Loneliness is a universal human experience that we all deal with from time to time.

Loneliness is a state of mind that has less to do with being alone and more to do with feeling alone. That’s why people can feel lonely at work, at school or even in their friendships or romantic partnerships. It’s not about the number of people in our lives, but rather about the depth of those emotional connections.

“If we are in a room full of family and friends but nobody knows the actual thoughts and feelings we are having, we are likely to feel lonely. Whereas if even one person knows our true thoughts and feelings at a moment in time, we are much more likely to feel less lonely.

While many people experience loneliness on occasion, a pervasive, prolonged type of loneliness seems to be on the rise.

In 2017, former U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy called loneliness “a growing health epidemic,” that experts say is due, in part, to modern technology and social media replacing some of our face-to-face interactions. Loneliness is linked to an increased risk of depression, anxiety, cardiovascular disease, dementia and a shortened lifespan.

Loneliness is often accompanied by a sense of heaviness and despair that turns into shame.

Loneliness and shame tell you you’re  broken and unlovable, better off in the safety of your isolation because once people see the real you, they won’t stick around anyway. Yet it can be healthy to befriend loneliness well enough to support yourself through these times.

Here’s some advice on what to do when you feel stuck in a lonely state of mind.

1. First, try not to judge yourself for feeling lonely.

Loneliness itself can be painful but that discomfort is only compounded when we criticize ourselves for feeling it.

Most of the suffering we experience when feeling lonely is a product of the shame and anxiety we create through judging and abandoning ourselves. We believe we’re failing or broken because we feel lonely or we’re lonely because we’re unloveable.

Instead, practice self-compassion. Say to yourself: “It’s understandable you’re feeling lonely right now; you’re a human who, like other humans, yearns for connection in our disconnected world.

2. Know that loneliness is common and what you’re feeling won’t last forever.

Remember this feeling will pass, it is not a sign of pathology, and that there are millions of other ‘lonelies’ out there, sharing this feeling with you right now.

3. Reach out to people for connection.

That might mean calling a family member, making plans to get coffee with a friend you haven’t seen in a while, or even posting about your experience with loneliness in an online forum.

While shame will try to convince you you’re unlovable and no one wants to hear from you, remind yourself it’s lying and you will likely feel better if you connect.

4. Get out in nature.

You can go for a walk outside if you are nearby nature or a park. Spending time with animals can also be comforting.

5. Reduce time spent on your phone.

If you’ve been scrolling on Instagram a lot lately, make more virtual face-to-face interactions a priority.

Browsing social media for hours on end tends to leave people lonelier as they compare themselves to the bright and shiny pictures others selectively post. However, you can turn this to your advantage by reaching out to someone, as the research shows that this way of using social media makes people less lonely.

6. Do something creative.

Artistic pursuits can be very soothing when you’re in a lonely place.

Reading a breathtaking poem, knitting a lovely scarf, or expressing your feelings through painting or sculpture are all ways you can transform your suffering into something beautiful.

7. Think about someone who really loves you.

Pick a person in your life who cares for you deeply and then ask yourself a few questions like: “How do I know this person loves me?”; “How do they express it?”; “What was a time they were really there for me?”

“Remember that being worthy of and receiving this love was not only a reflection of the other person’s goodness, but also of your own, or you could not have been so loved.

You’re a human who, like other humans, yearns for connection in our disconnected world.

8. Seek out a small burst of connection with a stranger.

Even little acts of kindness, like smiling at a friendly looking person you pass on the street or holding the door open for someone, will make you feel closer to those around you.

As you let someone get in front of you on the freeway, imagine what they are feeling. Talk kindly to the cashier at the grocery store. In small ways, you are meeting their need for kindness or for help which opens them up a little, just as it opens you up.

9. Sign up for a class or group activity.

Plant the seeds now for new and deeper connections by enrolling in a class or group that meets regularly. It could be anything that piques your interest: a volunteer organization, a professional association, a cooking class or a book club.

In the midst of a class or activity, you will be having an experience of that event. Briefly sharing your experience (e.g. liking something specific or having a particular curiosity) with others there allows them to get to know you just a bit.

10. Think about what your loneliness might be telling you.

Instead of pushing it away, get quiet and sit with your loneliness, however uncomfortable it may be.

Notice the discomfort and how it affects your emotions, thoughts, and also tension in your body. After a few minutes, you might start to get clear on specific actions you want to take — an action plan which is now coming from your calm mind and which is more likely to be effective than one arising from stress.

When To Ask For Help

Again, experiencing loneliness is very common — feeling this way doesn’t mean there’s something “wrong” with you. However, if your loneliness is persistent and/or crippling, it may be time to take action and get some help.

Loneliness is not an experience that we are meant to have indefinitely. When this otherwise typical experience of loneliness is prolonged, it increases our risk for many health problems, and it may lead us to become depressed.

Instead of isolating yourself further, open up to others or a mental health professional who can help you foster more community and healthy connection in your life.

If you find yourself regularly distressed over your feelings of loneliness, that is probably a sign that you might feel better if you reached out for help to friends, family, spiritual counselors or mental health support systems.