Everyone experiences loneliness at times. But having a mental health issue like bipolar disorder can increase your chances of feeling lonely, and that, in turn, can make your mental health worse. So how do you halt this damaging cycle? In a recent webinar hosted by the International Bipolar Foundation, mental health counselor and coach Kathy Lutes shared her insights about bipolar and loneliness \u2014 what it really is, how to overcome it and the special challenges faced by those with bipolar disorder. It\u2019s knowledge she gained not just through years of study but firsthand. In 1995, Lutes was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and spent the next few years in and out of psychiatric hospitals. It was an experience that introduced her to the stigma, isolation and insecurity a mental health diagnosis can bring. \u201cYou find yourself feeling not worthy, less than, like you don\u2019t belong anywhere, and you start making assumptions about what other people think,\u201d she said. In time, however, Lutes came to understand that by cultivating acceptance, compassion and awareness, healthy connections can be forged and loneliness can be overcome, no matter what life sends your way. Today, she spreads that message as a passionate advocate for those living with mental illness. \u201cThis is one of the most important things I\u2019ve learned: I am the person responsible for my happiness. Nobody else is. Not even my circumstances. \u2026 We can\u2019t wait for other people to make us happy because we will suffer for a long time when we do.\u201d Challenging Our Stories The first step in the process, Lutes said, is understanding what loneliness really is. It\u2019s not necessarily being physically alone. You can be lonely in a room full of people, she said. Instead, \u201cloneliness is perceived social isolation, or the discrepancy between what you want from your social relationships and your perception of those relationships.\u201d And the key word here, she said, is \u201cperception\u201d \u2014 the stories you tell yourself about that gap. For example, do you find yourself thinking that people must not want to be around you when your phone doesn\u2019t ring or a text isn\u2019t returned right away, or do you assume they\u2019re simply busy? Do you tell yourself that because a person said no to an invitation once that they\u2019ll always do so, or do you keep trying? It\u2019s crucial to pay attention to your perceptions and challenge them, Lutes emphasized, rather than defaulting to the negative. Consistent loneliness should also be understood as a cue that something is amiss that needs to be addressed, she said. And for those with bipolar disorder, that begins with recognizing that the illness comes with challenges for everyone in the relationship. For example: \tMood instability. \u201cSometimes we are feeling great,\u201d Lutes said. \u201cThen we change on a dime. So that\u2019s hard for our friends, but it\u2019s hard for us too because we don\u2019t know what we\u2019re going to wake up feeling like.\u201d \tLack of energy and depression in a depressive stage. For her, Lutes said, that sometimes means an inability to do much of anything. \u201cThat\u2019s pretty tough for a relationship. And it tends to make us isolate. Meanwhile, our friends don\u2019t understand why we aren\u2019t calling them back.\u201d \tDistorted thinking. \u201cI describe bipolar disorder as living in a room full of mirrors because everything was about me. I spent so much thinking about how bad I felt that I was missing out on so many other things. I took things very personally. \u2026 Maybe that\u2019s unique to me, but I think that\u2019s a struggle we sometimes have. And that makes me not as available to the people I\u2019m in a relationship with.\u201d \tAnxiety. This is not only the anxiety that can come with a diagnosis but the anxiety others feel for us, Lutes said. \u201cIf we\u2019ve been suicidal or made suicide attempts, it\u2019s really scary for them when we isolate or we don\u2019t call them back. It\u2019s a challenge we need to be aware of.\u201d \tFeeling misunderstood. \u201cIf you haven\u2019t experienced bipolar disorder, you really can\u2019t understand it,\u201d Lutes said. \u201cWe can do our best to educate others and help them understand, but that continual sense of not being understood is one of the things that is really injurious to us and why we need to find good support in our lives.\u201d Moving Away From Loneliness Once these challenges are recognized and understood, it then becomes easier to take steps to overcome loneliness and keep it at bay. Among the actions that help, Lutes said: Stick to your treatment plan. \u201cStay on your medication. Stay in touch with your therapist. If your medications aren\u2019t working, get in touch with your psychiatrist to get those right. Do what you need to do to take care of yourself. \u2026 You will feel better. You will feel more stable. That\u2019s one of the things that will help you most.\u201d Be willing to initiate socializing. This is tough, Lutes said, because we all fear rejection. \u201cBut if you don\u2019t reach out then you could miss out on some of the best relationships of your life. It\u2019s scary, but really think about this: Why are you so afraid somebody won\u2019t like you?\u201d Build on your circle of friends. Consider volunteering, take a class, become a dog walker, join a club or organization \u2014 whatever interests you. And put your focus where it is valued. \u201cI found myself spending a lot of time trying to get people who didn\u2019t like me to like me,\u201d Lutes said, \u201cinstead of focusing on the people who did like me and spending more time there.\u201d\u00a0 Know yourself. What is happening when you feel lonely? Are you by yourself? With certain people? Away from certain people? What is happening when your loneliness goes away? By answering these questions, you\u2019ll better understand what\u2019s driving your feelings. The next step is simple: Try to do more of what helps and less of what hurts. Don\u2019t let social media substitute for real relationships. And be wary of comparison, Lutes said. Remember, you\u2019re seeing a sanitized \u201cgreatest hits\u201d version of someone\u2019s life on that Facebook feed, not reality. In short, she said, \u201cDon\u2019t compare your inside to someone else\u2019s outside.\u201d \u00a0Resist self-focus. Become aware of how you interact with others. For example, when you have conversations, are they usually about you? Looking beyond your own concerns not only helps take you out of your own troubles, it makes you a better friend. Set realistic expectations. \u201cKnow that people will disappoint you,\u201d Lutes said, \u201cbut not everyone. So if you\u2019ve had some bad encounters and allow those things to keep you from ever reaching out again or having another friend, you\u2019ve hurt yourself.\u201d Be the kind of friend you want, and remember not to expect that everyone will love you, or always act the way you want, or do things the way you like, or know what you\u2019re thinking, Lutes said. \u201cAnd don\u2019t expect them to always be OK. That\u2019s important because we tend to look at other people and think they don\u2019t have problems, but everyone has something in their life.\u201d Be aware of distorted thinking. It can take many forms, Lutes said: all-or-nothing thinking in which we see ourselves as failures because we fall short of perfection; disqualifying the positive, in which we dwell only on the negative, and much more. Remember, by paying attention to the stories you tell yourself about why you are lonely, you can prevent yourself from making situations unnecessarily worse. Spend time on your self-esteem. \u201cOne of the things we need to do to be connected with other people is to like ourself,\u201d Lutes said. And that feeling can take a hit with a mental health diagnosis. \u201cIt\u2019s that sense that we have failed in some way that really takes away our confidence,\u201d said Lutes, who admits that she lived for years in self-loathing. \u201cThink about what you are telling yourself. \u2026 Remind yourself that you are still the same person. Your diagnosis may have made life more difficult but you haven\u2019t changed.\u201d Brush up on your social skills. If you need help learning how to communicate with others, check out a book on the subject or avail yourself of the many self-help options online. Practice conversations in front of the mirror. If you feel you\u2019re dealing with a social phobia or social anxiety, get professional help to overcome it. \u00a0Connect with yourself. Time alone doesn\u2019t have to be lonely. \u201cWhat are the things you like to think about when you are alone? What are the things you like to do? Perhaps you like to paint, so paint when you\u2019re by yourself. It will help improve the quality of your life,\u201d Lutes said. Alone time can also be used as a quiet moment to connect with God or a sense of spirituality. Have a plan. When you\u2019re depressed, being alone can be dangerous and it is wise to recognize that, Lutes said. \u201cWe begin to get in a spiral of telling ourselves a story. We think, \u2018Nobody loves me. I don\u2019t belong. Nobody ever invites me to anything.\u2019\u201d Our inner critic, she said, that voice that agrees with all the negative things we think about ourselves, can go unchallenged. \u201cSo that\u2019s when you want to have a plan: Call somebody, walk outside, go to the store, interact with another person.\u201d You can and should take on that voice, Lutes said, but allow yourself to invite others to be on your side. Try opposite action. This is a technique from dialectical behavioral therapy, Lutes explained. For example, when you find yourself wanting to be alone, do the opposite \u2014 go be with people. \u201cIt can help you begin to get unstuck.\u201d Encourage other people. \u201cHere\u2019s the gift in that: When you encourage other people, it\u2019s amazing how much you\u2019ll feel encouraged yourself.\u201d Creating Healthy Perspectives Although it takes commitment to fight off loneliness, it\u2019s worth every effort, not only for our happiness but for our health. Loneliness has been linked to physical problems and cognitive decline and is a risk factor in early death. Research even shows that loneliness can trigger cellular changes that cause illness. We are meant to connect. Why else would solitary confinement be reserved as the ultimate punishment, Lutes noted? The key thing to remember regarding our feelings of loneliness, Lutes said, is that so much of it has to do with our perception of it. The reality, she said, is \u201cyou are stronger than you know and you are more capable than you ever dreamed and you are loved more than you can ever imagine. \u2026 Remind yourself every day you can do this, little steps at a time."