to be ridiculously incompetent. Will you be fired, laughed at or ostracized? Will your kids be laughed at or shunned by teachers? Your thoughts spiral out of control, threatening to take the rest of you with them. Maybe you sweat, tremble, feel sick or get sick. Whatever your anxiety symptoms, they’re likely miserable.
Anxiety Can Cause Loneliness
It’s understandable why someone with anxiety would want to avoid this. Avoiding unpleasant situations does seem like a logical way to manage anxiety; unfortunately, however, it doesn’t work and can actually make anxiety increasingly worse.
Here’s what happens: We want and need to reduce our anxiety. With any type of anxiety disorder, being around other people can cause anxiety to skyrocket. Therefore, we isolate. We pull away from people and uncomfortable situations in order to keep our anxiety in check. We stay home, often alone. If there are times we have to be among others, we distance ourselves as much as possible.
Keeping to ourselves all the time means we are by ourselves all the time. That’s lonely.
Loneliness Can Cause Anxiety
Loneliness and isolation don’t feel good. With no one to talk to, to share with, to laugh with, humans begin to wither. We’re meant to be social creatures and we need human contact. Without it, depression is very common. Further, rather than decreasing, our anxiety often worsens. The longer we stay away from the world, the more frightening and anxiety-provoking it becomes to venture forth among other people.
It’s a vicious cycle. Anxiety makes us feel awful and we begin to loathe or even fear to be with others. We isolate ourselves to feel better. But then we begin to feel very lonely and we feel worse. We’d like to ease our loneliness but the mere thought of trying makes our anxiety skyrocket, so we remain isolated. And the beasts of anxiety and loneliness feed off each other, growing more powerful while we shrink.
Tips for Decreasing Both Anxiety and Loneliness
Anxiety creates untrustworthy thoughts and keeps us stuck in our own heads. The key to breaking this cycle of anxiety and loneliness is to get out of our heads and into the world. This is, of course, much easier said than done. However, even though it’s difficult, it can be done. Here are a few ways to begin the process of ending isolation.
- Start small. You don’t have to jump into a crowded pool with both feet. Define one goal and plan small steps you can take to get there.
- Reach out to one person. Be it an acquaintance, friend, family member, neighbor, coworker or whomever; choose one person to connect with. Say hello. Make eye contact. Strike up a conversation (mentioning a current event or something about the person both work well). Focus on getting to know this one person before adding more.
- Volunteer or join a group. Put yourself in situations where you can be around people who share common interests with you. When people are busy, you can be too so you don’t feel like all eyes are on you. You can occupy yourself safely while observing others and finding people you’d like to approach.
- Give yourself an out. It can be extremely anxiety-provoking to be in a situation where you can’t leave and where you feel trapped. Give yourself permission to leave when you need to. For example, if you are at a family gathering and are often anxious at these things, promise yourself that you’ll stay for half an hour (or even less if you need it to be less). When that time is up, you can leave. Sometimes people surprise themselves and decide to stay longer. Knowing that you have an out can reduce anxiety enough to help you get by.
- Quality is more important than quantity. Television, movies and advertising sometimes make it seem that everyone in the world has dozens of friends. That’s not actually the case. It’s more common for people to have a small number of friends. Focus on building a quality relationship with one or just a few people.
So often when we live with anxiety, we want to be alone to decrease those anxious feelings. But isolation makes people lonely and loneliness increases anxiety. If you feel trapped in this cycle, recognize that it’s pretty common and you’re not alone. Know, too, that you can break the cycle.