Written By: Stephanie Marquart of Living Roots Counseling
As a mental health therapist having recently moved to the scruffy city of Knoxville, I know that the struggle to build community, get plugged-in, and stave off loneliness can be real – even more so when find yourself in a brand new city! It’s no wonder American Psychologist discovered back in 2017 that lacking social connection is as dangerous as smoking up to 15 cigarettes a day. And this study was before the pandemic 😳 But don’t worry, we’ve got this.
In honor of Mental Health Awareness Month, here are 5 tips and tools to help combat loneliness. Mix some perseverance and commitment with a dash of self-love, you’ll be well on your way to connection.
1.) Slow Down & Tune-In
In a culture that masks behind the societal safety of productivity, the illusion of multitasking, and the dash against time, it’s almost as though we’re running from something. Feelings? Haven’t met ’em 😉 Don’t get me wrong, I love achieving as much as the next high-functioning-slightly-anxious-boss-lady gal, but it’s equally important (I could argue far more important) to practice slowing down and tuning-in to our internal experience.
So let’s start with the basics: Check-in with yourself, get vulnerable, and acknowledge what you’re feeling. Contrary to the impulse to stay conveniently productive, tuning-in to your feelings is an empowering experience and the ultimate first step.
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2.) Get Out and Get Awkward
This next tip isn’t a revelation but it caaan be far harder to put into practice. We need to get out and get plugged-in. You ready? Ask yourself these questions: What do I care about? What sparks joy? What’s an interest I’ve had lately or something I would like to know more about? And y’all, Knoxville is brimming with opportunity.
Start with what you already know about yourself. If you have a dog or love animals, go to the dog park or volunteer at the animal shelter. (In fact, here are some dog-friendly businesses to enjoy afterward!) If you enjoy reading, find a book club. (Fable Hollow and Knox Brew Hub both have some!) If you love being out and about in Knoxville, join a New2Knox Hop (shoutout to my Team Yellow Brew Hop!).
Pursuing new community can feel a lot like being the new kid at recess. You will feel a bit uncomfortable at first. It may feel a bit forced. That is okay. Don’t let that discomfort stop you from trying something new. It’s part of the process. Embrace the awkward. Know that it does get easier, and be proud that you are showing up for yourself.
3.) Be Mindful with Your Device
Real talk – I’m not about to tell y’all that you need to throw your phones into the Tennessee River. But here’s what I will say: let’s nurture a mindful relationship with our devices. In a healthy place, our phones can be a powerful tool to help bridge the gap between isolation and connection. We can use social media to help us find resources to get plugged-in face-to-face, meet people with similar interests, and ultimately feel less alone. When we’re not mindful, our phones can become a self-fulfilling cycle of imposter syndrome, isolation, and paralysis.
Muscle memory has us instinctively picking up our phones, checking emails & texts, and mindlessly scrolling before we’re even present. Start being aware of the difference between avoidant self-soothing versus intentional connection. With each screen check and scroll, try asking yourself what you hope to get out of that interaction… before your device decides for you
As a mental health therapist having recently moved to the scruffy city, I know that the struggle to build community, get plugged-in, and stave off loneliness can be real!
4.) Give It Time
There’s no quick fix for community! Throughout childhood and teenage development, we’re often placed in structures that offer a built-in (admittedly, still challenging) network. There wasn’t a class that taught us how to build community as adults. There certainly wasn’t one that could’ve prepped us for the (*shudder*) pandemic’s unprecedented social challenges. This is new territory; it’s okay if you don’t feel like an expert at it. Be kind to yourself when that discomfort pops up.
Most problems we face are followed by advertisements offering quick solutions. By pressing a few buttons, we’re told we can solve almost anything. Wishing there was a quick fix to loneliness and a fast track to community makes sense. But connection takes time. There are different stages and depths. So be gentle with yourself, give it time, and know new friendships don’t have to be all or nothing.
5.) Don’t Be Afraid to Initiate Your Own Support
Hear me out: I know that as a mental health therapist I may be biased, but I’m a firm believer that everyone needs support. When struggling with loneliness, it’s common to experience negative self-talk that leaves us believing we’re unwanted. You can imagine how this becomes a self-perpetuating cycle. And guess what? We all experience it.
Instead of allowing those lonely feelings and discouraging thoughts to perpetuate the cycle of isolation, use them instead as cues to initiate support, communicate how you feel, and ask for what you need. Make a phone call home, invite your neighbor over for an impromptu front porch coffee, or reconnect with an old friend. When we recognize our thoughts and feelings inform us but do not define us, it’s really liberating.
At times, we even need a little extra support. (That’s right, shameless plug for therapy coming your way!) Sometimes, we just don’t know where to start. As a therapist who is also at times the client, I truly believe that we can all benefit from a neutral sounding board, a holding space that requires nothing in return, and a bit of professional guidance to help us work through whatever life throws our way.
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I hope you feel armored with a bit of encouragement, a knowledge that you aren’t alone in your feelings of loneliness, and a bravery to put these tools into action. And just for a final little nudge, simply sharing this article with a friend could be the bridge to a meaningful conversation. Did I mention that it’s Mental Health Awareness Month??? You got this!