You’re not alone if you’re feeling alone, especially in the run up to Christmas – here are some effective ways to reach out when you need to reconnect
Did you know that social isolation is as damaging to health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day? It’s a shocking fact, especially when you consider that nine million people in the UK say they often feel lonely – and, sadly, more than half of these people are afraid that no one will notice if something bad happens to them. So, with Britain being named the loneliness capital of Europe (due to the fact that we’re unlikely to know our neighbours or have strong friendships to rely on), and one in eight Brits admitting that they have no close friends, we decided it was time to tackle the issue with the help of our experts.
The last taboo
We often associate loneliness with older people, but it can actually affect those of all ages. Once we leave school and university, many of us move away from our home towns and find it harder to find friends as an adult – gone are the days of making friends with someone just because you happen to sit next to them in a classroom! While it can feel very shameful to admit that you’re lonely, perhaps because it goes against the idea of the sociable lives we think we should be having, talking about it can really help. “Pride comes before a fall,” agrees Dr Mark Winwood, director of psychological services at AXA PPP healthcare (axappphealthcare.co.uk). “Don’t be afraid to reach out to people and ask for help, companionship or just a chat. They may be feeling lonely too.”
If you haven’t socialised in a while, it might seem daunting to meet new people or open up to others, but you don’t have to make any radical changes: “Try starting by going to social places where there are other people, such as the cinema, a sports match, or a coffee shop,” says clinical psychologist and expert in long-term health, Dr Aria (dr-aria.com). “Even being around others can help with feelings of loneliness. The next step could be to go to a class that you will enjoy, whether that’s a book club or a bootcamp. By taking part in something with a common interest or goal, you can initially focus on the activity and then speak to others when you feel a little more relaxed.”
Stop comparing yourself
“The desire to ‘keep up with the Joneses is not a new one, but the rise of social media has exacerbated the problem by giving people the chance to constantly compare themselves with their peers,” explains Dr Winwood. “If you’re already feeling lonely, the idea that everyone else’s life is more idyllic than yours can make you feel even more isolated and alone. This can lead us to ‘compare and despair’ – which only makes it worse. Remind yourself that people only share what they want others to see about their lives. Don’t form unrealistic expectations about life and friendships based on what you see online.”If you’re feeling lonely in the run up to Christmas this year, try switching off from social media and give one of our alternative activities on the right a go to feel the difference for yourself.
Connect in other ways
If the idea of putting yourself out there sounds too daunting, there are other things you can do. “As strange as it may sound, we connect to animals and to nature,” states Dr Aria. “You can turn an ordinary walk in the park into an awe-inspiring experience. The key is your mindset. Follow these five simple ways to step outside of your usual routine and to connect to something larger and more significant than yourself. Research shows that this broader sense of connection can reduce negative moods and boost happiness.
1. Turn off your phone
2. Take three slow, deep, mindful breaths
3. As you walk, expand your awareness to your senses – feel your feet on the ground, listen, smell and see whatever is surrounding you
4. Shift your attention to anything that surprises, inspires and delights you
5. Every so often, take another three slow, deep, mindful breaths and allow yourself to relax and connect to the present moment
Be more open
It may be the case that you actually have lots of friends, but still feel alone. “If you have a fairly big social circle but don’t feel truly close to any of them, the underlying issue may be that you need to open up more,” says Dr Winwood. “Letting your friend or acquaintance in on your vulnerability or honest opinion can help to deepen your connection with them.”
Being generous can help you have a more positive mindset, which can help when you’re feeling lonely. “Try performing one random act of kindness each day,” says Dr Aria. “The acts can be big or small, but are even more effective if you carry out a variety. You can be kind to different people, and you don’t even have to know them. You could pay for someone’s coffee, donate blood, give someone flowers or a compliment, provide food to someone in need, or volunteer for a charity. After an act of kindness, write down in a notebook what you did and how it made you feel. One day a week, try to perform five acts of kindness in the same day. By taking these actions, research suggests that you’ll feel significantly happier, begin to shift how you see yourself, and start to notice the positive social interactions that you have.”
This is particularly true at Christmas time – if you know you will be spending the big day alone, why not organise to do some volunteer work? That way, you’ll be helping others, but also ensuring that you’re getting out of the house and socialising with other people. Visit do-it.org to find opportunities near you.
Keep all lines of communication open
You may be feeling lonely because, for whatever reason, you can’t be with your loved ones, but actually, as Dr Winwood explains, having a chat with a friend or relative over the phone can be the next best thing to being with them. “Or you can stay connected with loved ones online,” he adds. “Talk over Skype, exchange photos and keep up-to-date with the latest news from friends and family over email.” If you’re going to be apart from family at Christmas, be sure to schedule in time with them to catch up during the festive period.
Social media switch off
Social media can often be anything but social – especially when you’re feeling lonely and watching everyone else out having fun. Plus, research by the University of Pittsburgh found that spending too much time on social media can “elicit feelings of envy and the distorted belief that others lead happier and more successful lives”. So this season, try logging out of your accounts and do these things instead.
Download an app such as Headspace or Calm – the benefits of meditating are endless, and it should help you get into a more positive mindset.
Read a book
No, not on a tablet, but an actual book with pages! It’s a good way to reduce stress and unwind before bed, plus it can improve your focus and concentration.
Find a new recipe
Take the time to make a delicious dish – and enjoy not having to worry about how many likes it’s getting on Instagram.
Update your CV
Refreshing your CV can help you reflect on your achievements and get you ready to make that career move.
Channel your inner Marie Kondo and sort out your belongings – getting rid of them by recycling or donating them to charity can reduce feelings of anxiety, too.