Jan. 4, 2024

How to conquer loneliness and build social courage

Student Wellness Services counsellor Thomas Ambrozaitis says developing social connections is important to one’s health and well-being
Friends connecting over coffee
Brooke Cagle via Unsplash

Forming meaningful connections has become increasingly difficult in today’s digital and post-pandemic world — and for many, the challenge has never felt greater.   

Studies show the crucial connection between social interactions, mental well-being and overall life satisfaction. Loneliness has emerged as a significant concern for the younger population, particularly for those aged 15 to 24 who expressed higher frequencies of loneliness, with nearly one in four reporting that they always or often feel lonely. Almost half of those feeling frequently lonely reported fair or poor mental health, contrasting with a mere seven per cent among those who rarely or never felt lonely.  

Loneliness has become such an important issue that the World Health Organization created a commission to highlight and address loneliness, focusing social connection as a public health priority. 

Addressing this critical issue, Thomas Ambrozaitis, a counsellor at Student Wellness Services at the University of Calgary, developed a workshop as part of UCalgary’s annual UFlourish expo. The workshop aimed to proactively tackle social isolation and loneliness among post-secondary students by enhancing social interaction and fostering relationships within the campus community.  

It offered a holistic approach to overcoming loneliness on campus — addressing fears, providing practical strategies and emphasizing the science of connection to contribute to a healthier and more connected campus environment.      

Address the fear of rejection by building up 'social courage' 

Ambrozaitis identifies the fear of rejection as a significant barrier to relationship-building. In his workshop, he integrated acceptance and commitment therapy and cognitive-behavioural therapy to explore how our perceptions of ourselves and the world shape our interactions.  

“We miss a lot of opportunities for connection because we have a skewed perception of the world around us that is based largely on fear and anxiety,” he says in an interview.  

Our survival instincts come into play when we’re in uncomfortable situations, but our fears are often skewed, says Ambrozaitis: “It’s difficult to rationalize our brain’s irrational arguments when we’re in a heightened state of alert. The takeaway is that we don’t have to wait until we feel confident to go up and talk to someone; action precedes emotion.” 

In his workshop, the counsellor took participants through real-life scenarios to discover actions we can take to overcome social anxiety, conquering the fear of rejection and developing “social courage" — the ability to act despite discomfort.  

"For many, addressing loneliness and building social courage is more effective in a social setting than in a one-on-one therapy session," Ambrozaitis says. "It's not about diagnosing social anxiety; rather, it's about addressing the everyday, common fears that many of us face in social situations.” 

For Ambrozaitis, the first step is to take notice of our thoughts and predictions and ask if they are fitting with what he calls the Three Big Lies of Anxiety: "Things will only go badly; Things won't just be bad — they'll be extremely bad; and We will have no ability to cope."  

Once the thought pattern has been established, Ambrozaitis says, we can “consider more realistic alternative thinking, often the inverse of the Three Big Lies: Things also turn out well or neutral; Even when bad, they typically don't go as badly as we predict; and We tend to handle undesirable outcomes better than we think we will.”  

Act in alignment with your values  

Acting in alignment with personal values emerges as a dominant strategy for developing social courage, with Ambrozaitis stressing that, rather than confidence being a prerequisite for action, confidence can emerge from our behaviour — acting and repeating a ‘confident action,’ even though one might not feel confident, along with the repetition of that action, can inspire a feeling or growth of confidence. 

For example: “If you value confidence, ask yourself what a ‘confident’ person would do in the situation you’re in, then do that,” he says. “Action precedes confidence; the same goes for the value of ‘connection’ or making friends.” In other words, consider this: What does a person who values relationships and connection in their life do to create or maintain connections? 

For Ambrozaitis, it’s all about pushing through the fears that act as barriers and putting yourself in situations where you have the opportunity to forge a connection. “If you want to become confident, you have to do confident things  — which can be as simple as saying hello,” he says. 

Seize opportunities and know you’re not alone 

Post-secondary students have the advantage of experiencing daily scenarios where a first attempt at a connection can be made, says Ambrozaitis: “There are so many ways to strike up a conversation … ask to borrow a pen or share notes, nine times out of 10, that person is eager to reciprocate your effort.”   

For staff and faculty who may not find themselves in the same daily scenarios as students, Ambrozaitis highlights shared experiences and the advantage of working at the same university.

“We’re all co-workers, so we have that in common and many of us have opportunities to attend university events, panel discussions, in-person workshops and more,” he says. “The opportunity to engage is the key; once you take the opportunity, you’ve already done the hardest part.”  

Ambrozaitis says his own experiences are often mirrored in his clients, reinforcing that loneliness isn't an isolated experience. 

"We all experience loneliness, and making friends is easier for some than others,” he says. “People feel like they're already too late, that everyone already has their people, but that's just not true."     

The core of Ambrozaitis’s message for those seeking connections is the understanding that the fears we harbour about social interactions are often more intimidating than the actual risks, emphasizing the importance of consistently practising social courage to develop a habit of making meaningful connections. 

UCalgary students can register for an upcoming social courage workshop and “speed friending” event on Friday, Jan. 12 or Friday, Jan. 24. Participants will learn about anxiety, fear and social courage, engage in organized chats with peers and meet new people.   

UFlourish is hosted by Student Wellness Services and Staff Wellness with the support of the Campus Mental Health Strategy (CMHS). There are several events from 2023 available to watch online. To inquire about programming an event for UFlourish 2024, e-mail uflourish@ucalgary.ca

Complementing Thomas Ambrozaitis' UFlourish workshop, Richard Lee-Thai, TEDx speaker, connection consultant and author, also delivered a session on connection during UFlourish. The session, also available to watch online, normalized discussions around loneliness and delved into the science of connection.  

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