Feelings of isolation and loneliness can be overwhelming, and sadly it seems that it’s on the rise.
According to the Office for National Statistics, Britain is the loneliness capital of Europe. It seems that many of us Brits are unlikely to know who our very neighbours are. We will forget or feel we don’t have friendships we can rely on. In fact, nine percent of us of all ages don’t have a single close friend.
All of this can have an affect on our physical and mental health, leaving us unsure of where to turn. With this in mind, we’ve called in the experts to show us some easy ways to take back control.
How can I feel alone when I’m surrounded by people?
You don’t have to be alone to feel lonely. “It’s possible to experience feelings of loneliness even when you’re surrounded by colleagues, friends or family,” says Alexandra Lees, life coach and co-founder of Wu Wei Wisdom (wuweiwisdom.com). “Often this happens when you lose the connection with the ’authentic you’ and are unable to honestly express yourself in your personal or professional life. Many people also crave positive attention from others so they can feel good about themselves, but this often doesn’t work and so they end up feeling lonely. Remember that you don’t need to be a social butterfly or always busy to be a successful or happy person.”
How does loneliness affect our health?
There are various triggers for loneliness, including bereavement, retirement, children leaving the home, shyness, living far from family and low income – and it’s not simply a mental health issue.
“One of the reasons that loneliness is so bad for us is that it makes it harder for us to control our habits and behaviour,” says Chloe Ward, technician at Smart TMS, a mental health clinic specialising in transcranial magnetic stimulation (smarttms.co.uk). “Tests by US psychologists show that the expectation of isolation reduces our willpower and perseverance, making it harder to regulate our behaviour, leading to overindulgences of things like food and alcohol. Further research in 2008 found that middle aged people who are lonely report more exposure to stress. Those who are lonely are more likely to withdraw from engaging with others and less likely to seek social support which, in turn, makes them more isolated. Studies have also shown that loneliness can affect the immune and cardiovascular systems, placing individuals at risk of health problems.”
But wait, there’s more: “Lonely people are more likely to suffer from depressive symptoms, as they’ve been reported to be less happy, less satisfied and more pessimistic,” Chloe tells us. “Research has found that loneliness puts individuals at greater risk of cognitive decline and gives them a 64 percent increased chance of developing clinical dementia.”
It makes for a scary read, particularly as this is an issue that could affect any of us at any time.
“Middle age is a period of life and development that is often neglected,” says psychotherapist Toby Ingham (tobyingham.com). “This is a point in life where we either have or haven’t ticked off our earlier ambitions, be them having a family or getting to a certain level in our career. In our late 30s and 40s, we can start to feel flat and that life and the world is passing us by. It’s easy to mistake this period for the beginning of the end but it doesn’t have to be like this. In fact, it should be a time to reflect on where we are and to think about what we want to do next.”
I feel isolated. What can I do to beat it?
Use the recognition that you are feeling lonely, as an important reminder to respond and do something about it.
Toby explains: “We need to use the feeling of loneliness as a signal that something requires attention. Perhaps a relationship has failed, your children have left home, you’ve suffered bereavement, or maybe you’ve been made redundant. Any of these things can affect your confidence, so you are bound to need time to adjust and recover.”
Luckily, there are many ways to overcome loneliness and help you feel happy once again.
1. Be kind to yourself
“You’ve recognised that something requires attention, so it’s important to develop a supportive attitude,” Toby says. “Use this as the beginning of focusing on the changes you’re going to make. Be patient – you need to give yourself some time to see the kind of things you want to do next.”
2. Stop comparing yourself to others
“The desire to keep up with the Joneses is not a new one but the rise of social media has only exacerbated the problem by giving us the chance to constantly compare ourselves to others,” says Eugene Farrell, head of trauma support services at AXA PPP Healthcare (axappphealthcare.co.uk). “If you’re already feeling lonely, the idea that everyone else’s lives are more idyllic than yours can make you feel even more isolated and alone. Remind yourself that people only share what they want others to see about their lives. Don’t form unrealistic expectations about life and friendship based on what you see online.”
3. Don’t suffer in silence
“The best first step you can take is to talk to someone.” says Tim Hipgrave, emotional health lead at Nuffield Health (nuffieldhealth.com).
“If you feel like you don’t have anyone close to you, or are uncomfortable talking to friends or family, it might be worth talking to someone neutral. The Samaritans provide a free helpline (116 123) to anyone struggling with their emotional wellbeing.”
4. Take it slow
“If you’ve felt lonely for a while, throwing yourself in at the deep end could only serve to make the problem worse,” Eugene tells us.
Going at you own pace is very important to ensure you get the maximum benefits. Simply start small and working you way up.
“With loneliness, slow and steady often wins the race.”
5. Address the root cause
More often than not loneliness can be a symptom of an underlying cause you potentially haven’t realised or yet addressed.
“You might have trouble trusting people, or you may feel isolated due to depression, for example. It’s a good idea to think about what might be causing your loneliness and try to address these issues head on” Tim explains.
Whether this be through self help, therapy or help of loved ones. Whatever you need to see and make those positive changes.
6. Keep active
“Exercise releases feel-good hormones, so working out regularly can help improve your outlook, making you feel more positive,” Tim explains. “Finding ways to keep active, such as joining a gym class, can also introduce you to new people and provide regular contact points to build connections into your weekly routine.”
7. Open up to your partner
We often find ourselves guilty of hiding our feelings from those we love in fear of causing negative impacts. However, sharing our feelings can often result in positive outcomes. Sometimes it make us realise the issues we face and allow us to take that first step in resolving them.
“If you’re in a relationship but are still lonely, it could be a sign that you’re feeling misunderstood..,” says life coach Olga Levancuka (olgalevancuka.com).
The best course of action would be to share your feelings with your partner. This will eliminate that sense of isolation and make sure not to take one another for granted.
“A great way to connect to people in your local area is to volunteer your time,” says Tim. “Pro-actively supporting your community will introduce you to new people and help you to feel grounded in your area. Research has also found that helping others makes us feel happy, so volunteering can help improve your mental wellbeing, too.”