You wake up the morning after a great night spent with friends, and before you can even reminisce about how you much fun you had, you’re gripped with fear. Everyone is gone, which means you’re—don’t say it, don’t say it—alone. It doesn’t matter that you were just surrounded by the people who love you, the fear of being alone has crept in, and it’s here to stay.
While you definitely know what this fear feels like, you might not know much else about it. Here’s the scoop: It’s a legit fear, known formally as autophobia, or monophobia.
If you have autophobia, ironically, you’re not alone. It’s a pretty common fear, says Dr. Chloe Carmichael, a clinical psychologist in Manhattan. “It’s also a common goal to have a partner.”
But that doesn’t make it any easier to understand—or overcome. “For people who are afraid of being alone, it’s a very powerful fear that has a big influence over how they live,” says Dr. Jill Squyres, a clinical psychologist in Vail, Colorado.
And while you can’t snap your fingers and make your fear disappear (I wish), you can learn everything about it, so that the next time it happens, you’re ready to take it on.
Is your fear normal?
Short answer: yes.
A certain level of fear is good for you because it’s “an evolutionary response that helps you survive,” says Carmichael. “From an evolutionary psychology standpoint, human beings are tribal animals.”
In fact, “people who felt nervous or afraid when they were alone quickly rejoined their tribe or clan, so they wouldn’t get hurt with no one to help,” adds Squyres. These people were more likely to live to adulthood and have children. So your fear isn’t designed to scare or sadden you but to give you the best chance of survival.
But how do you know if it’s a phobia?You know you have a serious fear of being alone when you always feel like you need another person or other people around in order to feel safe—even in a place that’s supposed to be comforting, like your home. As soon as you’re by yourself, you “may feel intensely lonely, bored, or anxious,” says Squyres.
If this happens a few times, that’s totally normal. But if you start to notice a pattern of fear, panic, or intense sadness every time you’re alone, then, she says, your discomfort is severe. And it might even cause you physical discomfort, like stomach aches, headaches, sore back or muscles, or even sleepiness, she adds.
So, yeah, it’s way more than just being bummed you’re single. Believe it or not, you can have this fear even when you’re in a relationship (more on that later).
You may also have trouble concentrating or getting tasks done, which can affect your professional life. “Fear of being alone can hold you back from success in many professions because working alone might be required for good job performance or advancement,” says Squyres.
Your fear could also hold you back from doing things you want to, just because you’re flying solo. Granted, some things are no fun if you’re by yourself, like karaoke or eating out alone on Valentine’s Day (sorry, it’s true).
But “there’s a difference between avoiding things that no one likes to do alone versus avoiding things that are perfectly normal to do alone—grocery shopping, getting a haircut,” says Squyres.
Where does your fear come from?
According to Squyres, there are three main causes of your fear:
- It can be a sign of a phobia about being alone.
How does your fear impact your relationships?
With romantic relationships, you might “find yourself compromising and going out with someone who’s treated you really poorly—just because you’d rather do that than be alone,” says Carmichael. That could lead you into rushing into a relationship with someone you don’t even like that much (which probs explains why it doesn’t last).
Most importantly, it messes up your relationship with yourself. You might start catastrophic thinking, which is when negative thoughts about yourself snowball in your head. “If you’re alone right now, don’t spin that into a fear [that you’re] always going to be alone,” advises Carmichael. “Remember that—by definition—every other single person in the world has also not yet met their life partner.”
How can you overcome this fear?
Well, ya gotta face it (and learning about it is a great start). Ignoring your fear is pretty dangerous because that’s when you’re “actually the most vulnerable to self-sabotaging, unhealthy behaviour,” like getting really clingy with someone you just started dating, explains Carmichael.
Instead, she encourages you to confront your fear by answering some hard questions: Is my fear signalling that I’m really afraid I’m not good enough to attract someone? Am I afraid of choosing the wrong person? Am I afraid of getting hurt along the way?
Distraction can be another good coping strategy, according to Squyres. But that doesn’t mean creating busy work for yourself—it means putting time and effort into the activities you find personally fulfilling, especially ones done solo.
You can also try meditation and/or yoga to learn specific ways to stay calm before fear takes over. Meditation and yoga can help slow down your knee-jerk reactions to fear by teaching you to focus on your breath or to count to 10 over and over again.
Once you’re calmer, you’re better able to respond to your fear logically.
Okay, so this one’s gonna suck, but you have to try it: practice being alone for a certain amount of time each day. Squyres recommends starting with a small goal, like 15 minutes.
Do that every day for a week, and then increase the goal to 30 minutes. Keep gradually increasing the amount of time each week. Proving to yourself that you can be alone should help you overcome your fear.
If your fear is more severe (aka it does impact your personal and professional life), psychotherapy can help you learn to overcome it, says Squyres.
“A good therapist can teach relaxation and breathing techniques to master fear, anxiety, panic, and emotional arousal,” she explains.
Cognitive behaviour therapy, in particular, can help you examine and counter the negative messages you tell yourself about loneliness so you stop thinking of it as something scary or dangerous.
You may even consider seeing a psychiatrist who can tell you whether or not antidepressant or anti-anxiety medication might help manage your fear.
“Learning to feel comfortable by yourself is an important part of emotional well-being,” notes Squyres. “Ultimately, we all need to learn that our true sense of safety comes from within ourselves.”