If you're someone who has moved overseas for a job or studies, you will be away from family and friends for months or even years. It is in times like these, that you either find yourself establishing new support systems or succumbing to feelings of isolation and loneliness. Being an international student in Canada, I have had my fair share of loneliness. But thankfully, early on in those past three years I was able to overcome my sense of isolation with the help of my wonderful Canadian support system, especially my roommate and her amazing family.
However, this summer when I moved to Jakarta for an internship, not only did culture shock make a comeback but loneliness reared its ugly head as well. Since I was going to be living in Jakarta for only three months, it became hard to establish stable support systems. And for the first time, I was completely by myself. I made friends, but there were times when being my sense of loneliness became overwhelming. But I made it through. So I decided to catalogue my journey in 10 steps that could help you:
1. Mum always said, "Brush thy teeth, clean thy nose and wash thy face"
Although good words cool more than cold water, sometimes you need the cold water to jolt you back to life. There have been times where I was too tired or emotionally drained to think happy thoughts and sometimes a cold water shower was all I needed to bring me back to my senses. If you can't take a shower, an easier alternative is just brushing your teeth, cleaning your nose and washing your face with cold water instead. It sounds silly, but it works on everything from loneliness to being physically exhausted.
2. Put your shine on
You might have heard this one before, but putting on that red lipstick or treating yourself to that expensive meal will pull you through that one unexpected day of loneliness. Being alone can make it seem like you are lonely, but sometimes it is just your mind playing tricks on you. So doing something for yourself will help you break out of a vicious spiral of negativity on days where nothing seems to be going right.
"It doesn't occur to us that we need to practice emotional first aid just like we practice physical first aid when we get a cut."
3. Jump on your bed - but don't break it!
Not too long ago, I had a bad day at work and the next morning all I wanted to do was stay in bed and sulk. It was easier to feel sorry for myself than getting out of bed. But after realising that feeling sorry wasn't going to change anything and not particularly wanting to be productive either, I decided to have some fun with my "bed situation" -- I jumped! By the end of it I was laughing at how depressed I had been. As adults, we often forget what it's like to be a kid and the simple joys that come with it -- from jumping on the bed to eating a popsicle on a sunny day. Going back to a childlike state of "not thinking" has helped me get through slumps of prolonged loneliness. Here's a short article from Psychology Today that is worth reading on the subject.
4. How would you advise a friend to overcome loneliness? Do it yourself!
Sometimes when we're lonely we feel compelled to isolate ourselves even further, making the situation worse. It is in times like these that we need to think of what we would do for a friend or loved one in that situation. You would do everything in your power to help them feel alright again, right? So why not practice self-love when we need it the most? We forget, all too often, about loving ourselves on the good as well as the bad days. It is in times like these, where you need to give yourself a big hug. Imagine that you are advising a friend on how to overcome loneliness -- and then just do it. I remember in the midst of writing this article I had forgotten to take my own advice!
5. Sometimes all you need is a good cry
Sometimes we dam up all our emotions and fears. However, even the biggest of reservoirs can only hold a certain threshold of water. Unless we let the flood gates open once in a while, the dam is bound to crack. Crying it out will give a release to all that pressure that has been building up. After a good cry, you would have taken away the emotional frustrations and can look at things in a more level-headed way.
6. Meditate your fears away
Clearing your head of thoughts, random or negative, can help one look at things clearly. Whenever I am stressed about an exam or feeling lonely, I do Yognidra or meditation, and it really helps me clear my head of all thoughts. With a clear head, I not only feel lighter but also ready to take on the next challenge.
"Loneliness creates deep wounds, distorts perceptions and affects our thinking. Research says that loneliness won't just make you miserable, it will kill you."
7. Call up a friend and reminiscence about happy times
This works for everyone living away from friends and family. Skype and FaceTime are the greatest inventions of our time, allowing us to interact with our loved ones on a daily basis. So take advantage of your lonely time to call up your best friend or your cousin and just have a good laugh about that family video you made or that time you marathon-watched Lord of the Rings. And while reminiscing about the past, don't forget to make future plans that involve more fun times together.
8. Do not have caffeine!
Even a modest amount of caffeine can actually affect depression and anxiety. Caffeine affects sleep, which in turn affects your mood. At times, when I am having a bad day, instead of having my regular cup of tea or coffee in the office, I take advantage of being in a tropical country that sells fruits all year round. Near my work place there is a juice lady who makes wonderful freshly squeezed juices -- the best I've tried till now is a strawberry-guava combo that absolutely turned my mood around. If you don't have a juice lady, I suggest finding a local grocery store that you can walk to during your lunch time to buy some fruits.
My juice lady's stall in Jakarta.
9. Eat healthy
Eating healthy is a well-known cure for just about everything. It is a necessary condition to living a loneliness-free happy life. Cooking your own food can also provide a much needed escape from feeling down. When I've had a long day, I push myself to cooking (and eating) a full meal -- it helps me feel good about myself. For feeling extra good, I recommend sharing a photo on social media -- it will get you likes from friends and who doesn't love those?
Cooking after a long day at work makes me happy.
10. Get moving
There's a profound line in 2001's Legally Blonde: "Exercise gives you endorphins, endorphins make you happy, happy people don't just shoot their husbands." Exercise is important as it produces happiness hormones known as endorphins. They are a benefit of regular physical activity and are known to improve self-esteem. Endorphins trigger a positive feeling in the body, similar to that of morphine, and you tend to feel "euphoric" after a good swim or an hour spent at the gym. If you can't go to the gym, try taking a walk in the local park or have a little dance session by yourself.
According to the well-known psychologist Dr Guy Winchwe sustain psychological injuries more often than physical ones and these come in the form of failure, rejection or loneliness. And if we ignore them, they can impact our lives in dramatic ways. It doesn't occur to us that we need to practice emotional first aid just like we practice physical first aid when we get a cut. We tend to say, "Oh you're feeling depressed? Just shake it off; it's all in your head." And as Dr. Winch says, can you imagine saying that to somebody with a broken leg -- "Oh, just walk it off, it's all in your leg"? We need to close this gap between our physical and psychological health.
Loneliness creates deep wounds, distorts perceptions and affects our thinking. Research says that loneliness won't just make you miserable, it will kill you. Chronic loneliness increases your likelihood of an early death by 14%. So I hope you take these steps and practice emotional first aid on your loneliness, because a world with less lonely people will be a happier world to live in.