Skip to main content

The Feeling Of Loneliness & The Polyvagal Theory

the feeling of loneliness

Loneliness & The Nervous System Connection

The opposite of loneliness is NOT ‘company’ it is CONNECTION. In fact the feeling of loneliness is often misleading.

Are you sometimes feeling lonely even though you are surrounded by people? Even people you’re close with, like your family or friends?

I often talk to women who live with their partners/spouses and children, have colleagues at work, and friends to chat with, yet they feel so utterly lonely.

Maybe this is something you can relate to. I’m sure you have noticed that the pandemic has made it even more painful for you. With our social interactions becoming quite limited and often happening online rather than face to face, this sense of loneliness and isolation has become an everyday reality for many of us.

The Feeling Of Loneliness Is Much More Complicated Than It Seems

It is not the lack of company that causes us to feel lonely and I’m sure you know this! Sometimes we can be in the middle of a lively party and feel painfully isolated. Other times we can spend long periods of time on our own without any discomfort or even desire for company. 

So, where’s the pain of loneliness coming from and what is the remedy?

We often experience the feeling of loneliness even when we are surrounded by other people. But why is this? Simple – the opposite of ‘loneliness is not  ‘company’. Loneliness is not the lack of company, loneliness is a lack of CONNECTION. 

So, to put it in a different way, the opposite of feeling lonely is feeling connected. It is having the sense of felt connection to another person, to ourselves, and to the world around us. 

feeling lonely

The Need For Connection And The Feeling Of Loneliness

It is not the lack of company that causes us to feel lonely and I’m sure you know this! Sometimes we can be in the middle of a lively party and feel painfully isolated. Other times we can spend long periods of time on our own without any discomfort or even desire for company. 

This sense of felt connection with others and with ourselves is one of our deepest longings. And at the same time, one of the greatest ways to feel content, fulfilled, and happy in life.

We are wired for connection, without it, we shrink and wither. 

You may wonder, why is this connection such a rare experience in spite of the fact that we crave it so much? 

The answer is because there is one thing necessary and indispensable for connection to happen. And this thing is not so easy to come around. 

It is safety. 

The Polyvagal Theory – Safety, Loneliness & Connection

The polyvagal theory, which is one of the most recent neuroscientific and psychological approaches to understanding and explaining how our nervous system works, gives us a lot of insight into this question.

According to this theory, there is a special part of our nervous system that is specifically designed for social interaction and connection. It is called the ventral vagal pathway. 

This pathway was last to evolve in terms of evolution and its task is to oversee the activity of all other pathways and create a state of health, balance, and social engagement.  

This is the state where we are grounded and regulated, experience optimal energy levels, are open to learning new things, curious about life.  It is in this state when our capacity for connection is at its fullest. We are safe, we are open, we are ready to give and receive. 

But …life is life and we can’t stay in this state permanently, of course. 

I feel so alone

How We Protect Ourselves And The Feeling Of Loneliness

When the ventral vagal pathway gets overwhelmed, or when we detect signals of danger and threat, our nervous system automatically switches first, to the sympathetic pathway – which is the mobilization of the fight and fights and then,  if this is not sufficient,  it shuts down into the dorsal vagal pathway – which is the freeze, collapse, and basically ‘playing dead’ mode.

But any shift away from safety is always a shift away from the connection as well. It’s either connection or protection – you can’t have both at the same time.  

This is of course all a life-saving mechanism and all of these pathways are needed and important to help us cope with life in the most adaptive way. A healthy nervous system is flexible. It can move in between these 3 states with ease, in response to what’s going on around us and inside us. It can restore balance and come back to the ventral vagal state -the state of health, wellbeing, and connection – over and over again.

How Trauma Stops Us From Feeling Safe

If we experienced a lot of trauma in our life (and we all had) or if we are regularly challenged by everyday life and events (like too much to do, life feels too stressful or too overwhelming, we are in a distressed or toxic relationship, we have a  challenging job) we often spend prolonged periods of time away from the balanced and optimal ventral vagal state. 

Instead, we are constantly stuck in the state of vigilance, defense, and survival. Either very far away from safety or (what happens most often) on the edge of safety, where nothing intense happens, you can still pretend all is ok,  but the constant watchfulness doesn’t allow you to relax fully and take a rest in here and now.

And where there’s no safety there is also no capacity for a deep, heartfelt connection. It is without this felt sense of connection (to others, to ourselves, to nature, to the world)- we can get very, very lonely. 

feeling lonely

3 Step Formula To Regulate Your Nervous System When Feeling Lonely

The good news is that you can learn how to come back to the state of safety and connection. 

There are easy and effective tools that can calm down your nervous system and restore balance – through breathing, movement, sound, and through experiencing new, safe connections with other people.

And once you learn and start using these tools you can gradually restore the flexibility of your nervous system, so that it doesn’t get stuck in survival or protection mode so much. 

Learning how to do this brings incredible benefits to our emotional wellbeing and to our physical health. I’m sure you can imagine that when you are constantly in the state of mobilization or lifeless withdrawal – a lot of systems in your physical body can’t function properly. So, restoring flexibility and balance is always a huge relief for your physical body. 

But there is more good news here! Learning how to regulate your nervous system will allow you to experience again (or sometimes or the first time) these life-changing, close, deep, heartwarming connections – that you long for so much – with people around you and with yourself.

Can you imagine how much richer and more meaningful your life becomes once this sense of felt connection is part of your everyday life? 

Get My Free Mini-Course with

 3 Powerful Strategies to Overcome 
Childhood Toxic Stress & Trauma 
&Unlock Your Potential and Reclaim Your Life!


Leave a Reply