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Go It Alone

Some people cherish their “me” time while others cringe at the thought. Here’s why some solitude can be beneficial to your mental health.

| August 14th, 2012
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Imagine a whole day, all to yourself.

That may sound luxurious to some, but for some of us the very idea sparks a carousel of fears. What if our friends are having fun without us? What if the time alone invites bad memories to resurface? What if we're tempted to devour that entire carton of ice cream in the freezer?!

Relax (literally), here’s help for these and other alone-time anxieties.

QUIZ: How Do You Feel About You?

The Benefits of Time Alone

1.     RECHARGING

Moments by yourself give you time to recover your resources from the stress of being around others.

“The basic idea,” explains YouBeauty's Relationship Scientist David Sbarra Ph.D., “is that spending time alone may provide people with an excellent opportunity to reset their ability for self control, and in effect recharge for the demands of daily life. The reason people call it recharging your battery is essentially you are. You're resetting your regulatory capacity in that you're setting aside space and time in which you're not having your energy sucked from you.”

A study by Reed Larson and Meery Lee at the University of Illinois had people answer a series of general questions about their wellbeing. Larson and Lee found that people comfortable with being alone had generally lower rates of depression, fewer physical ailments and better overall satisfaction with life.

2.     SELF-REGULATION

Our ability to resist temptations, make wise choices and control our behavior—works like a muscle, says Sbarra. Use it repeatedly and eventually it gets worn out. Just think of that tub of Ben & Jerry’s sitting in your freezer after a long, exhausting day. Our defenses are worn down because our ability to self-regulate has dwindled.

MORE: 3 Ways to Be Kinder to Yourself

“There's very good evidence that all the demands during the day deplete our regulatory resources,” Sbarra says.

And one surefire path to self-regulation fatigue? Social situations.

“You can get depletion effects from interacting with other people—especially ones that are difficult to get along with.”

Sbarra points to a study by Eli Finkel of Northwestern University and colleagues in 2006. They found that following frustrating social interactions, study participants fared worse solving GRE questions, choosing difficult, but satisfying tasks over easy ones and using their fine motor skills in the board game Operation. 

3. AN END TO ANXIETY

If you avoid being alone in order to avoid facing certain thoughts, Sbarra says you're actually prolonging the existence of those irksome feelings.

“The more you run from your anxiety,” he explains, “the more it becomes difficult to experience the full range of your emotion.”

Next time you're alone, rather than brushing off troubling thoughts, give them some bandwidth. For example, “Hmm, I'm feeling worried about my position at work right now,” would be a nonjudgmental way of noting job anxieties.

“Research suggests that the best thing to do in these circumstances is to experience your emotion and then let it pass,” Sbarra advises. “Learn to live with whatever may come without reacting to it. It's a very important skill.”

MORE: Guide Your Way Through Anxiety

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