You’re alone at last.
“Holidays are all about togetherness,” says Suzanne Degges-White, “and it’s wonderful — people are piling into your house, you’re talking and being together and doing the things we love to do because we’re human. But we also need to retreat, and there’s nothing wrong with it. We need to carve out solitude; we need to find it.”
Degges-White, a psychology professor at Northern Illinois University, says that the need for alone time is as present and prevalent as ever — even though satisfying that need has gotten more confusing in modern society. The constant use of technology has caused growing concern over social isolation and lack of human interaction. Yet, it also has fostered a sense of endless, limitless connectivity. We are isolated, yet we are always on. “Even though we may think of it as mindless entertainment, we’re using our brains constantly,” says Degges-White.
Which is why being alone with a tiny glowing screen might remove you from the company of others, but it doesn’t feel the same as a walk in the woods. When it comes to the alone time your brain is asking for, phone time doesn’t count.
“Our brains were not meant to function at this high level that we insist on all the time,” Degges-White says. “We feel like we’re multitasking, but really we’re just constantly putting our brains into overdrive.” And brains, of course, are ancient machines that were not built to function that way. “The brain, unlike our devices, can’t be plugged into power and recharged. And sometimes I wonder when we are supposed to get our own processing, our own backing up done? Technology is great, but human evolution hasn’t caught up yet. We need a chance to reset.”
Giving Your Brain a Rest
Downtime for the brain has concrete benefits. Studies have shown that kids who attend tech-free camps get better at recognizing facial cues in others after logging device-free time. And research on early adolescents who spent some time in solitude showed an improved emotional state afterward. That means that taking a breather to be by yourself, without tech ties, will actually make you better at being with the people in your life.
Alone time also improves other brain functions, including decision-making and creativity, Degges-White says. “You can’t make good decisions if you don’t ever give yourself time to reflect.” And “if you’re constantly engaged in the world, it’s harder to make space for those moments of genius.”
Luckily, getting the alone time you need isn’t as hard as it may sound, even in our inherently busy world.
Start thinking of alone time as a need, just like food and water
You’re not asking for a treat, you’re maintaining your brain. I mean, you don’t need to bargain with yourself or others to brush your teeth every day, right? A little solitude is like brushing your brain: “It allows you to clear out all the stuff you don’t need.”
If alone time makes you antsy, get moving
“It helps to move the body,” says Degges-White. “It sounds so new-agey but it really does bring the mind and body into sync.” She recommends (podcast-free) walking or yoga poses to give your body something to do while your mind floats free. If you’re using a trip to the gym as alone time, Degges-White makes some recommendations. Skip the TV and other distractions, and let your mind tune in to what your body is doing. Or just tune out entirely.
Don’t invite rumination
“You want to reflect,” says Degges-White, “but not start ruminating.” The tendency to fall into a worry loop — endless stewing, with no real solutions emerging — can be a danger if you enter alone time with the intention of solving a particular problem. Time alone is a chance to allow yourself to “just be,” says Degges-White. “Reflection is not getting mired in your feelings so much as noticing things, raising that awareness.” Noticing if you start to worry, and changing your focus is one tactic to try. Adding physical activity to your alone time can help too.
Take alone time where you find it
We’re not all Thoreau. So if a forest walk isn’t in your cards, keep your eyes open for your own solitary moments. Even moments that we think of as “waiting” can function as quiet time if we recognize them as such. “After the birth of my third child,” says Degges-White, “I considered a trip to the dentist for a teeth cleaning a gift to myself. I was shocked at how I would feel, sitting in the waiting room, and I realized it’s because no one is asking anything of me.” Feeling that you are where you are supposed to be, yet momentarily at rest, can be freeing. “And once you experience that secret pleasure, you want it again.”
A good friend and I once admitted to each other that we can find near-perfect happiness cruising the grocery store, alone, late at night or early in the morning. Sometimes, I can hear those empty aisles calling. “You’re sneaking in ways to do something with yourself,” Degges-White says, “and there’s nothing healthier.”