THE FIRST TIME I REMEMBER EVER UNDERSTANDING what it meant to be “lonely” was during my first trip abroad. It was during my first solo trip to Ecuador to visit my extended family when I was 15. I have the moment documented in my travel journal from the time: “Tonight is the first night I’ve ever felt lonely. I think it may be one of the worst feelings in the world.”
The feeling would resurface every time I traveled. Sometimes it’d happen in the airport, when I’d see families sitting together in the terminal, laughing and chatting, while I hugged my luggage alone and read. Sometimes it’d happen on Sundays, when I’d be walking through some city park or plaza packed with people picnicking, friends grabbing coffee together, kids playing tag. Sometimes it’d happen at night, when I had little urge or enthusiasm to go out and socialize and instead found myself wishing I had someone next to me, who would make doing nothing seem less pathetic, and more fun.
In my journal from my semester spent in South Africa (the second big trip I ever took abroad), the word “lonely” shows up hundreds of times (and around every 10 pages). When I worked as a program leader for Global Glimpse, a non-profit that takes high school seniors on 18-day trips to Latin America, “loneliness” was one of the things my students mentioned struggling with the most.
“How do you deal with it?” they’d ask, frustrated again that they couldn’t call their parents, and frustrated that their travel group had no old friends, no one they had known before the trip.
But curiously, that trip was the first time I traveled and never felt lonely. It was the first time I managed to somehow keep loneliness at bay.
What had changed? After more than 10 years of traveling, here’s my advice on how to travel and still manage this awful feeling when it creeps up.
1. Instead of spiraling, force yourself to connect.
It’s easy when you get lonely to start spiraling into more loneliness. In fact, it’s scientifically proven that this is the case. A study by psychologists at the University of Chicago found when we are lonely, the electrical activity in our brains speed up and make us more attentive and perceptive to differences. That makes us again feel like we’re different than everyone else, or feel like other people may be threats.
Knowing this to be true, when I feel loneliness coming on strong, I actively try to force my brain to instead find connections to feel more safe. I force myself to consider these questions: What am I doing to connect with the people around me? Though we may not seem to have anything in common, on what point could they be similar to me? How hard have I really tried to relate to them?
2. Keep yourself busy. And go on adventures.
Pursuing interests that ground you to a place makes your commitment to it feel more natural, and helps sooth some of the self-doubt of why you chose to be there in the first place. And when I’m involved in activities that are fun, engaging, and connected to the area I’m in, I feel too excited and have too little time to get down about missing anyone.
3. Refocus on the big picture.
Loneliness can bring on poutiness: “Why can’t I have my family here to share this with me?”, “My best friend would understand this so perfectly right now, “I wish I had a closer friend to share this day with.”
But instead of focusing on who I didn’t have with me while traveling, it helped to remind myself that sometimes the trade-off for exploring wonderful things meant having to do them alone. But that was far better than not doing them at all.
So okay, I was a little lonely in South Africa. But I was also IN SOUTH AFRICA. I realized I’d feel silly if I returned home knowing I spent so much time in beautiful places, only wishing that I could also have the perfect people with me too.
I reminded myself that when I got back home, I was lucky and privileged to go back to being surrounded by all my loved ones again, as always. There was no need to greedily complain that they couldn’t be in front of me right now. Instead, I enjoyed my aloneness in the present moment, and felt grateful that I’d later have others to share my experience with.
4. Understand the difference between “alone” and “lonely.”
While traveling in Nepal, my boyfriend at the time showed me this quote by Robin Williams: “I used to think the worst thing in life was to end up all alone. It’s not. The worst thing in life is to end up with people that make you feel all alone.”
This was an important distinction. While traveling, and throughout all my life, it is useful to remind myself that there are times when I’m all by myself, and yet not lonely. And, there are times I’m surrounded by people, and I am.
In reality, loneliness has little to do with how much company I have, and so much more to do with what kind of company I have. And, it also has to do with the kind of company I can create by myself.
Just generally surrounding myself with people, either abroad or back home won’t necessarily cure anything. Instead, I should focus on creating a sense of connection with specific kinds of people, or within myself, wherever I may be.
5. Remember that loneliness — like every other emotion — is both inevitable, and temporary.
Of course, there are still instances when none of these tips work flawlessly. There’s no way to avoid these kind of feelings entirely and many times the only thing you can do is sit with it, accept it, and let it pass (because yes, it will pass). In those moments, it helps me to also remember that on the other side of loneliness is often growth, and enduring these temporary moments can often lead to finding something even greater.