How Spending More Time Alone Can Help You Manage Your Anxiety
When you have a mental illness, spending time alone can often be a double-edged sword.
At least, that’s how it’s always felt to me. As much as I crave the calm and quiet of alone time, it can also be the reason my anxiety lathers itself up into a full-blown panic attack.
Why haven’t my friends called or messaged me? Oh right, because they all hate me!
If I wasn’t actual human garbage I would be out doing something more fun/more productive right now.
In this digital age, we’re constantly warned against the dangers of being isolated and disconnected from one another. Spend just 10 minutes on social media and you’re bombarded with images of beautiful people doing beautiful things with other beautiful people.
Alone in my living room on a Friday night, it’s hard not to feel like I’m completely screwing up my life, like I’m not doing enough, like I am not enough.
Last year, I made a commitment to spend more time working on my relationship with myself. It seemed to me that intentionally spending time alone and learning to be comfortable alone was a good first step. I knew that alone time would be a challenge for my anxiety, and it was at first. But each time I survived a period of alone time (intentional or forced), it got a little easier. I found myself choosing to do more things by myself - seeing movies, going for coffee, taking walks through parks.
Not only did my anxiety about being alone ease, my anxiety, in general, became easier to manage because I was proving to myself, over and over, that I could handle life all on my own. That’s why I want to talk you through the benefits of alone time and how spending time alone can help you manage your anxiety.
1. Doing things alone helps you practice mindfulness.
Being alone means you get to see the world through your eyes and experience things completely for yourself. I often get anxiety doing things with others because I worry I am not making the other person’s experience enjoyable enough. Removing other people from the equation entirely means you’re only looking out for Number 1, so you can more fully immerse yourself in the experience. Doing things alone is, in my opinion, the absolute best way to practice mindfulness, which is an incredibly effective anxiety management tool.
I used to think that seeing a movie alone was the saddest, loneliest thing in the world. Now, I prefer hitting the theatre by myself. You can sit wherever you want. You don’t have to share your popcorn. You get to form your own opinion about the movie as you watch rather than being influenced by someone else’s preferences.
A new coffee shop in town just opened up? I’d rather check it out on my own so I can order what I want without stressing about whether the person I’m with is having a good time. Instead, I’m focused on the present moment: the taste of espresso, the vibe, and ambiance of the cafe, the light chatter from the tables around me. I’m immersed in the experience, leaving me very little mental space to be anxious.
2. Alone time is self-care time.
You don’t have to take a luxurious bath, drink expensive wine, and smear on a face mask to practice self-care (although I would definitely recommend it). Social psychology researcher Thuy-vy Thi Nguyen found in a 2017 study that alone time (referred to as solitude) actually helps to dull “high-arousal” emotions, (both positive and negative). In other words, simply allowing yourself to be alone is calming.
According to Shoba Sreenivasan, Ph.D., and Linda E. Weinberger, Ph.D. of Psychology Today, actively engaging in alone time (again, referred to as solitude) gives you the opportunity to think through decisions and reflect. When you’re alone, you’re free to sit with and process your emotions, which allows you to heal and maintain emotional stability. If you need to cry, scream, or punch pillows, no one’s stopping you. Dedicate some time to be alone with a journal or a creative outlet that allows you to release what you’re suppressing.
3. People who spend time alone are more creative and productive.
Sreenivasan and Weinberger also point out that some of “the most common experiences deriving from solitude are creativity, spiritual growth, and time to explore values and goals without interference or distraction.”
My anxiety often puts up barriers between me and my goals - and by that I mean I rarely set any goals at all because I genuinely don’t take the alone time I need to figure out what I want in the first place. It’s easier now than it’s ever been to find a meaningless distraction that will temporarily override the anxiety of being alone. But, according to Sreenivasan and Weinberger, it’s in true solitude that you can find the motivation to “improve your life in areas you never believed you needed to or considered” because you’ll have the mental space to figure out what you want and how to get there.
4. Alone time improves your self-confidence and social skills.
Since spending time alone can actually make you feel happier and more energetic, “periods of solitude that do not induce panic or loneliness may also promote independence and confidence in one’s ability to cope without always depending on social support.”
Something I learned from spending time alone was that I have survived 100% of my worst days.
Even when my alone time did leave me feeling lonely or anxious, I handled it and I got through it. I began to feel more sure of myself as I learned that being by myself didn’t have to feel like a punishment or a necessary evil. What it actually did was noticeably increase my self-confidence by making me realize that, since I was able to enjoy (or at least tolerate) my own company, others would probably be able to enjoy it, too. This is perhaps one of many reasons why alone time has also been proven to improve communication skills and empathy; the more you’re able to make yourself fully present in a social situation, the easier it will be to engage and connect with others in ways that don’t trigger anxiety.
Prioritizing alone time could be a necessary part of your self-care routine if you experience anxiety. Start small, but start somewhere. After all, your relationship with yourself is the longest one you’ll ever have, so it’s time we started giving ourselves the attention we deserve.
There’s a compulsion now to stay in contact with the world all the time. Think what you want about the newly coined term ‘FOMO,’ but it’s a very real thing and it causes very real stress and anxiety. Frankly, it’s exhausting. Why can’t we simply be without putting pressure on ourselves to do more, to be more, all the time?
Turns out, we can. But we might need to do it alone.