What to Say to a Friend Who Is Feeling Lonely Right Now
First, validate their feelings.
December 28th is National Call a Friend Day.
For a variety of reasons, the end of the year can be a tricky time for people to navigate their feelings. After the hustle and bustle of the holidays, checking in on loved ones, and making sure to get holiday shopping done, it’s common for people to feel lonely, anxious, or sad. It’s a phenomenon that's often referred to as "the holiday blues," and though it's different from Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), it can sometimes feel similar and is very common. In a survey conducted by the National Alliance on Mental Illness, 755 respondents reported that the holidays contributed to feeling sad or dissatisfied, and 66% reported feelings of loneliness during this time.
This year especially, those feelings of loneliness are likely to be exacerbated by the fact that many people were not able to travel home to see their families. So, in honor of National Call a Friend Day, a day specifically established to remind everyone to take a few moments out of the day to reach out to that friend you’ve been meaning to talk to, we wanted to find ways to support our people during these tough times. What happens when your BFF calls and says they are feeling particularly lonely, isolated, or missing you? We tapped two experts for helpful words and actions you can use to make them feel less alone. Here’s what they had to say.
How can loneliness affect mental health?
"Human beings are made for connection," says Dr. Caroline Leaf, a cognitive neuroscientist, mental health expert, and author of the upcoming book Cleaning Up Your Mental Mess. She says that we know instinctively that we need each other, and that's often where those feelings of loneliness come from: a place of a deficit from not having those important interactions.
Most importantly, Dr. Leaf tells us, "Loneliness isn’t something to be ashamed of or brushed aside because it seems silly. It increases the risk of premature mortality among all ages, and one recent study even indicated that social isolation and loneliness kill more people than obesity."
She says that we see evidence in science that isolation and loneliness lead to negative changes in brain and body health, down to the level of our DNA. "How we use our mind affects our biology," she says. Fortunately, this plays out in both directions; loneliness can cause damage, but dealing with loneliness can heal damage.
"There is also endless research showing that engaging positively with a social support network—in a giving as well as a getting way—correlates with a number of desirable outcomes," says Dr. Leaf. "When we engage with others, even if this is just online, our cortisol levels go down while the neurotransmitters serotonin and dopamine balance in our brains," she explains.
What to say to a friend who is feeling lonely:
1. First, validate their feelings.
Shasta Nelson, friendship expert and author of The Business of Friendship: Making the Most of the Relationships Where We Spend Most of Our Time, says that the best way to start with a friend who has let you know they are feeling lonely is to validate their feelings. You can say something like, “Yes, that’s normal! It makes sense that you’d feel that way given that so many of our relationships have all had to change this year.” This lets them know that you've heard them and you respect them for feeling comfortable enough to open up.
2. Then, ask a question that helps invite reflection.
"It’s really important for us to realize that loneliness is much like physical hunger in that feeling it isn’t bad; it’s how our bodies tell us we have a need," says Nelson. According to her, our capacity for relationships are incredibly personal, with some people craving more interaction than others, but the last thing we want to do is try to talk the other person out of listening to their body by thinking we need to cheer them up or point out all the friends they have. This would be an example of toxic positivity and is not helpful to someone who is feeling lonely.
Instead, Nelson suggests asking questions that prompt your friend to reflect on their needs. You can try something like, “What specifically do you feel most lonely for?" or "What kind of an experience, conversation, or person would feel most meaningful to you right now?” and listen thoughtfully to their response.
3. Utilize the two A’s—affirm and ask—to see how you can help.
Next, Nelson likes to use what she calls the two A's: affirm and ask. Once they have reflected on why they're feeling the way they are, start by affirming to your friend that you are there for them by literally saying, "I'm here for you." "Just expressing this means so much," says Nelson. Then, you can follow up by asking a question. Try something like: “I know I can’t meet all your needs (or be present as much as you’d like), but I just want to remind you how much you mean to me and that you can count on me. Is there anything you can think of right now that I could say or that we could do that would feel meaningful?”
Nelson explains that by doing this, we are able to learn from each other what actions leave the people in our lives feeling most supported. "For example, for some people, it might be that checking in more frequently by text feels more supportive, whereas someone else might prefer less frequency but to be more fed by an occasional longer conversation," she says. Think of it almost as exploring your friendship love language. "It’s a beautiful thing we can do to learn more about our friends by asking, 'What are the specific things that I have done or that others have done that leave you feeling supported and loved?'" says Nelson.
4. Encourage them to reach out when they're feeling down.
The importance of reaching out when we feel like we need connection can't be stressed enough. And Dr. Leaf says that even if it's only online or over video chat, letting your friend know you're on the other side of the phone can be incredibly helpful. "Although this may feel awkward at first and can be frustrating at times when the other person just wants a human presence, it is still better than feeling alone and isolated and can really help improve their sense of belonging and mental health," she says.
5. Make a plan with them to do something fun digitally.
"There are many fun ways to make your time socializing online fun, including virtual book clubs, game nights, online courses, virtual exercises, cooking classes, virtual meals together, and more," says Dr. Leaf. Get creative and make a plan to do something fun with your friend digitally. It will give them something to look forward to and make them feel included, even if you are physically apart.