Mental Illness Taught Me to Fear Being Alone. Here’s What I Do to Cope.

My partner is gone for the remainder of the week, leaving abruptly on the heels of a family tragedy. And at first, I’m convinced I will be fine.

I have new medications. I have a wonderful cat. I have friends, and Netflix, and books to read.

“This won’t be so hard,” I tell myself. “It might even be fun.”

But the second night alone, I’m having a full-blown panic attack. And I’m so ashamed of it that I resist reaching out for help, for fear of embarrassing myself and confirming my friends’ suspicions that I’m too crazy, or too needy, or both.

At first, I feel ridiculous, because “normal” people can be alone. “Normal” people don’t think twice about it, apparently.

But here I am, laying on the floor of my apartment, hyperventilating because my OCD has whipped me into a frenzy. I can’t stop thinking about how I might kill my cat or kill myself, even though I desperately don’t want to do either (fun fact: obsessions like these never come to fruition, and even though I logically know it’s my OCD messing with me, I can’t seem to calm down).

But when I pause and think about it, my aversion to being alone isn’t exactly surprising.

Being alone meant lacking protection, and with a history of self-harm and dissociation, being alone meant that I was vulnerable to real emotional and even physical harm. I learned to associate being alone with being in danger. And while I’ve pushed back against that line of thinking in my adult life, I’m still traumatized by everything that happened when there was no one there to intervene.

We exist in a culture that likes to tell us that if we aren’t completely self-reliant, we’re weak or defective or needy. But the truth is, people with mental illness or trauma histories have valid reasons to fear being alone.

When the most painful events in our lives began with our minds betraying us, being left to our own devices can feel like the equivalent of hanging from the edge of a very precarious cliff.

Fearing being alone, then, could be looked at as a self-protective measure — when we associate being alone with being in danger, our brains are wired to sound the alarm when we perceive that danger, even if it isn’t “rational” to the outside observer.

I have a lot of compassion for anyone who struggles to be by themselves (even for myself, though it can be hard to remember sometimes). It’s not a position that anyone wants to be in. It’s not a fear that anyone actively wants to have. And it can wind up making us feel helpless, embarrassed, and ashamed.

There are so few resources that help us figure out how to be alone and still feel safe. There’s this default assumption that we all can pull ourselves up by our bootstraps and handle it, without realizing that trauma and mental health struggles can deeply complicate this.

For me, being alone is still very much a trigger, one that I’m constantly trying to figure out. But each time I confront it, I get a little bit better at dealing with it, and sometimes even enjoying having that time to myself.

I wanted to share some of what has helped me. While every person is different, I’m hoping you’ll take what’s useful to you and leave the rest. Think of this as inspiration, rather than a list of hard-and-fast rules.

Here’s how I deal with being by myself.

1. Resist the Self-Criticism and Judgment

When I feel the anxiety of being alone, my impulse is to start judging myself for it. “Everyone else seems to be fine with this,” I tell myself. “Why can’t I be?”

I start to panic about how I’ll never learn to be okay with being alone, and that if I ever lose my partners or my friends, I’ll be doomed to a life of misery and anxiety for all of eternity. (Typical borderline, I know…)

It’s a shame spiral that quickly gets out of control. It never helps me — it only makes things much worse.

As best you can, it’s important to try to resist those thoughts. Particularly as someone with complex PTSD who struggles with feelings of being powerless, I try to combat those thoughts with affirmations and self-assurances. I tell myself stuff like this:

  • It’s okay to feel afraid or triggered right now.
  • I am capable and prepared for this, even if I feel afraid.
  • I have tools and coping skills for this situation.
  • This is about trauma and not about personal weakness.
  • I have options for what I can do in this moment.
  • I can keep myself safe. I can count on me. 

Everyone’s affirmations will be different, but the general themes here are important. It’s critical to remember that (1) your fear in this moment is valid, (2) you have options for how to respond to that fear, and (3) your emotions, however charged, aren’t in control. You are.

I practice telling myself this stuff all the time. Sometimes I even write it on a sticky note if I need to. And while it may not magically make everything better, it does help me to feel less guilty about what I’m going through.

2. Create the Illusion of Company

Sometimes we really do need a human connection, and there’s nothing wrong with that. That’s why, when I’m struggling to be by myself, I try to create at least the illusion of that connection.

For me, this includes podcasts. One of my favorites is The Purrrcast, which is literally just a podcast of people telling stories about their cats. It has this fun feeling of sitting around in someone’s living room, geeking out about one of the best critters known to humankind (sorry, I just seriously love cats). I like to get a cup of tea, wrap myself in a blanket, and tune in.

I also think YouTube channels are great for this. YouTube tends to be a little more personal, with YouTubers talking directly to you. I like to watch Marina Watanabe’s channel for this reason (she runs the series Feminist Fridays).

I imagine myself hanging out with Marina — talking about mental health, feminism, politics, queerness, whatever — and I think that has helped me immeasurably in becoming more comfortable being alone. (I’m now ~actual friends~ with Marina, instead of just a creepy fanboy, so I can verify that she’s actually as amazing as she seems.)

If you find yourself in a difficult place, there are also therapeutic chatbots like Wysa, which can help talk you through your negative thought patterns, assist you with self-care, and teach you different cognitive behavioral therapy techniques. I like to use this when I’m in a panic and need some perspective.

Remembering that these are tools in your toolbox, available to you at any moment, can be super helpful in easing you into being on your own.

3. Set a Time Limit

Sometimes it’s just not reasonable to expect myself to be alone. But if I avoid being alone at all costs, I’m only reinforcing that fear and sense of helplessness.

So instead, I’ve tried setting time limits, encouraging myself to spend a finite amount of time on my own instead of an indefinite amount of time. Knowing that this time alone is temporary helps me cope a lot more effectively.

For example, I give myself an hour. I set a timer, and when that timer is up, I reach out to a friend or get myself out of the apartment. This challenges me to sit with my discomfort a little longer than I want to, but also makes it more bearable by giving myself a deadline.

It’s okay if you can’t spend an infinite amount of time in isolation. Just try pushing yourself a little (read: within healthy limits that don’t jeopardize your safety), and you may find over time that you become more and more capable of coping with it for longer amounts of time.

Remember, we’re trying to teach our brains that we can survive being alone. Which means it’s more important to have small victories (building up our confidence) than it is to just “toughen up” and suffer through an entire night.

4. Learn and Limit Your Triggers

Working with a therapist can be especially helpful with this. When being alone is already a trigger, it’s really important to limit our exposure to other things that make us more stressed out.

For example, I’ve learned that because my OCD obsessions center around self-harm or harming others, I’m not going to marathon Criminal Minds when I’m by myself. Similarly, as much as I love a beautiful, sad ballad, I will not be listening to the “Life Sucks” playlist on Spotify (yes, that’s a real playlist, and yes, I’ve gotten lost in it before — big mistake).

Even if I think I can handle stressors (oh, those lonely nights that I thought I could handle reading that super depressing memoir), I now don’t engage regardless of my mood in that moment. Because it’s just not worth the risk.

Know what sets you off. And avoid it like the plague.

5. Create a Schedule — And Stick To It

If I know I’m going to be spending some time alone, I try to plan ahead. I research some movies and pick one that I’ll watch, I buy some snacks, I download a new game, get a new book at the library, schedule a Skype date with a friend if needed, whatever.

I try to make sure my time is filled up, so that I’m not moping around or letting my mind wander.

Is it weird to create a calendar for my solo activities? Probably, maybe a little bit. But if I’m sitting around not sure of how to use my time, that’s when I start to get anxious. If I’ve already got plans, I have less space to freak out and a lot more to look forward to.

I’ve said it before, but boredom really is the enemy of mental health. So get yourself a plan, and stick to it.

6. Get Help Sooner Rather Than Later

You’re not always going to be a superstar at being alone. So much of our impulsive, emotional reactions to being alone have more to do with trauma we can’t even consciously access, and dealing with that can take a lot of time.

This is why it’s important that we actually ask for help when we need it, rather than waiting for some crisis or catastrophe.

If we wait for a crisis to happen, we’re only teaching our brains that crisis is inevitable, and we perpetuate the fear. But if we get support early on that allows us to turn things around, we can start to feel more capable.

When I was having a panic attack on my floor the other week, a lot of thoughts went through my mind. I thought about drinking to dull the pain. I thought about self-harm, because I’m practically wired to think about it whenever I’m stressed out. But I realized that if I engaged in either of those behaviors, I’d only confirm the very fear that made me feel unsafe in the first place.

So I called a friend. We went and got milkshakes, talked through my OCD obsession, and I slept soundly that night.

(At times when I was deeper in crisis, I was able to get myself to a hospital. And there’s no shame in that, either, if that’s what you need.)

The point of learning to cope with being alone isn’t to teach yourself that you’ll never need anyone — it’s to remind your brain that you have options, and that you can count on yourself to make the right choice and stay safe.

Sometimes staying safe means handling things on your own with your learned coping skills. Other times, it’s knowing when you need a little extra support, and being courageous enough to ask for it.

Practicing these different skills has helped me to create a sense of safety that has been missing for a long time. You start to learn the difference between a crisis that requires an intervention, and a moment of panic that we can manage ourselves. Our brains aren’t always great at knowing which is which — but that’s something that can be learned over time, with practice and self-compassion.

It’s amazing how we’re taught to feel ashamed of needing other people. I often wondered how different it would be if we, instead, just validated that being alone can be really hard, and encouraged people to be patient with themselves as they navigate those feelings.

There’s a funny sort of irony to the fact that, if you dread being alone like I do, you’re actually in great company — because it’s more common an experience than you might think.

So take a deep breath. Because believe it or not, you’ve got this.

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4 thoughts on “Mental Illness Taught Me to Fear Being Alone. Here’s What I Do to Cope.

  1. bobcabkings says:

    Thank you, Sam. I’m actually pretty good at being alone. I’ve had a lot of practice, but still, paradoxical creature that I am, in a crowd I crave solitude and when solitude devolves to alone, I crave company, but resist seeking it out. As usual, your strategies are excellent and it is true that those who fear being alone are beyond numerous. One time or another we are all there.

    Liked by 1 person

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