Our lives are packed with other people, but sometimes alone time is exactly what you need – and we should make more time for it, says Lauren Taylor.
When was the last time you took a long walk all by yourself? Sometimes finding the time to even have a long bath can feel like a rare treat – especially if you have a busy job, a family and a home to take care of.
Between being in the company of colleagues at work, a partner and/or kids at home, and friends the rest of the time, modern life can mean we’re rarely alone – even fitness is more of a group affair than a solo one for many people. And when we are all by ourselves, we’re either rushing around, ticking items off a to-do list or constantly connected to other people online.
But is this taking a toll on our wellbeing? And should we be making more time for real periods to be completely alone, slow down and just ‘be’? Psychologist Dr Vanessa Moulton, says the demands of our “hyper-connected” world means “our brain is constantly ‘online’ and alert”.
So, whether it’s going for a walk in a park, or a coffee with only yourself for company (try not to turn to Netflix, that’s more stimulus), here’s why making some quiet time to spend alone is important and what it can do for your wellbeing.
1. Your brain needs rest time so it can perform well
Dr Moulton, who heads up Mindflex Group, says: “Although we are social animals, and we require social support for our psychological health, always being around others means we are having to process additional distractions and demands.”
The brain is like a muscle, she says, and in the same way that our biceps and abs need rest days from the gym to recover and strengthen, our minds need a similar type of break.
“Our brains are constantly bombarded with millions of bits of information which is processed consciously and unconsciously every second. Your brain has tricks to deal with all this info, like taking shortcuts, but having alone time is a conscious effort you can make to help it perform at its best,” she says.
2. Alone time can help us deal with times of stress and anxiety
Moulton explains that spending time alone helps calm the primitive ‘fight or flight’ part of our brains, which is often triggered by living life at a frantic pace and “overload of stimulus” (unless you are someone who finds being alone uncomfortable in itself).
“When we experience stress and anxiety, it is our ‘fight or flight’ system that has been triggered,” she says. “Active, chosen alone time means you’re actually doing something – which is self-compassion. The more self-compassionate we can be, the more psychologically fit we can become, as it stimulates our ‘soothing emotional’ system and helps calm down our ‘fight or flight’ system.”
3. It’s important for self-development
If you’ve ever spent a meaningful length of time alone, through travelling solo or living alone, as well as physical space from other people, you might have noticed how much extra head space it gives you, to really think deeply or work through emotions.
“Alone time is critical for self-development and self-discovery, as it gives us the opportunity to get in touch with ourselves,” says Moulton. Not to mention the fact physically achieving things alone can make you feel all the more empowered and help you to trust your own judgement.
“Spending time on our own gives our brains the evidence we sometimes need to prove we can do and achieve things by ourselves. This boosts independence, confidence and self-efficacy, which is critical to our happiness and ‘psychological fitness’,” she says.
“When you are alone, you remove the distractions around you, creating a more conducive environment for focused attention. Also, when we problem solve on our own, we have to listen to and trust in our own judgements and opinions.”
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4. It can improve how you relate to other people
Constant contact with other people can feel like social burnout, and a break can actually help you make the time you do spend with others more meaningful.
“When we can manoeuvre ourselves away from our context, we also have more of an opportunity to see how others, and our world, are impacting us,” says Moulton.
“This enables us to be inward focused as opposed to constantly focusing on our external world. This means we can actually think about what makes us happy and what we want and desire from life, others and our relationships. So ironically, it can enhance our relationships by being away from people.”
5. Self-reflection is a good thing, even if you might avoid it
If you don’t like your own company, it might be time to evaluate why. Moulton says always being with people can be a “coping strategy” to avoid being with ourselves.
“If we are struggling psychologically, one of the most important things I encourage my clients to do is learn how to sit with themselves, with the quiet. If it is uncomfortable, sit with it and see what comes up. You will learn a lot about yourself when there are no other distractions around. So, from this perspective it can be very therapeutic, allowing deeper reflection time,” she says.
Sometimes spending time alone helps you see things clearly.— Mandevu (@NOiD____) March 9, 2019
6. It gives you space to look at the bigger picture
How often do you think about your hopes, values and ambitions beyond the daily to-do list?
“It’s easy to get lost in all the things that have to get done in one day (including the demands of others),” says Moulton. “Being on our own provides a level of space we all need sometimes to consider the bigger things in life and reconnect to values and things you might be passionate about.”
Mindflex Group provides psychological support, therapy, education and consultancy for everyday ‘psychological fitness’. Visit mindflexgroup.com.
- Press Association