Everyone experiences loneliness at times. But having a mental health issue like bipolar disorder can increase your chances of feeling lonely, and that, in turn, can make your mental health worse.
So how do you halt this damaging cycle?
In a recent webinar hosted by the International Bipolar Foundation, mental health counselor and coach Kathy Lutes shared her insights about bipolar and loneliness — what it really is, how to overcome it and the special challenges faced by those with bipolar disorder.
It’s knowledge she gained not just through years of study but firsthand. In 1995, Lutes was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and spent the next few years in and out of psychiatric hospitals. It was an experience that introduced her to the stigma, isolation and insecurity a mental health diagnosis can bring.
“You find yourself feeling not worthy, less than, like you don’t belong anywhere, and you start making assumptions about what other people think,” she said.
In time, however, Lutes came to understand that by cultivating acceptance, compassion and awareness, healthy connections can be forged and loneliness can be overcome, no matter what life sends your way. Today, she spreads that message as a passionate advocate for those living with mental illness.
“This is one of the most important things I’ve learned: I am the person responsible for my happiness. Nobody else is. Not even my circumstances. … We can’t wait for other people to make us happy because we will suffer for a long time when we do.”
Challenging Our Stories
The first step in the process, Lutes said, is understanding what loneliness really is. It’s not necessarily being physically alone. You can be lonely in a room full of people, she said. Instead, “loneliness is perceived social isolation, or the discrepancy between what you want from your social relationships and your perception of those relationships.” And the key word here, she said, is “perception” — the stories you tell yourself about that gap.
For example, do you find yourself thinking that people must not want to be around you when your phone doesn’t ring or a text isn’t returned right away, or do you assume they’re simply busy? Do you tell yourself that because a person said no to an invitation once that they’ll always do so, or do you keep trying?
It’s crucial to pay attention to your perceptions and challenge them, Lutes emphasized, rather than defaulting to the negative.
Consistent loneliness should also be understood as a cue that something is amiss that needs to be addressed, she said. And for those with bipolar disorder, that begins with recognizing that the illness comes with challenges for everyone in the relationship.
- Mood instability. “Sometimes we are feeling great,” Lutes said. “Then we change on a dime. So that’s hard for our friends, but it’s hard for us too because we don’t know what we’re going to wake up feeling like.”
- Lack of energy and depression in a depressive stage. For her, Lutes said, that sometimes means an inability to do much of anything. “That’s pretty tough for a relationship. And it tends to make us isolate. Meanwhile, our friends don’t understand why we aren’t calling them back.”
- Distorted thinking. “I describe bipolar disorder as living in a room full of mirrors because everything was about me. I spent so much thinking about how bad I felt that I was missing out on so many other things. I took things very personally. … Maybe that’s unique to me, but I think that’s a struggle we sometimes have. And that makes me not as available to the people I’m in a relationship with.”
- Anxiety. This is not only the anxiety that can come with a diagnosis but the anxiety others feel for us, Lutes said. “If we’ve been suicidal or made suicide attempts, it’s really scary for them when we isolate or we don’t call them back. It’s a challenge we need to be aware of.”
- Feeling misunderstood. “If you haven’t experienced bipolar disorder, you really can’t understand it,” Lutes said. “We can do our best to educate others and help them understand, but that continual sense of not being understood is one of the things that is really injurious to us and why we need to find good support in our lives.”
Moving Away From Loneliness
Once these challenges are recognized and understood, it then becomes easier to take steps to overcome loneliness and keep it at bay. Among the actions that help, Lutes said:
Stick to your treatment plan. “Stay on your medication. Stay in touch with your therapist. If your medications aren’t working, get in touch with your psychiatrist to get those right. Do what you need to do to take care of yourself. … You will feel better. You will feel more stable. That’s one of the things that will help you most.”
Be willing to initiate socializing. This is tough, Lutes said, because we all fear rejection. “But if you don’t reach out then you could miss out on some of the best relationships of your life. It’s scary, but really think about this: Why are you so afraid somebody won’t like you?”
Build on your circle of friends. Consider volunteering, take a class, become a dog walker, join a club or organization — whatever interests you. And put your focus where it is valued. “I found myself spending a lot of time trying to get people who didn’t like me to like me,” Lutes said, “instead of focusing on the people who did like me and spending more time there.”
Know yourself. What is happening when you feel lonely? Are you by yourself? With certain people? Away from certain people? What is happening when your loneliness goes away? By answering these questions, you’ll better understand what’s driving your feelings. The next step is simple: Try to do more of what helps and less of what hurts.
Don’t let social media substitute for real relationships. And be wary of comparison, Lutes said. Remember, you’re seeing a sanitized “greatest hits” version of someone’s life on that Facebook feed, not reality. In short, she said, “Don’t compare your inside to someone else’s outside.”
Resist self-focus. Become aware of how you interact with others. For example, when you have conversations, are they usually about you? Looking beyond your own concerns not only helps take you out of your own troubles, it makes you a better friend.
Set realistic expectations. “Know that people will disappoint you,” Lutes said, “but not everyone. So if you’ve had some bad encounters and allow those things to keep you from ever reaching out again or having another friend, you’ve hurt yourself.” Be the kind of friend you want, and remember not to expect that everyone will love you, or always act the way you want, or do things the way you like, or know what you’re thinking, Lutes said. “And don’t expect them to always be OK. That’s important because we tend to look at other people and think they don’t have problems, but everyone has something in their life.”
Be aware of distorted thinking. It can take many forms, Lutes said: all-or-nothing thinking in which we see ourselves as failures because we fall short of perfection; disqualifying the positive, in which we dwell only on the negative, and much more. Remember, by paying attention to the stories you tell yourself about why you are lonely, you can prevent yourself from making situations unnecessarily worse.
Spend time on your self-esteem. “One of the things we need to do to be connected with other people is to like ourself,” Lutes said. And that feeling can take a hit with a mental health diagnosis. “It’s that sense that we have failed in some way that really takes away our confidence,” said Lutes, who admits that she lived for years in self-loathing. “Think about what you are telling yourself. … Remind yourself that you are still the same person. Your diagnosis may have made life more difficult but you haven’t changed.”
Brush up on your social skills. If you need help learning how to communicate with others, check out a book on the subject or avail yourself of the many self-help options online. Practice conversations in front of the mirror. If you feel you’re dealing with a social phobia or social anxiety, get professional help to overcome it.
Connect with yourself. Time alone doesn’t have to be lonely. “What are the things you like to think about when you are alone? What are the things you like to do? Perhaps you like to paint, so paint when you’re by yourself. It will help improve the quality of your life,” Lutes said. Alone time can also be used as a quiet moment to connect with God or a sense of spirituality.
Have a plan. When you’re depressed, being alone can be dangerous and it is wise to recognize that, Lutes said. “We begin to get in a spiral of telling ourselves a story. We think, ‘Nobody loves me. I don’t belong. Nobody ever invites me to anything.’” Our inner critic, she said, that voice that agrees with all the negative things we think about ourselves, can go unchallenged. “So that’s when you want to have a plan: Call somebody, walk outside, go to the store, interact with another person.” You can and should take on that voice, Lutes said, but allow yourself to invite others to be on your side.
Try opposite action. This is a technique from dialectical behavioral therapy, Lutes explained. For example, when you find yourself wanting to be alone, do the opposite — go be with people. “It can help you begin to get unstuck.”
Encourage other people. “Here’s the gift in that: When you encourage other people, it’s amazing how much you’ll feel encouraged yourself.”
Creating Healthy Perspectives
Although it takes commitment to fight off loneliness, it’s worth every effort, not only for our happiness but for our health. Loneliness has been linked to physical problems and cognitive decline and is a risk factor in early death. Research even shows that loneliness can trigger cellular changes that cause illness. We are meant to connect. Why else would solitary confinement be reserved as the ultimate punishment, Lutes noted?
The key thing to remember regarding our feelings of loneliness, Lutes said, is that so much of it has to do with our perception of it.
The reality, she said, is “you are stronger than you know and you are more capable than you ever dreamed and you are loved more than you can ever imagine. … Remind yourself every day you can do this, little steps at a time.”