As social media comes into its own as a means for keeping in contact, many of us still miss the joy of in-person connection. While it may be early to talk about potential lonliness when social distancing - some of the tips in this article can be put in place now, and perhaps those feelings can be held off a little better...rather than trying to deal with them if they wash over you.
What is lonliness.
Loneliness is a feeling of sadness. It is not to be confused with “isolation”. Isolation is where you can objectively count the number of meaningful contacts someone has (whether on or offline in the wake of COVID-19), but loneliness is best described as feeling sad BECAUSE of not having friends/family – it is a feeling of lacking (or perhaps loss of) companionship. You would not be “isolated” in a crowded room, but you can certainly feel lonely.
There are also two types of loneliness experienced – emotional (the companionship of a specific person), or social (not having a wider network of friends).
It is important to address your feelings
It is incredibly important to address feelings of loneliness because the research in this area is not positive. Reported feelings of loneliness increase the likelihood of mortality by 26% (Holt-Lunstad, 2015), and it has also been associated with other physical illnesses such as heart attacks and strokes. It may also contribute to a decline in mental health with links to dementia as well as depression, and one study by O’Connell et al in 2004 found that “loneliness and low social interaction are predictive of suicide in older age.”
It is also important to address these feelings in a healthy manner rather than engaging in other strategies to try and get those needs met such as sexually promiscuous behaviour, or even “oversharing” which is not a problem in itself with good friends – but unless you are careful in choosing your friendships, some people who may not have your best interests at heart may suddenly know your secrets. Further entering a relationship just for the sake of being in one can not only cause emotional problems for you later on down the line, but for the other person as well.
I appreciate that there is a sense of shame around admitting “I am lonely”. Further it may also “creep up” on you. Someone who has a sudden change of circumstance – even for positive reasons eg. Career success, a new house, a new relationship, a new baby can begin to feel lonely because the friendship network that they had previously may be in a different stage of life – or sometimes in a completely different country. After the initial excitement has worn off, the quiet times can suddenly feel very quiet indeed.
Therefore, if it is a feeling you need to admit – at least do so to yourself, because then you can focus on how to manage it.
1. Reach out
Once you acknowledge that you are feeling lonely, try and work out what it is you are missing eg. A regular group to associate with; engagement in a hobby; people dropping in all the time; people who share your sense of humour or approach to life. Remember you don't need to try a new event with someone, the very act is about forming new friendships. At the moment (when as the UK we have been advised not to go out unless necessary), perhaps it's simply initiating conversation in a group or forum.
Then it may be possible to take steps to rebuild that network – one brick at a time.
2. Talk to a coach
Talking about your feelings with a coach, or perhaps on an internet forum can help. If you are lonely, you may feel that you don't have friends to talk to - a coach (and many offer at least an initial free consultation) can be more effective than friends anyway because you won't have the extra worry of "burdening" friends who will have their own issues too.
3. Look after your physical health
Remember that your physical health can affect your mental wellbeing. Eat, sleep and exercise – getting the blood pumping can help clear your mind. Over-indulgence can result in feeling of guilt and perhaps excess weight which can then be an additional issue to feelings of loneliness. But undereating and a lack of sleep can also result in a lack of ability to focus or feelings of anxiety which also may not help you in forming positive connections. Simply getting out (while dressed suitably for the weather!) can help you get more Vitamin D which can increase feelings of happiness and counter things such as Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD – often exacerbating feelings of loneliness in the winter months), and fresh air is also good for us - even while social distancing, you may be able to go for a walk, stand in the garden, or open the window. (A benefit of the reduced traffic is the pollution is following suit.)
4 Make your living environment positive
Keep photos of the people you love on display, or things that give you feelings of comfort in the place in which you like to spend time. This can at least help you feel good when you are having time alone. You are caring for you.
5. Make advance plans – if you are missing someone specific, make plans to see them at a later point, and you’ll have something to look forward to while you are also working on rebuilding a friendship network where you are.
6. Recognise what you have
I am a great believer in the regular practice of gratitude being able to shift our physiological thought processes. Through getting into the habit of recognising what we have, no matter how small it may seem, we prime our mind to recognise the little things. We may "think" that we are lacking support but it may be because we have been overlooking exactly what it is that we have. Get into the habit of being actively grateful - like making a mental post-it note - when someone affects your life positively.
…and when we are out of "lockdown":
7. Join a class or a club – something you always wanted to try, or something you always enjoyed. There you may meet like-minded people where you know it will be possible to connect on some topics of conversation
8. Volunteer somewhere – this may also allow you to feel fulfilled at being able to give a little time back to the community.
9. Accept invitations – even if you are unsure if you will enjoy the event. At least you will know for next time, and you might meet other people who think the same while you are there. Also, you may find that because you were hoping for invitations from one person you didn't notice the many that you had rejected. Friendships are not about only focusing on a singular object of affection to like you...because you may end up missing the very ones that had potential to become wonderful relationships!
10. And if you are trying to support someone who may be lonely, be mindful:
Speak to them first. Some people merely enjoy solitude and do not feel lonely at all!
Finally, it is also important to note that in some cases, where loneliness is eased through a deeper friendship connection, it often takes time to develop that relationship – so don’t place too high an expectation on others at the start, and try not to manipulate the situation into happening – people can only love you in their own way.
Audrey is a chartered psychologist, author and wellbeing expert (TV/publications). Find out more www.draudreyt.com or follow her on Twitter/Instagram @draudreyt