Updated: May 12
Why you should read this blog
Loneliness affects almost 1 in 2 people in England. So even if you aren’t struggling with this yourself right now the chances are very high that someone you care about is.
This week is Mental Health Awareness Week (9-15 May 2022) and the focus is on loneliness: raising awareness and how to reduce it. I hope you will take the message from this blog that we need to working together as a society to reduce it.
Why focus on loneliness
Because it’s bad for our health. Our physical and mental health. In fact, data suggests that it’s actually a higher risk factor for some health conditions than the risk indicators you're more likely to be aware of already, like obesity, smoking and exercise.
Loneliness feels like a private problem but, similar to issues like discrimination and climate change, it is in fact a social problem; that is to say, an issue that we all need to be taking responsibility for. That's because the reasons that cause loneliness are often located in the way our society is structured (for example to label and separate out people with 'difference' which contributes to a feeling of disconnect).
The problem is that once someone is feeling lonely it’s hard to break out of it from the inside. If you're stuck in a lonely place you may need a helping hand from people around you in order to take those brave steps back into meaningful connections, or to have structures set up to practically help you do so (e.g. support groups; childcare; carers help and so on).
Why is loneliness bad for our health?
Loneliness is about being disconnected from our social group. As mammals our place in the social group is vital for survival. As soon as we suspect we don’t fit in or are being rejected it triggers the same stress reaction as any other threat would. Living with this over long periods of time wears you down both physically and emotionally.
We had a collective experience of this during the pandemic. Remember how strange it was socialising after lockdowns? Feeling nervous, wondering how to do small talk, feeling like you had nothing interesting to say because you hadn’t been anywhere or done anything? Well that’s the daily thought process of someone trying to break out of a loneliness spell, it’s an anxious and depressing place.
When we socialise with people we like, the act of talking, laughing and sharing releases oxytocin. That is often known as the cuddle hormone – but you don’t need to be cuddling to release it! Oxytocin is the antidote to the stress hormone cortisol. So the more regularly we have that the more readily our daily build-up of stress is being counterbalanced.
What is loneliness really?
Loneliness isn’t about being on your own. It’s actually an experience of feeling socially isolated or having a lack of meaningful social connections with those around you.
So this means you can be lonely because 1) you are physically alone a lot but don’t want to be and 2) you are around people but there are barriers to feeling connected to them. By the same token it’s possible to have very few people in your life and not feel lonely because you’ve really nurtured those relationships and they fill your emotional needs very easily.
As a psychologist I come across loneliness in my practice regularly. It’s not usually the main reason someone comes to therapy to work on, and often it’s not a word someone would use easily because of the shame that comes with it, but I’ve pulled out some themes from my years of therapy to help demonstrate why loneliness is so hidden.
Common reasons for feeling lonely despite being surrounded by friends and family
1) The people around you disrespect your boundaries by being demanding, using emotional blackmail to make you feel guilty or putting you down (commonly known as toxic relationships).
2) The people around you are babies and toddlers (early motherhood is a common time to feel lonely, even if you have a good relationship with your baby, it doesn’t meet all the emotional needs of a grown adult). So think maternity leave and single parents being at higher risk here.
3) You are at a life transition like moving to university or moving house so are surrounded by people that you haven’t properly got to know yet.
4) You are housebound due to mental or physical ill health, old age, or caring for others so you are surrounded mostly by professionals or carers rather than true friends.
5) You are in an abusive relationship where you are kept apart from others, you may only see your abusive partner or feel constrained when socialising due to this.
6) You are suffering with a mental health or cognitive difficulty that impairs your concentration and focus so you struggle to be present when you are with others.
7) You have experienced mental health issues or traumas that have affected your self-esteem or damaged your confidence in yourself as someone people want to know or that you have a group that you fit in with. This means you’re less likely to reach out to others.
8) You have experienced relational traumas (difficult relationships that were emotionally neglectful) and find it hard to trust people so you keep people at arm’s length. This means they never get to know you properly. Or the opposite, relational trauma can also make you very fearful of abandonment which means that you become clingy and constantly seeking reassurance which also interferes with meaningful connection.
You may be able to think of others that I’ve missed. Please drop them in the comments below.
Signs that someone you care about is lonely
The very nature of loneliness means that someone is socially withdrawn so this will be the biggest sign, that you haven’t seen them in a while or communicated with them. Pay attention to the quality of your latest interactions and how connected you felt with them, this can be a bit of a barometer as to how things are for them. If that feels poor then it’s probably time to rekindle the friendship by booking time together without distractions.
Other than this the chances are that there aren’t any significant signs because loneliness causes a strong sense of shame and that causes people to hide it. You may need to think about someone’s situation (use the eight categories above to guide you) in order to consider how at risk they are right now of loneliness. For example, if you know a mum on maternity leave or someone who is housebound due to illness, or a friend has just moved to a new location, then they are at higher risk right now and would probably love to know you’re thinking about them.
Practical things you can do after you finish reading this blog
In the good old days we would pick up the phone and call someone. I occasionally do this and my friends love it (or at least they tell me they do!).
If that’s a stretch too far then find an old ‘memory’ on your photos of you together and text it to them. Or a funny meme or quote. Tell them “I saw this and it made me think of you”. That’s a wonderful message to get isn’t it? It paves the way into the next part which is meeting up or chatting.
Another simple idea is to pen a short note to them, take a photo and text that. It’s slightly more personal. You could always post it but if you’re anything like me then it wouldn’t reach a post-box for weeks and we are trying to stick with quick and easy ideas here!
You can also connect quickly with people around you who aren’t necessarily friends. When the lady at the bus stop leans over to chat about the weather, try picking up the baton and conversing a little longer than you would usually. Research shows that we think we don’t want those types of daily interactions but actually they improve our mood more than we realise.
Think about loneliness in your workplace as well as your personal life. Which of your colleagues are more at risk? For example, people who started in the pandemic and worked remotely for a long time may not have integrated yet; people who continue to work remotely; people who have different interests or opinions from the dominant ones in your company. Think about how your team can come together in small ways to reduce their isolation.
How can I help myself if I'm struggling with loneliness?
Try to keep perspective on any unhelpful thoughts that accompany loneliness, such as 'I'm flawed' or 'I don't fit in anywhere'. Know that these are common thoughts when we feel alone and label them as such, say to yourself 'this thought is arising because I feel lonely right now'.
Remember that it is not your fault that you feel lonely. It is because of your life circumstances currently, social inequality or discrimination.
See if you can apply any of the tips in the section above, even in a micro way, so essentially trying to reach out to someone else who you think could be lonely. When we get to a dark place with loneliness it's easy to lose site of what's going on in other people's lives and using that as a starting place (i.e. how I can make my gran fell less lonely) can be easier than thinking about how to improve your own loneliness.
Look for any places that you might find a connection, even if it's online for now. Examples are support groups related to the area that's impacting on your loneliness for example carer's support or a group for your health condition. Even if this is virtual (e.g. a Facebook group) this is a step in the right direction.
If all of this is too hard then stop trying to do it alone and book some therapy (approach your GP or try Psychology Today), this is something that can definitely an area of life that can be improved with extra support.
On that note I'm off to call my friend who is stuck at home after a fall. Let me know what action you're taking this week for Mental Health Awareness Week in the comments.
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