The importance of time alone
In the next of her fortnightly columns, our wellbeing columnist Hannah Bullimore considers the mental health benefits of socialising with yourself.
By Hannah Bullimore
As a teenager, I spent many hours alone.
I was really unwell from the age of 11, which meant many of my teenage years were spent at home, unable to do much of anything.
I spent a lot of time reading, writing and watching endless repeats of America’s Next Top Model – yep, this girl knows how to live!
And even now that my health has greatly improved and I have (and appreciate) a busy social life, I also revel in the peace and contentment of time alone. I like to think of it as learning a valuable lesson from a difficult time.
Why? Because I’m an introvert and I need time alone to recharge. But also, I enjoy the space it gives my brain to be creative and think through whatever is going on in life.
Last summer, I went through some pretty heavy stuff. There was grief, there was heartbreak and there was quite a bit of confusion about what I wanted to do with my life. I spent whole days walking on my own, dealing with my grief and trying to find as much joy as possible from the beauty of the world around me.
One of my favourite memories from last year was walking from home to Beamish, which is about 12 miles. I packed lunch, took my book and started walking while listening to music. I found myself by a stream, in a patch of sunshine, eating lunch and reading my book with not a soul around. The only sounds were birds chirping, the water rippling below me and the wind rustling the branches overhead. I was completely alone and felt so peaceful, despite the heavy stuff that was waiting for me in ‘real life’.
Another day, I went swimming in the sea. I got up early and arrived at the beach where there was just a scattering of other swimmers. I plodded into the water and found myself in the chilly sea, alone. I looked out to the horizon and felt this overwhelming joy to be there, just me and the big blue.
These beautiful moments of solitude told me everything was going to be just fine.
Moments alone teach us that we can manage just as we are. They teach us to be comfortable with the quiet, with our own minds and with the things that are less than perfect.
I’ve also found that being alone teaches me to look more closely and take in and appreciate the small, beautiful details. The way shadows flit across water, the conversations around me, the beautiful view over the Quayside when I’m wandering around town. Things that, if I was caught up in conversation, I probably wouldn’t notice.
The Mental Health Benefits
I’m sure we all know the relief of finally getting a moment to ourselves after a busy day. But did you know that time alone has scientifically been proven to be beneficial for your mental health?
A recent study found that those who spend time alone could be improving their brain health and memory. Alone time promotes processes in the brain as we create information and build memories for ourselves. There are certain areas of the brain – responsible for memory, creativity and empathy – which actually ‘require withdrawal from perceptual experiences’.
Similarly, another study suggests that those who are unsociable are most likely to be creative ‘because anxiety-free time spent in solitude may allow for and foster creative thinking and work’.
After all, when we think of the great writers and artists of the past, we probably imagine them locked away working tirelessly on their masterpieces.
But what does this mean for us?
I don’t know about you, but the demands of modern life often have me feeling burned out.
There is always a to-do list – plan a lesson, get my outfit ready, make breakfast, get to yoga, check in with that friend whose message I haven’t replied to yet…
I like an hour to myself every night. And by ‘to myself’, I mean no texting friends, no social media, not even a conversation with my nearest and dearest. I like to feel as though I can switch my brain off and let it idle while I watch TV, listen to a podcast or read my book.
This time alone is perhaps the easiest to try if you are never alone with your own thoughts. Begin with 10 minutes of something that brings you down from the workday.
Next up, though, is time alone in public. Start off small: a cup of coffee on your way home from work; shop alone and concentrate on what you want, rather than anyone else’s opinion.
For many previous generations of women, time alone out in the world, doing whatever they wanted, was seen as frivolous, perhaps even unacceptable.
But your time is valuable. And your time is your own. So, use it how you want to.
Some of you may be wondering why I’m being so pushy with the concept of time spent alone. You might not be interested in creativity or in improving your memory, but there are more benefits.
I think most of us could do with improving our confidence levels. As women, we often feel the need to downplay our achievements or apologise for ourselves. Time spent alone will prove to you that you are capable of anything you want to do, without having to wait for anyone else.
Can there be anything more empowering than that?
I think that many of us still feel the force of peer pressure in our 20s and 30s. It’s not the same beast that dictated our skirt length and lip gloss colour back in our teens; it’s the hangover of the judgy girls in school, the impressive women in the office and all that social conditioning constantly telling us we aren’t quite enough.
Often, when we spend time alone, this conditioning becomes louder as we worry we’ll look lonely. But when have you ever seen a woman alone and thought that? I’ve spoken to a few women attending events on their own, including yoga retreats, workshops and plays – each time these women have inspired me to have the freedom to do what I want and never wait for someone else to make me feel more comfortable.
And finally, preparing for the future.
Let’s face it, at some point in life you will be faced with a choice: go and do something you want to do alone, or stay at home because there’s no one to go with you.
If we can practice the small things like a glass of wine in a bar on a Friday on our own, then we’re preparing our future selves for whenever they’re asked to make that choice.
Luckily, there’s a wealth of inspiration to get you feeling more confident going into the world on your own.
From the ultimate solo travel book, Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert, to Shayla Quinn’s inspiring podcast, The Yoga Inspired Life, which covers mindfulness, living alone and moving to New York City. I highly recommend her YouTube channel for more solo inspiration, too; whether it’s moving to a new place alone or making friends as an adult.
Next time you hesitate over spending time alone, just remember: you’re possibly improving your brain, you’re leaving more space for creativity, and you’re preparing yourself so that you won’t ever have to wait for anyone else again.