9 Things Therapists Do When They Feel Lonely

7 minute read

True friendships can take years to develop—which isn’t exactly comforting to the 1 in 3 U.S. adults who say they are lonely right now. But you don’t need to wait for a new BFF to feel better. Small acts can help give you immediate relief from loneliness, experts say. We asked therapists what low-effort steps they take in their own lives when isolation starts to creep in.

Join an easy group class

When Courtney Morgan, a therapist in Louisville, Ky., wants to be around like-minded people without having to try too hard, she goes to a yoga class. “Sometimes I want to feel connected without actively engaging in a conversation,” she says. She tells her clients to seek out structured programming that they’re interested in, too.

If want to try a group class—whether it’s fitness-related, educational, something artsy, or in a different realm entirely—Morgan recommends searching for options through social media, email newsletters, or your local library. During your first class, aim to appear approachable, she suggests. Resist the urge to look at your phone, make eye contact with people, smile, ask a stranger if you can sit next to them, and thank the instructor. All are small ways to feel better connected.

Do a 5-minute loving-kindness meditation

We’re not always kind to ourselves when we’re lonely. That’s part of the reason why Suzette Bray, a therapist in Burbank, Calif., does a quick loving-kindness meditation, a type of practice that originates from the Buddhist tradition, first thing in the morning. “The idea is that you’re going to set your intention to cultivate compassion and send loving wishes toward yourself and others,” she says.

Close your eyes and repeat a few positive phrases—first toward yourself, and then toward others. For example: “May I be happy, may I be healthy, may I live with ease. May you be happy, may you be healthy, and may you live with ease.”

“You’re sending those wishes to neutral individuals like the barista, or your neighbor, or the person you drove past sitting at a bus stop,” Bray says. “Then, the really cool part is you identify people you struggle with, and you send love to them, too. It really is a reminder of our connection to the world, and that we’re all part of the shared human condition.”

Do what you used to love as a kid

A friend once asked Allison Guilbault, a therapist in Morristown, N.J., where she found community as a child, before life got in the way of making time for personal pursuits. The answer: swimming and dancing. So Guilbault revisited those long-neglected interests. Swimming more has opened up new social circles of like-minded people, and so has taking a dance class at a local studio. “It’s been absolutely incredible,” she says. “I enter the doors and find immediate connection. I legitimately have friends there.”

Flip through old photos 

It’s so easy to forget fun, fulfilling times when you’re all alone. But looking at photos of favorite memories can help. “It immediately sparks joy,” says San Francisco therapist Erika Bent, who does this whenever she feels isolated. “Thinking of beautiful moments helps me remember that I’m worthy of connection.” It also helps “reignite the possibility” of feeling less alone, she says—which is sometimes the most powerful antidote to loneliness.

Go people-watching

When Samantha Bender, a social worker in El Paso, Texas, feels lonely, she heads to a local coffee shop where she can people-watch while sipping a saffron latte and reading the latest Stephen King novel. “Sometimes loneliness isn't about our direct relationships,” she says, “but how we feel in relation to the world around us.” There’s so much going on in public spaces—new sounds, scents, and sights—that it grounds her in the present moment and distracts her from tinges of loneliness. “You can soak it all in and feel like you're part of something without having to extend a lot of effort,” she says. “We don’t always have the mental energy and capacity to connect with others one-on-one.”

Try something new

Sometimes Bent gets stuck in the routine of heading straight home after work—but after many evenings doing the same thing, she starts to feel isolated. “Monotony makes me feel worse,” she says. In those moments, she takes out the to-do list where she logs new things she'd like to try: a bar to check out, a new salsa dancing spot, a hiking meet-up. Trying something new sparks a shift in her mood while fostering much-needed connection.

The thought of going hiking with strangers, for example, had always made her anxious—but it stepping out of her comfort zone was “a beautiful way to meet people I otherwise wouldn't have.” Even admiring new scenery helps her break out of a rut. And then there’s salsa dancing. The first time she went, it felt hard, and it was certainly a social risk: Dancers were paired with strangers. “But it was so much fun,” she says, and the experience made it almost impossible to feel lonely.

Send a voice text

Audrey Schoen, a marriage and family therapist in Granite Bay, Calif., loves communicating via voice message. When she meets someone new and exchanges contact info, she sends them an audio message instead of firing off a text. And when she feels lonely, she reaches out to friends in the same way—or replays old voice messages that she saved. “I love receiving voice messages, and I love sending them,” she says. “They feel so much more personal,” and are an especially fun way to keep in touch with friends who live far away.

Connect with yourself

If Bender is lonely but feels like staying home, she turns to creative hobbies like coloring, journaling, or reading. “They help me connect to myself,” she says. She particularly likes to do these activities while sitting next to her husband: no interaction necessary. Simply being in each other’s presence, she says, is healing, and helps squash any inkling of loneliness.

Cuddle a pet

Spending just 10 minutes interacting with cats and dogs reduces levels of the stress hormone cortisol—so it’s no wonder Guilbault seeks out her pups when she craves company. “I find it hard to feel lonely in the presence of animals,” she says. “There’s love there, and there’s loyalty there.”

Plus, pets open the door to social opportunities. After Guilbault enrolled one of her dogs in agility classes, she met a number of acquaintances and made one good friend. She takes her pups on frequent hikes and inevitably sees other people on the trail—helpful on days when she feels lonely but not up to engaging in drawn-out conversations.

Guilbault once advised a client who was having trouble finding connection to take her two poodles to a local park and position herself in a way that was “really open.” That meant not scrolling through her phone and instead looking around and smiling. “Dogs are an invitation,” Guilbault says. “She didn’t walk away from this with her new best friend, but she had a really pleasurable afternoon where she made small talk with people who came over and asked to pet her dog.” Sometimes, experts agree, those small moments can make the biggest difference in overcoming loneliness.

More From TIME

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com