How Important Is Alone Time for Mental Health?
People tend to be social creatures, and research has shown that social connections are vital for both emotional and physical well-being. However, alone time also plays a pivotal role in mental health. Being around other people comes with rewards, but it also creates stress. You worry about what people think. You alter your behavior to avoid rejection and to fit in with the rest of the group.
While it may be the cost of being part of a social world, some of these challenges demonstrate why alone time can be so important. Having time for yourself gives you the chance to break free from social pressures and tap into your own thoughts, feelings, and experiences.
The COVID-19 pandemic demonstrated both the challenges of loneliness and a lack of solitary time. Where many people struggled with feelings of isolation and loneliness, others faced the challenges of suddenly spending a great deal of time in close quarters with family members or roommates. Blurred work-life boundaries and a lack of time apart meant that many people were suddenly struggling with a complete lack of alone time.
Why Alone Time Is Important
Finding time to be alone can have a number of key benefits. Some of these include:
- Personal exploration
- Social energy
Becoming comfortable in your own company can give you the time and freedom to truly explore your own passions without interference. It can be a way to try new things, research topics that fascinate you, acquire knowledge, and even practice new methods of self-expression.
Giving yourself alone time means you can explore these things without the pressures and judgments that others may impose. Having time to yourself is critical for growth and personal development. Instead of worrying about the needs, interests, and opinions that others may have, alone time lets you focus on yourself.
Alone time is an opportunity to let your mind wander and strengthen your creativity. Without the need to care for or interact with other people, you can ignore outside influences and focus inward.
Research actually suggests that being alone can lead to changes in the brain that help fuel the creative process. One study found that people who tend to purposely withdraw in order to spend time alone also tend to be highly creative people.
In a 2020 study published in the journal Nature Communications, researchers found that perceived social isolation (aka loneliness) led to increased activity in the neural circuits related to imagination. When left with a lack of social stimulation, the brain ramps up its creative networks to help fill the void.
Living alone tends to be seen in a negative light. However, researchers have found that people who live alone may actually have richer social lives and more social energy than people who cohabitate with others.
In his book “Going Solo,” sociologist Eric Klineberg notes that one in seven U.S. adults lives alone. Klineberg found that not only were these adults not lonely, many actually had richer social lives.
Reasons Being Alone Isn’t Always Easy
Alone time can be challenging for some people for a variety of reasons. One study found that many people would prefer to give themselves painful electric shocks rather than just sit alone with their own thoughts. Some of these reasons people might struggle with being alone include:
- Lack of experience being alone: Some people just might not be used to being by themselves because they are so accustomed to being around other people. The sudden absence of social stimulation can leave them feeling detached or disconnected.
- Distressing thoughts and feelings: In other cases, being alone and focusing inward can be difficult or even painful. People might find this introspection distressing or find themselves engaging in rumination and worry.
- Social stigma: Stigma about being alone can also play a role in shaping how people feel about solitude. For those who have been exposed to negative attitudes towards being alone or who see it as a form of antisocial behavior or social rejection, solitude can seem like a painful form of punishment.
Marketing professor and researcher Rebecca Ratner of the University of Maryland found that people often avoid doing things they enjoy if they have to do them alone. This is particularly true if it is an activity that can be observed by others, such as going to dinner or a movie solo. Such findings suggest that stigma about being alone influences whether people think they enjoy such activities.
“When people do things alone, they enjoy themselves more than they expected,” Ratner explains. “People overestimate the benefits of being with someone else.”
It is also important to note that aspects of your personality, as well as your individual preferences, can play a role in determining how much alone time you need and how beneficial it may be.
Extroverts tend to feel energized by social experiences, so solitude might be more challenging for them. Introverts, on the other hand, gain energy from being alone.
However, don’t think that just because you are an extrovert that you won’t enjoy spending time by yourself. In one study, social psychologist Thuy-vy Thi Nguyen found that introverts and extroverts didn’t actually differ in the amount of enjoyment they gained from solitude. Contrary to popular belief, introverts didn’t enjoy solitude any more than extroverts.
“Our findings suggested that individuals who stay true to their choices and convictions are more likely to take interest and see value in spending time with themselves, despite their propensities for sociality or insecurity around other people,” the authors explain.
No matter what your personality type, there may be times you can benefit from some quality time to yourself.
Aloneness vs. Loneliness
Even before the pandemic, experts warned of a loneliness epidemic that threatened the wellness of people of all ages. Research suggests that people experience more loneliness now than they have in the past. According to one 2018 report, half of Americans feel lonely sometimes, while 25% report feeling lonely almost all the time.
There is an abundance of evidence showing that loneliness can have devastating health consequences. It has been linked to elevated blood pressure, hastened cognitive decline, social anxiety, and an increased risk for Alzheimer’s disease.
Loneliness is linked to a wide range of negative health consequences including a higher risk for depression, anxiety, obesity, high blood pressure, and early death.
But it is important to remember that being alone doesn’t equal loneliness. Where loneliness is marked by negative feelings associated with isolation, alone time involves finding freedom, inspiration, and rejuvenation in solitude.
More recently, researchers have begun to explore the idea that a certain amount of quality alone time can be just as vital for emotional and physical wellness.
Signs You Need Some Alone Time
It’s not always easy to recognize the signs that you might need some time away from other people. Some signs to watch for include:
- Feeling short-tempered
- Getting easily irritated by sometimes minor things
- Losing interest in doing things with other people
- Feeling overwhelmed or overstimulated
- Having trouble concentrating
- Getting anxious about spending time with other people
The good news is that even if you are struggling with any of these signs, a little alone time can have a significant restorative effect. In one study, people who reported spending approximately 11% of their time alone experienced fewer negative feelings in subsequent demanding social experiences.
How to Spend Time Alone
If you are thinking of spending some time alone, it is important to do so in ways that are beneficial to your mental well-being. Being alone is most beneficial when it is voluntary. It’s also important that you feel like you can return to your social world whenever you like.
- Pick a time: Figure out when you’d like to spend some time alone. Plan that time into your schedule and make sure that other people know that they shouldn’t interrupt you during that time.
- Turn off social media: Work on eliminating distractions, particularly ones that invite social comparisons. Your focus should be on your own thoughts and interests and not on what other people are doing.
- Plan something: Not everyone is comfortable spending time alone, so you might find it helpful to plan out what you want to do. This might involve some relaxation time, exploring a favorite hobby, or reading a book.
- Take a walk: Research has found that being outside can have a beneficial impact on well-being. If you’re feeling cooped up and stifled from too much social interaction, spending a little time outdoors by yourself enjoying a change of scenery can have a restorative effect.
There’s no correct amount of solo time that works for everyone. Think about things that you might like to do by yourself, then start practicing doing them alone.
Each person has differing needs for solitude and social time, so try striking a balance between the two that works for your unique needs. Some might need just a few minutes now and then to reset a bad mood, while others might require more extensive stretches of alone time.
Creating Space to Be Alone
Finding time to be alone isn’t always easy. Those around you may have differing social needs and may not understand your need for solitude. Family obligations and parenting responsibilities can also make it tough to carve out time to yourself. Some steps that you can’t take to ensure that you get the time you need:
- Be clear: Tell the people around you, whether they are roommates, family members, or your partner, that you need time alone.
- Be specific: Let people know about what this means. For example, you might say that you need a certain amount of uninterrupted time to read a book, watch a television show, or listen to a podcast.
- Return the favor: If people are willing to take steps to ensure that you get some alone time, it is important for you to show them the same consideration. Offer to take on some responsibilities while they have some space to themselves.
- Be flexible: If you are trying to find time for yourself when you don’t live alone or your living in close quarters with other people, you’ll probably need to be flexible and look for opportunities to carve out time for yourself.
Try waking up early in the morning to enjoy some peaceful time to yourself before others in the house start to wake. If that isn’t an option, doing things like going for a walk outdoors or having other family members watch the kids or take over household duties while you take a break can be helpful.
Develop the Right Mindset
If the thought of being alone makes you fear that you’ll end up feeling lonely, research suggests it may be helpful to reframe time spent alone as solitude. In one study, participants were assigned to either read about the prevalence of loneliness, read a passage about the benefits of solitude, or read about an unrelated topic.
After completing this reading, the participants sat alone for a 10 minute period. In each condition, people experienced decreases in both negative and positive feelings. Such results suggest that while being alone might not always boost your mood, it can help you better regulate your emotions.
The study also found that while people who read about the benefits of solitude didn’t necessarily experience a better mood, they didn’t have the same reduction of positive feelings that those in the other two groups did.
Such findings suggest that reassessing how you look at spending time alone can play an important role in moderating the potentially negative effects of loneliness.
A Word From Verywell
While being alone sometimes gets mistaken for being lonely, it is clear that having time to yourself now and then is important for mental health and well-being. If the thought of spending time on your own makes you feel bored or uncomfortable, try starting with a small chunk of alone time that allows you to focus on a specific task.
As you get better at enjoying your own company, you may find that this alone time helps you feel renewed and inspired for when you do return to your social circle.
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