Why Change Makes Us Feel So Lonely

Your routine is a lot more comforting than you know.

At first, it was easy. When Sonya Matejko moved to New York from Miami four years ago, she felt excited, energized. Her new city was overflowing with potential.

“I was ready to take on this city even though I would be leaving my family and most of my friends behind,” said Matejko, a writer, yoga teacher and communications professional. “I wanted to do everything and see everything.”

But her feelings quickly changed.

“Once my honeymoon phase with New York City ended, the loneliness set in,” she said. “I started questioning the relationships I jumped into, the friendships I depended on, the FOMO I felt. I was confused about how I could be surrounded by so many people with big dreams and inspiring stories but still feel alone. …

“I had friends, coworkers and a steady routine. Still, loneliness tends to be far deeper than what’s accessible to you in your day-to-day.”

Loneliness is on the rise — a recent study shows one in three people between the ages of 18 and 24 are lonely — and major life transitions are a huge trigger for young adults.

“Young adulthood presents the challenge of transition, which is often coupled by loneliness,”  psychotherapist Emmy Crouter said. “The transition from college to the workforce seems to be a pain point for many young people. … Many young people have never had to make friends outside of a school environment.”

Big changes can be scary, but they’re also exciting. Why do they make us lonely? And what can we do to make changes easier on ourselves?

Flipping your routine on its head

“As humans, we’re creatures of comfort and familiarity, so when we’re thrown out of our normal routine, and are no longer around familiar people, we can feel lost and disconnected,” life coach Julie Melillo said. “You might not realize how much those small moments of chit chat and friendly connection matter until they’re gone.”

Illustration of a broken heart. Rewire PBS Living LonelyCredit: Adobe
You might be surprised at how you react to what you thought would be an easy transition. Know that loneliness is normal.

Even if you’re not big on routine, you probably have places you like to go — coffee shops, book stores, a special hiking trail, a friend’s house.

“When we move, or change jobs and have a new schedule, or have a child and suddenly have a very different life routine, we often lose access to the places that brought us together with others,” said Acacia Parks, psychologist and chief scientist at Happify Health. “Work travel prevents us from our regular friendly get together. … The loss of a parent as an adult can change the rest of the family’s way of interacting with each other.”

What might seem like a minor change affects us because “a lot of our social connectedness is based on things we do in the physical places we live near,” she said. “Life transitions affect our ability to access the routines that let us be with other people before the transitions.”

Acknowledge that your life has changed, and begin to create new routines for yourself.

“People often make the mistake of trying to make a square peg fit into a round hole,” Parks said. “The sooner (you let) go of what is lost, the sooner (you) can move forward and create new connections.”

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Nobody to talk to

If you’re in a new physical place, you might feel cut off from the relationships you had before the transition. That can make it feel like you don’t have anybody to talk to about being lonely, which just makes it worse. What a Catch-22.

“Transitions trigger separation anxiety,” psychotherapist Fran Walfish said. “Separation anxiety can illicit a lonely feeling.”

Even if the transition wasn’t a move to a new city or a new workplace, you can be left feeling out of touch with the people you love. The birth of a baby might mean you’re not hanging out with friends as much, a breakup might mean you’re not seeing some of the friends you once shared, college graduation means finding a job and moving and leaving relationships behind.

Depending on your situation, stay in touch with the people you love, while also attempting to create new relationships with the people around you. That’s easier said than done, but it’s worth the effort.

Think of it as an opportunity to try something new.

“If it is a move and you don’t have a network around you, start going to meet-up groups to meet new people,” life transition coach Andrea Travillian said. “Or start taking classes in something fun you have always wanted to do.

“The important thing is to not keep everything bottled up inside you. Talk to people, interact with others.”

[Read: How to Share Your City and Your Friends After a Big Breakup]

How to deal

First, come to terms with how difficult this transition has been, and don’t judge yourself for struggling with it.

“Accepting the feeling is the first and most important step to dealing with any emotional experience,” psychologist and transition expert Elisa Robyn said. “We need to look at this experience without judgment.

“Second, we can reach out to friends or family, whoever we can have an honest conversation with, about our feelings. … Talking with people who we trust, those who understand us, will always help us feel supported and loved. … When we understand the loneliness is part of the transition we will be able to acknowledge it and move on.”

You might be feeling overwhelmed, so don’t make staying in touch with people more of a chore than it needs to be.

Send friends little messages to say hi, “video chat them once you’ve gotten all settled into your new apartment, and never forget to text your best friend after the first date with a new guy,” personal development coach Jessi Beyer said. “Small check-ins like that will really help maintain those relationships and help you feel like your friends are still there with you.”

Don’t avoid confronting loneliness

“It is normal to feel lonely during a transition,” Parks said. “Trying to curtail it only makes it worse. It’s OK to feel lonely; mindfulness skills can help us let our feelings run their course so that they don’t loom over us.”

Matejko got through her transition to life in New York by taking the opportunity to understand herself better.

“I’m no longer afraid of loneliness because I know I have my own support without external validation,” she said. “The transition to this city broke me open and helped me get to know myself. Through this, I know that no matter where I go in the world I’ll be able to make it. …

“Learn to enjoy your alone time. If you don’t, try to understand why. Journal, meditate, go on walks without distraction, get to know yourself, take yourself on dates. … Most importantly, be patient. Like all good relationships, the one with yourself will also take time to develop.”

Katie Moritz

Katie Moritz is Rewire’s senior editor and a Pisces who enjoys thrift stores, rock concerts and pho. She covered politics for a newspaper in Juneau, Alaska, before driving down to balmy Minnesota to help produce long-standing public affairs show “Almanac” at Twin Cities PBS. Now she works on this here website. Reach her via email at [email protected] Follow her on Twitter @katecmoritz.