Between your office job, socializing, and maintaining your personal and intimate relationships, you might find yourself with a decided lack of alone time. Or, maybe your career allows you to work independently, thus disconnecting you to the world and leaving you feeling isolated. In either case, the connection between solitude and mental health is obvious. Some need more, and some need less alone time — but do you know where you fall? And what are some of the best ways to either carve it out, or know when to pull back?
A recent article in Psychology Today looked at studies that showed the inherent paradox of solitude: While some is ultimately necessary for your mental health, most people find themselves too busy and overwhelmed to to make time for themselves. And so it can become a vicious cycle. Alone time can be a crucial form of self-care, especially for those experiencing work burnout as well as stress and anxiety that stem from on overload of social interactions that leave you no time to decompress. "Just like we might apply the concept of balance with exercise, food, and relationships, we need to do the same with alone time," shares Dr. Annie Varvaryan, a clinical psychologist. "Alone time is clearly necessary for us to process information, feel regulated, and make informed decisions about many different aspects of our lives."
But while the evidence shows that solitude can be a crucial part of your mental health, it's important to note that not all alone time is productive. According to Dr. Varvaryan, while there are many who require time alone as a means of reconnecting to oneself, there are those who use it as a way of being avoidant. "When there are [intentions] such as avoidance, escaping social situations, not wanting to be social, or another secondary gain, then likely we are engaging in alone time that really isn’t that helpful for us," she explains.
Mental health counselor Victoria Tarbell agrees, but adds that some uncomfortable feelings that come up are not only natural, they're expected — particularly if alone time isn't something you're used to allowing yourself. "It’s important to note here that experiencing undesirable feelings like sadness, anger, and fear are all part of the human experience," she says. "It is totally normal and okay for these emotions to arise, and the great thing is that there are activities we can do while alone that support us in moving through these emotions effectively."
According to Tarbell, signs you're in need of more alone time in your life include general feelings of overwhelm and anxiety (such as racing thoughts and difficulty focusing), trouble falling or staying asleep, and a feeling of being disconnected from yourself and others. And Dr. Varvaryan adds that if the mere thought of carving out some "me time" feels overwhelming, you probably actually need some. "It’s important to put systems in place to have alone time incorporated into your busy schedule so that you could rely on these systems when you need them to work," she explains.
As for those who need to pull back from their self-imposed solitude, Tarbell believes that some signs include feeling drained (as opposed to renewed) by your alone time, a feeling of increased isolation from your closest connections, and undesirable feelings that start to stick around even when you are around others. In those cases, she notes that it's important to establish a few solid supports and work on keeping those relationships nourished.
No matter which category you fall into, you may need to reframe your idea of solitude as something positive and beneficial. "Do your best to allow your alone time to have an outcome of joy, restoration, or productivity," Tarbell says. "If you can identify what tends to lead to these outcomes for you, you will be much more skilled in counteracting the negative feelings that can come from too much solitude."