Navigating Loneliness in the Big City: A Therapist's Perspective
Updated: May 22
Loneliness is a universal experience, but it can feel especially present in a big city like New York. It's easy to feel disconnected and isolated, even amidst the hustle and bustle of city life. One of my favorite quotes on loneliness comes from, Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself by Kristin Neff. It goes, "The problem with feeling lonely isn't the loneliness itself, but our judgment of ourselves for feeling lonely. We think something must be wrong with us if we can't find friends or if we feel disconnected from others. But the truth is, loneliness is a natural part of life, and it doesn't mean we're unlovable or unworthy of connection" (Neff, 2015, p. 135).
As a therapist, I've seen firsthand how loneliness can impact an individual's mental health and well-being. So how does one navigate loneliness in a city sprawling with people and experiences? CBT and DBT are here to help!
According to a 2018 survey by the NYC Health Department, about one-third of New York City residents aged 18-24 reported feeling lonely at least some of the time (NYC Health Department, 2019). The survey also found that young adults were likelier to report feeling lonely than any other age group in the city.
Furthermore, a 2019 survey by the Cigna Health Insurance Company found that New York City was the loneliest city in America, with 44% of residents reporting feeling lonely (Cigna, 2019). The survey also found that young adults (aged 18-22) were the loneliest age group in the city, with 61% reporting feeling lonely.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is a form of psychotherapy that helps individuals identify and change negative patterns of thinking and behavior. One technique in CBT is cognitive restructuring, which involves examining and challenging unhelpful thoughts that contribute to loneliness. For example, someone who is experiencing loneliness in the city may have thoughts like " It's impossible for me to make friends in this city" or "No one here understands me." These thoughts can feel very real, but they're not necessarily true. By examining these thoughts, you can reframe them more helpfully. Instead of "I'm never going to make any friends here," you might reframe it as "It may take time to find people I connect with, but I will eventually." By reframing it this way you can feel more optimistic and motivated to connect with others.
Another CBT technique is behavioral activation, which involves engaging in activities that promote positive mood and increase social engagement. When someone feels lonely, they may feel unmotivated to engage in activities, leading to a vicious cycle of isolation. Identifying activities you enjoy and scheduling regular outings is one way to break this cycle. This might include joining a social club, volunteering, or attending community events. The cycle of isolation can be broken through active engagement in enjoyable activities.
Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT) is another form of therapy that can help navigate loneliness. DBT emphasizes the importance of mindfulness, emotional regulation, and interpersonal effectiveness. Mindfulness involves being present in the moment and observing thoughts and emotions without judgment. For someone struggling with loneliness, mindfulness can help them recognize when they're feeling disconnected and identify the thoughts and emotions associated with that feeling. By practicing mindfulness, you can become more aware of your internal experience and be more intentional about seeking out social connections.
Emotional regulation is another key aspect of DBT. Emotions can be intense and overwhelming, especially when feeling lonely. DBT skills like deep breathing and self-soothing can help individuals regulate their emotions and avoid getting caught up in negative thinking patterns. For example, if you’re anxious about attending a social event, you might use deep breathing exercises to calm yourself down and feel more centered. Having an understanding of your emotions and triggers, as well as tools for regulation, can lead to a positive experience.
In conclusion, loneliness in the big city can be a challenging experience, but there are many CBT and DBT techniques that can help. By working with a therapist and practicing these skills, you can develop greater resilience and find meaningful connections in the city. Getting help is a sign of strength, not weakness, and loneliness is a common experience. With support and guidance, you can navigate the challenges of city life and build fulfilling relationships.
Neff, K. (2015). Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself. William Morrow.
NYC Health Department. (2019). New York City Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NYC HANES) 2018. Retrieved from https://www1.nyc.gov/assets/doh/downloads/pdf/epi/NYC-HANES-2018-pressrelease.pdf
Cigna. (2019). Cigna U.S. Loneliness Index. Retrieved from https://www.cigna.com/about-us/newsroom/studies-and-reports/combatting-loneliness/
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