Warm Water Alleviates the Pain of Loneliness

“When you close your doors, and make darkness within, remember never to say that you are alone, for you are not alone; nay, God is within, and your genius is within. And what need have they of light to see what you are doing?” – Epictetus

The experience of being alone with our thoughts, our feelings, our selves, can vary greatly from person to person.  For some, alone time is a treasured respite from an otherwise stimulating, perhaps draining, day of interactions with others.  For others, the concept of alone time is hard to even imagine if life is full to the brim with constant demands from the external world.  Many others find solitude intensely painful and difficult to withstand.

This pain of loneliness may manifest itself through persistent seeking out of social interactions and events with others (i.e., to avoid the pain of being alone) or through consciously or subconsciously isolating oneself from the outside world.  When we find an emotion painful – be it loneliness or something different – we all have powerful tendencies to do things to alleviate our suffering.

Sometimes our actions take the form of healthy decisions, such as treating painful emotions through activities such as yoga, reading uplifting books, or spending time with cherished friends or family.  At other times, the choices that we make to handle uncomfortable emotions are unhealthy and not in our best interest – e.g., substance abuse/self-medication, social isolation, excessive rumination, or other self-defeating actions.

It is always in our greatest long-term interest to find ways of dealing with painful emotions, such as loneliness, in ways that are healthy and sustainable over time.  Can you imagine how dire the consequences would be if you consistently used drugs or alcohol to medicate painful or distressing emotions?  Or perhaps imagine the negative long-term impact that isolating yourself from people and refusing to get out of bed can have on your overall well-being.

In the same way that you would be wise to apply pressure to a gaping wound en route to the hospital (where they would hopefully attend to your long-term health and well-being), it is equally wise to have an arsenal of strategies on-hand to deal with the discomfort of painful emotions in the short-term.  It is important to be able to metaphorically “apply pressure” to painful emotions until you are able to reach a long-term solution.

According to a recent study conducted by John Bargh and Idit Shalev of Yale University, physical warmth can actually compensate for social isolation.  They discovered that people “subconsciously self-comfort against loneliness through the use of warm baths and showers.”  While we have many expressions in our common language that correlate physical and social warmth (e.g., a “warm smile” or the “cold shoulder”), this is the first study to show that “we subconsciously administer our own tonic of physical warmth to compensate for social rejection.”

What strategies do you employ to alleviate your own feelings of loneliness?  It is crucial to feel confident in your ability to self-soothe/comfort yourself when you are experiencing a painful emotion such as loneliness.  Remember that all emotions are temporary.  Even the most deeply intense sensation of loneliness will pass.

Remind yourself of times in the past when you have felt intense emotional pain – also recall times when you have experienced joy or happiness.  We move in and out of our emotional states – they are transient.  In the meantime, build up your knowledge of effective ways of dealing with intense distress in the moment until you are in a better place to look within, get to the root cause of your emotional pain, and learn from your experience.

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Bargh, J., & Shalev, I. (2011). The substitutability of physical and social warmth in daily life. Emotion DOI: 10.1037/a0023527

Featured image: Redheads need to be free:-) by mysza831 / CC BY 2.0

About Laura K. Schenck, Ph.D., LPC

I am a Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC) with a Ph.D. in Counseling Psychology from the University of Northern Colorado. Some of my academic interests include: Dialectical Behavior Therapy, mindfulness, stress reduction, work/life balance, mood disorders, identity development, supervision & training, and self-care.

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