By Rona Subotnik,M.F.C.C.

Loneliness is one of the concerns that therapists hear about frequently in the privacy of their offices. Not only do single people experience loneliness, but partners in couple relationships do as well. Almost everyone has, at some time, experienced loneliness. It is a concern of all age groups, from people in their twenties, to those in their seventies.

Many experts believe that loneliness has increased in modern times due to the changes in family, geographic mobility and shifts in values. It is possible to be lonely with or without other people. On the other hand, we hear reports from people who live alone and do not feel that loneliness is a major concern. Loneliness can be broken down into two types: social and emotional. A young person going away to college or someone taking a job in a new town, may experience social loneliness, due to their isolation from friends and family.

Emotional isolation, on the other hand, can occur when we feel we have no one to talk to about our deepest concerns, and no one to understand our needs. That is why we can experience loneliness even with people all around us.

Rubenstein and Shaver in their book, In Search of Intimacy, describe four reactions to loneliness. They are: active solitude, social action, distraction, and sad passivity. The first two are positive reactions that help us build our skills and self esteem. Active solitude occurs when we are engrossed in some activity by ourselves that we enjoy and which enriches our lives. Examples are listening to music, reading and exercising. We learn from this that when we are alone and being ourselves, we don't have to be lonely. The second positive reaction to loneliness, social action, helps us break both social and emotional isolation. Social action is exemplified by calling or visiting a friend or relative. It is a deliberate action that breaks the isolation and allows us to become involved with people.

The third reaction, distraction, is neutral in nature, in that it doesn't change things for the better or make things worse. For example, going for a drive or shopping is distracting. It takes one's mind off the loneliness, but not permanently. The fourth reaction, sad passivity, is a negative response to loneliness because one continues to feel badly and it doesn't positively impact the problem. This can lead to a downward spiral of depression. This includes sleeping too much, overeating and self-medicating with drugs or alcohol, or simply and sadly doing nothing.

Becoming aware of these reactions and thinking of the four categories as TV channels that can be switched, makes it possible to change the way one reacts to loneliness, to grow from it, rather than sink into it. Counseling can also help break through loneliness by helping with any self-defeating thoughts and behavior that may tend to perpetuate isolation and loneliness.