You’ve not spoken to anyone all day, you feel a pang of sadness when you see friends socialising on social media, or maybe, even when you’re surrounded by loved ones, you can’t help but feel alone…
It’s a horrible feeling, isn’t it?
We all get lonely from time to time, but when loneliness lingers it can be truly crippling. After all, we’re social beings and we crave connection. It’s a fundamental human need.
Human beings are tribal by nature. In times gone by, it was actually key to our survival, allowing us to safely hunt and gather food. We still have this innate desire and that’s why we get lonely. As an emotion, it’s actually there to protect us, It’s our mind urging us to connect.
Not every type of loneliness is the same though. Some psychologists suggest that there are three key kinds of loneliness:
- Emotional loneliness: When you don’t have a partner or close friend with whom you’ve created a close, meaningful relationship.
- Social loneliness: When you don’t have an extensive social network of friends, colleagues or neighbours.
- Existential loneliness: This is a type of spiritual loneliness which makes us feel lonely even in a crowded room. It’s the universal feeling that we are all alone and separate from one another.
People tend to downplay their loneliness. But, if left unchecked, it can dampen our mood, tarnish our self-esteem, and create space for mental health problems to fester. And at a time when we are being told to self-isolate and practise social distancing, you may be feeling lonely more than ever before.
Nearly a quarter of British adults said that they felt lonely during the coronavirus lockdown, according to a study by the Mental Health Foundation. And surprisingly, young people were the worst affected, with 44% of 18-24 year olds admitting that they were lonely.
It’s strange. We live in a hyper-connected world yet, at times it can feel like we’re more lonely than ever, especially given the current lockdown restrictions.
But, the reality is, we’re never truly alone.
Just because there’s physical distance between you and your loved ones doesn’t mean you’re on your own. There are so many people, whether you realise it or not, who care deeply about you.
You’re worthy of meaningful connection. So don’t ever feel like you have to suffer in silence.
The ‘loneliness epidemic’: a cross-generational problem
There’s a common misconception that loneliness is a problem limited to the elderly. But that could be further from the truth.
Loneliness doesn’t discriminate. It can strike anyone, at any age, regardless of your background. In fact, nowadays, 16-24 year olds are the loneliest age group of all, according to the Loneliness Experiment by BBC Radio 4 — one of the UK’s largest studies on the subject. Surveying over 55,000 people, the study also found that 34% of 25-34 year olds are lonely ‘often or very often’, while 36% of 34-44 year olds felt the same.
We’re all likely to experience loneliness from time to time. Maybe you’re a recent graduate who’s found that the working-from-home grind is giving you cabin fever now you don’t have the usual office chit-chat to count on. Or perhaps you’re a retiree who’s shielding from the virus, so you can’t see your newborn grandchild or pop to the garden allotment.
Your loneliness might not even be related to Covid at all. Sometimes the hardest part of bereavement is not having someone to share your day with. Or if you’re a single mum, you might struggle to find the time to make a cup of tea for yourself, let alone organise a girls’ night out.
It’s a painful but common feeling. But, if loneliness is getting you down, just remember it’s usually a fleeting emotion. It will inevitably pass.
When are we more likely to be lonely
Loneliness can creep up on us at any time, even when we’re surrounded by friends and family. But there are instances when we may be more susceptible to it than others. For instance:
- If you’re experiencing a bereavement
- Socially isolating due to illness (e.g. Covid)
- Going through a breakup or divorce
- Just moved to a new area
- Started university
- Suffering from a mental illness
- Don’t have friends or family around you (e.g. if you’re estranged)
- If you’re a single parent or a carer and struggle to make time for your own social life
- If you experience discrimination (e.g. because of disability, mental illness, race or sexual orientation)
- Have experienced trauma or abuse and struggle to make connections
- During festive holidays such as Christmas
Is loneliness a mental health problem?
It’s easy to downplay our loneliness. We may not want to burden our loved ones or feel like other people have it worse. But loneliness can have a real physical and mental impact. Some research suggests that loneliness could be as lethal as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. And other studies have found that loneliness may be linked to an increased risk of mental health problems, including depression and sleep problems.
Feeling lonely isn’t a mental health problem but, unsurprisingly, the two are closely connected. When you’re in a bad headspace, you might tend to retreat into yourself, lose touch with friends and family, and find the cosy confines of your bed all-too enticing. This behaviour isn’t helpful though. It probably exacerbates your poor mental health and so the cycle continues.
Some people have misconceptions about mental illness and the stigma can be isolating too. Or if you’ve got a social phobia (or social anxiety) you may be so worried about other people’s disapproval that you struggle to create meaningful social interactions.
What to do if you’re feeling lonely
Let’s face it: loneliness can be heart-achingly sad. You might feel untrusting, unworthy or, at times, even invisible. But the good news is it’s often temporary, something we experience when we’re going through transitions in life such as starting university or moving to a new place.
That doesn’t mean it’s easy though. So in the meantime, here are a few tips to help you cope. They may not work for everyone but approach them with an open heart and an open mind. Because, who knows, they might just help you weather the storm…
Be kind to yourself
There are lots of practical steps you can take to make life less lonely. But don’t pile pressure on yourself to do everything at once.
Pushing yourself beyond your comfort zone can be scary, and loneliness is a horrible enough feeling without you being unkind to yourself too. Instead, set small targets that you can easily achieve and don’t focus on the things you can’t change.
Try not to compare yourself to others either. When you scroll through social media, it’s easy to feel like you’re missing out. Remind yourself that it’s not real-life though. It’s the best bit, edited and curated to perfection.
If you need help putting this into practice, try listening to the ‘Self-Kindness’ episode of Self-care, our new audio and video therapy library.
Learn to enjoy your own company
Human connection is a fundamental human need. However, being alone is sometimes a part of life — and that’s okay.
Spending time with yourself doesn’t have to equate to loneliness though. In small doses, it can even be fulfilling.
There’s a popular saying that “the most important relationship you’ll ever have is with yourself” and it rings particularly true when you’re alone. Use this time to get to know yourself, your values and your passions. So that when you try to make meaningful connections you know exactly what qualities to look out for.
Keep to a schedule
Boredom can be stifling. But, more worryingly, it can give space for loneliness to fester. This is where having structure and a routine can make a big difference. By distracting ourselves with absorbing activities, we can ease any painful emotions until time passes and we feel less lonely. What’s more, if we use our free time to master a new skill or hobby we may even start to feel more confident, competent and in control.
It’s easy to feel cut off during lockdown, so make an effort to stay connected with your loved ones. Thankfully, we’re in the age of the internet so you can use technology to help you bridge the divide. Why not play video games with friends, organise a virtual pub quiz or schedule a video chat with your co-worker?
More screen time isn’t always the best though. So if it gets too much, make sure you keep things verbal too. Sometimes hearing a human voice over the phone can offer more assurance and comfort than a text message ever could. If you live with friends or family try to spend quality time with them in-person also. Even something as simple as eating dinner together can do wonders for our mental wellbeing.
Speak to a therapist
If you’re lonely and feel like you’ve got no one else to talk to, there are plenty of highly trained psychologists who can help. Therapy might give you the safe space you need to untangle your thoughts and find ways to bring more connection into your life.
Assess your connections
Ever feel like you’re always the instigator, regularly arranging plans only for them to fall through at the last minute? Or maybe your friend can be condescending or makes snide remarks that make you feel small?
In a world where we have hundreds if not thousands of social media connections, it’s only natural that some of these bonds are better than others. The negative or draining people in your life won’t cure your loneliness. If anything they might exacerbate it. So remember, it’s not the quantity of your connections that matter — it’s the quality.
Take the time to assess your friendships and spend more time with those who make you feel seen and appreciated. Because when you remove the toxic people from your life, you make more room for the good ones to stick around.
Don’t numb the feelings
It’s understandable if you want to ease your loneliness. But try to resist the temptation of alcohol, cigarettes, drugs or gambling. These bad habits only offer short-term relief and, in the long run, they could inevitably make your mental health worse.
Create opportunities for connection
Sometimes the last thing you want to hear when you’re lonely is to ‘put yourself out there’. Reaching out, making yourself vulnerable and talking to a stranger is enough to make anyone’s stomach do somersaults. We get it.
However, if the reason you’re lonely is that you don’t meet enough people, you might find it helpful to put yourself in situations where friendships can blossom organically. It can take guts to talk to a stranger so why not go to a class where you can do something side by side? Pick something you’re truly passionate about. Maybe you’ve always wanted to give pottery a whirl or dream of singing in a choir? There’s no pressure to talk if you don’t want to, but there’s plenty of opportunity for casual chit-chat if you fancy it. It’s a win, win.
Reframe your thinking
‘I have no friends’, ‘They don’t want to hang out with me’, ‘They just made up an excuse to cancel our plans’…
Sound familiar? It’s easy for negative thoughts to cloud our judgement. But when you’re in this headspace it’s only natural that you might struggle to form meaningful connections.
Next time, you find yourself stuck in a negative spiral, ask yourself: Is this true? What evidence is there to back up these thoughts? Maybe your friend didn’t snub you when you invited them for a catch-up. If they say they are busy, they probably are. Chances are it’s got nothing to do with you. So don’t assume the worst or jump to conclusions.
Talk about your feelings and check in with others
It’s easier said than done. Opening up about your loneliness can be nerve-wracking but remember so many people are in the same boat as you. More than 9 million people suffer from loneliness in the UK, according to research by the British Red Cross. So odds are you have a friend, family member or co-worker who is struggling too. Starting the conversation takes guts but it could do you — and those around you — so much good.