Are You Getting Enough Alone Time?

John Whyte, MD; Robert Coplan, PhD

Disclosures

April 06, 2021

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JOHN WHYTE: Welcome, everyone. I'm Dr. John Whyte, chief medical officer at WebMD, and you're watching Coronavirus In Context.

Are you experiencing sadness and loneliness? Miss your family? Miss your friends? Maybe even miss your co-workers? But are some of you actually feeling that you need some time to yourself, that you're around people all day in your home, in your apartment? Something called “aloneliness.”

So how do you know if you're suffering from aloneliness, and what do you do about it? So to help provide some insight and answer those questions, I've asked one of the world's renowned experts on this topic. Dr. Robert Coplan is a professor of psychology at Carleton University in Canada. Dr. Coplan, thanks for joining me.

ROBERT COPLAN: Thank you so much for having me.

JOHN WHYTE: Let's talk about this concept of aloneliness. You're not lonely because you have people all around you, but in some ways, you want to be alone for a little while. Walk us through that.

ROBERT COPLAN: Yeah, so we started thinking about this as we continued our research into people's experiences of solitude, into different experiences of being alone. And a lot of the research on solitude has focused on what happens when you get too much solitude. And as we know, when you get too much solitude, you often feel lonely, and loneliness can feel like physical pain, and it's a terrible outcome. It's associated with some pretty bad stuff, including risks for mental health difficulties and even physical health difficulties.

And so we know that loneliness is a big problem, and certainly during the pandemic. People are being forced to spend time alone more than they want to, which is definitely increasing loneliness. So loneliness is conceptualized as this kind of discrepancy between how much time you would like to be spending with other people and how much time you actually get to spend with other people.

JOHN WHYTE: So you can be alone and not lonely? Correct?

ROBERT COPLAN: That's absolutely true. So but the important notion here is that it's kind of different for everybody. So you don't have to spend X number of hours interacting with people to feel less lonely, it's more about the quality of that experience, and differs by individual. So we were trying to look at the other side of the coin. So instead of focusing on what happens if you get too much solitude, we were interested in what happens if you get not enough solitude. And that's how we came up with this term “aloneliness,” which is basically the mirror image of loneliness.

So it's a discrepancy between how much time you would like to be spending alone and how much time you actually get to spend alone. And what we found, especially during the pandemic, is again, people are thrust into situations where they no longer have control over their time as much as they used to be. So if you are a parent who is working at home and your children are learning at home, you might find that you never have a moment to yourself. And what we have found is that this may start to actually take a negative toll, similarly to how loneliness makes our mood worse. It makes us feel sad and makes us feel stressed. Similarly, not spending enough time alone when we need to can also make us feel stressed and also make our mood feel sad.

JOHN WHYTE: How do you make this distinction, though? Are you lonely or are you alonely?

ROBERT COPLAN: Yeah, so it's tricky because both reflect sort of a dissatisfaction with your social circumstances. And I think it's possible to be both because it's not just the amount of time that you're spending --

JOHN WHYTE: But you can't be both at the same time, can you?

ROBERT COPLAN: Well, you actually could, because it's possible that you are not getting enough high-quality time with people. So it's not just how much time you spend interacting with others, it's the quality of those experiences. You can feel lonely in a room full of people if you're not engaged in meaningful interaction, if you don't have relationships with these people. You can be surrounded by others but still feel alone and lonely. And similarly, you can be by yourself and still not feel like it is satisfying your need for solitude if you're not engaged in meaningful solitary activities, if you're not motivated, if you're not engaged. If you're not feeling like that solitary time has meaning for you, then you could just feel completely dissatisfied with both aspects of your life.

JOHN WHYTE: And you could be lonely because you're with the same people for an entire year and you haven't had differences of discussions and opinions, et cetera, as well. Is that true too?

ROBERT COPLAN: Yeah, that could be it. And again, we talk about the need to belong, and this is something that we think people are born with. Humans evolved to be with others, we evolved to be part of a community, to be part of a group. And when you're not meeting that need, and again, I want to stress that need is different, it's individual for each person. So we should not prescribe, “You need X number of hours with people a day, everybody needs X number of hours alone per day.”

It's really that best fit, and the way we would describe solitude is that it follows what we call the Goldilocks hypothesis. Just like the story, it's possible that you can have -- some people have just too much, and some people have too little -- and what we have to find for everyone is that balance. What is the right balance? The just-the-right amount of time spent with others and time spent alone that's going to be best for your well-being.

JOHN WHYTE: How do you figure that out? So, say, you're being a little bit irritable, you're anxious. How do you start that thought process to think, “Oh hey, maybe this is because I don't have time to myself right now”?

ROBERT COPLAN: Yeah, so one of the things that we really want to make people aware of is: Is this even a possibility that you might not be getting enough time alone? Because it's certainly something that's not part of the general discussion. So you might be feeling irritable, you might be feeling in a bad mood, you might be feeling stressed or sad, and it might not even occur to you that one of the reasons for this might be because you're not getting enough time alone.

And so one of the things that we ask people to do, even if it's just to kind of track the stuff over a period of days. So just keep a little diary, just keep some notes in your phone. Maybe open up a tab there and just make some notes about how much time you're spending with others, how much time you're spending alone, and track your mood over a period of days or weeks, and probably you'll find some kind of pattern that should help you work out exactly what that right amount is and what that balance is for each person.

JOHN WHYTE: Then what do you do about it? So now you're cognizant of the fact that you might need some of your own time, some solitude. I'm going to be honest: How do you go about doing it? We all have responsibilities at home, we have responsibilities at work. We're not carving out personal time versus professional time. There's only so many hours of the day. Sleep doesn't count, correct?

ROBERT COPLAN: Correct.

JOHN WHYTE: Is this solitude time? So what are some practical tips that you give us?

ROBERT COPLAN: Yeah, that's an excellent question. And of course, you're right. There's only so many hours of the day. And particularly these days, it might be particularly challenging to carve out some of that important me-time for yourself. But one of the things that we suggest to people, of course: It's not going to be practical to take a 2-hour walk alone in the forest every day. That's just not something that most people can do. So we do have a couple of suggestions. One would be to take advantage of some of these micro moments of solitude.

So it's not necessary that you get a 2-hour walk in a forest alone in order to reap the benefits of having some alone time. It could just be even a few minutes here and there stepping away, stepping into a separate room, stepping outside, going onto the back porch, catching your breath, taking a moment to collect your thoughts and just breathe in and realize what you're doing and take some inventory about how you're feeling.

These kinds of micro moments can also really help to satisfy some of those needs for solitude. And also part of it is making the other people who might be depriving you of your solitude, or opportunities for solitude, understand that this is something that is important for you. And it won't be as important for everyone if you tend to share a household with extroverts and really sociable people. For them, they just won't understand that some people need and want that time alone so.

It's really important to make your voice heard and to feel comfortable to say things like, “Sometimes, I just need to step away and take a few minutes of quiet.” I think that's a perfectly appropriate thing for someone to say to someone else -- even to a partner, a husband or wife -- to let them know it doesn't mean there's a problem with your relationship. It doesn't mean that there are any difficulties there, just that everybody is wired differently, and some people can really benefit from having a load of time alone during the day.

JOHN WHYTE: Well, Dr. Coplan I want to thank you for making us aware that some of us might be experiencing this aloneliness and how to diagnose it, or at least to figure out that we might be experiencing it, and then how we might get some of that solitude. Thanks for joining me today.

ROBERT COPLAN: Thank you so much for having me.

JOHN WHYTE: And if you have questions about coronavirus, drop me a line. Email it, drjohn@webmd.net, or post on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. Thanks for watching.

This interview originally appeared on WebMD on April 06, 2021

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