Whether overworked and losing touch with friends or in new surroundings and feeling isolated, many young professionals feel lonely at times.

If that’s you, the more your understand those less-than-welcome emotions, the more successful you're likely to be in conquering them. Read on for tips to help you de-mystify loneliness, find strategies to feel better, and identify when you might need professional help to do so.

Common responses to loneliness: Does this sound like you?

Social researchers have found that people typically respond to loneliness in three major ways. Do these sound familiar? From least healthful to most, these common responses are:

1. Denial or withdrawal: Crying, drug or alcohol abuse, overeating, watching excessive amounts of television. These activities draw you away from the positive parts of your life, and will actually drain you of the energy you need in order to overcome of loneliness.

2. Social contact: Calling or visiting friends and relatives, or just going out into public situations to seek interactions with others. This response definitely gets to the core of social loneliness, but if the feelings stem from a deeper emotional level, just being around people may not be enough.

3. Increased activity: Distracting yourself with exercise, shopping, work, or any creative endeavor. This is generally a healthy response to loneliness, and can often be a productive way to work through it.

Positive strategies for powering through lonely times

Sometimes your default reaction isn't the best reaction. If you’re lonely and your strategy isn’t helping—or is outright harmful—try one of these instead:

  • Change your routine. Your loneliness may be related to a feeling of monotony in your daily life. Start going to a new restaurant for lunch every Monday, or look up a few different routes to take to work. You’d be surprised how loneliness, unlike depression, is unlikely to follow you to new places and behaviors.
  • Avoid nostalgia. It may be tempting to revisit fond memories, but keep the hidden shoe box of mementos hidden. When you talk to friends, don’t let the conversation linger on the good times gone by, but rather focus on making plans or discussing current events and interests. If you’re stuck in the past, the comparisons can make your present loneliness seem falsely insurmountable.
  • Don’t get caught up in questions. Constantly asking yourself why things aren’t better or what your problem is will do you little good. Instead, focus on accepting loneliness as a temporary visitor and empower yourself by working through answers.
  • Volunteer. Taking on activities that benefit others will help you forge new connections with people and help you feel better about yourself. It can even be a career move for you, especially if your field lends itself to nonprofit involvement. You’ll stay busy and help others—and replace time spent feeling lonely with time spent improving your own self-value.
  • Write. As one who would much rather type than pick up a pen, I love 750words.com. It’s a fun, daily on-line writing exercise that saves your entries without sharing them, and its email reminders and real-time word count alerts help keep even the less motivated feeling engaged. Of course, pen and paper work as well! Whatever the medium, just getting your thoughts out of the crowded space of a lonely mind can help, through short stories, poetry, or journaling.
  • Loneliness... or depression?

    For many, bouts of loneliness are occasional and short-lived. But for long-term sufferers, it can be difficult to draw the line between “just lonely” and depressed.

    Depression and loneliness, while sometimes overlapping, are distinct and different states.The relationship between them is a complicated and well-recognized topic—it's been addressed in everything from memoirs to research studies. A few key factors can help you make the distinction:

    • Duration. Depression will stay over a period of time. But loneliness can be occasional or chronic, so duration alone is not an adequate warning sign of depression.
    • Breadth of concerns. People suffering from depression are often distressed by global concerns and tend to put less emphasis on personal relationships than those dealing with loneliness.
    • Co-occurring emotions. Guilt, anxiety, or feelings of worthlessness are a third identifying feature of depression, and are much less common among lonely people.
    • If you suspect you may be suffering from depression, make an appointment with your doctor or a mental health professional and share your concerns. Help and support is easier to get than you might think. If you're contemplating the severity of your situation, WebMD's Depression Health Center is a good place to start.

      Being alone does not mean feeling lonely

      Above all, remember that loneliness is relative. What you consider to be a deficit in social contact may be the result of a (temporarily) skewed perception of how many relationships other people have, or how many friends you “should” have when you’re new to a place. Appreciate the transition phases for what they are, and the loneliness that can naturally occur during such times, and you’ll soon realize that when it comes to feeling lonely, you’re absolutely not alone.

      Photo courtesy of Maciej Meller.