5 ways to build psychological fitness to combat loneliness
It is the next public health epidemic. It is as dangerous as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. It brings heart disease, and significant mental health issues. It dramatically impacts your productivity at work, and the quality of your life at home. It is so important that the UK has appointed a minister to look after it. It is not food, nor a virus, nor a drug. And you may not even know you have it.
What is it? Loneliness is what I am talking about.
Loneliness, it is complicated, in the sense that we do not have the right words for it. The Italians have 14 ways to say love. You love waffles, you love your kids, you love your pet. It is the same with loneliness, there is many aspects to it. Loneliness is not just about being physically or socially isolated. It is also about feeling disconnection within or lacking meaning in your life. The one word does not really capture all the nuances.
So, what is it like for you? And let us start with the workplace, to make it simple.
- Do you feel that you would be able share your authentic self to your team?
- Do you feel that your working relationships are not superficial but meaningful?
- Do you feel that you are an integral part of your organization?
- Do you feel that you have a clear sense of purpose and direction in your work?
If yes, congratulations. This is what belonging feel like.
If not, I would argue that you are at risk of feeling lonely at times.
In my 15 years of experience working as an organisational psychologist, I have been working with professionals and leaders to build up their resilience and psychological fitness. I have observed that, in most cases, the root cause of team conflict, disengagement, or lack of productivity, came from a form of disconnection. Disconnection within, when the work does not seem to make any sense, and disconnection from the people around.
Loneliness and disconnection often ‘happen’ for all sorts of reasons – whether it is deep dysfunction in an organization, the stress of sudden change, or even personal challenges interfering with work. It is not about making sure it never happens, but making sure that, when we do experience loneliness and disconnection, we are able to find our way back to belonging. The capacity to do that is psychological fitness.
So, what does it mean to be psychologically fit? It is the capacity to master unhelpful thoughts, sensations, and feelings. Beyond this, it is the capacity to identify inadequate stories or narratives and replace them with more accurate ones – recreating meaning to the work. This is what then allows you and your team to become more fulfilled and effective.
The good news is that this can be trained, just like physical fitness. Beyond Story programs are all about training psychological fitness, but you can start right away, by developing your capacity to observe your inner world. So, as a first step towards belonging, here are the 5 areas you may not pay attention to in your every day:
- Observe your body. Loneliness often manifests as physical symptoms: headaches, insomnia, muscular pain. The first step to overcome loneliness is simply to listen to your own physical sensations and acknowledge that something is not right. Going one step further, you might try to understand what your body is trying to indicate to you. For instance, what situation triggers what sensations? When have you felt the same way before? What could the sensation mean to you?
- Observe your thoughts. Thoughts race through our mind all the time. Have you ever felt like there was a broken tape in your head, one that got you trapped in a loop, so that you could not hear anything else? Those thoughts may sound like ‘I’m not good enough’, ‘I’m too old’, or ‘Everyone is against me’. Psychological fitness is about becoming better at observing those looping thoughts and taking some distance. Rather than take every thought at face value, identify what event might have triggered the thought, and question whether that thought is accurate. To get there, mindfulness meditation is a good start. From then, your goal will be to become fit at catching your thought patterns even you are not in a meditative state.
- Observe your emotions.
To increase your sense of belonging, it’s important that you can answer the question ‘What are you feeling’. Emotions, like thoughts and bodily sensations, can be a source of knowledge, if you learn how to observe them. For this, you need to develop an emotional vocabulary, and apply the right words to the right emotions. More importantly, you must learn to be comfortable with difficult emotions – for instance through mindfulness meditation. Loneliness is often disguised under feelings of sadness, anger, or anxiety. If we are not able to identify, then allow those difficult emotions, we start doing all sorts of things to avoid the feelings. Enter problematic behaviours, from over consumption of alcohols, overeating or self-medication, to workaholism, Netflix or social media addictions. So, it’s not just about ‘sharing your feelings’ with your mates, but being honest to yourself about your emotions, so that you know when something is wrong, or whether your deep desires are satisfied.
- Observe your relationships. We are social animals. A lot of our thoughts, emotions and even physical sensations depend on how we relate with others. So, learn to pay attention to the type of relationships that really nurture you, or drain you. Reflect on the people that work around you. Do these people allow you to be the type of leader you want to be? Are they supportive of your development? Do they appreciate the way you show up at work? If not, think about how can you build an environment where you can show up the way you would like to – what kind of relationship would enable that?
- Observe your stories. A lot of our misery – and a lot of our joy – comes not from the direct dataand impressions we get from our senses, but the stories we use to interpret those impressions.Stories are how we create meaning, distinguish what is important from what is not, and what causes what. So, what are the stories and models that you use to make sense of your environment? When you experience tension, think about an issue obsessively, feel angry, or experience frustrating relationships, what is the story you tell to explain that? Where does that story come from? How do you know it’s right? And could you try to tell another? If you can be more aware of the stories that circulate within and around you, you can gain the flexibility to rewrite them – build more meaning from your relationships, and create belonging around you, for yourself and others.