Loneliness affects many of us at some point in our lives. Whether we’re living miles away from family and friends, working alone for extended periods of time or going through a bereavement, for example. Our relationships and positive social connections are essential for us to thrive. The quality of our relationships and friendships at home, at work and in our communities matter.
There is a difference between being alone and feeling lonely. Solitude, being alone, is different to loneliness. Lots of people live alone, but do not feel lonely because they have social relationships and connections that they want and need.
Social isolation is not necessarily bad; most people crave solitude at least occasionally. Being alone can be relaxing, meditative, and rejuvenating. Social isolation typically refers to solitude that is unwanted and unhealthy.
Loneliness is the unpleasant feeling we have when there is a mismatch between the social relationships we want, and the ones that we have. It can make you feel emotionally isolated, like you’re not connected to people, or you don’t belong.
Socially isolated people may lack friends or close coworkers, and they often feel lonely or depressed or may suffer from low self-esteem or anxiety. The following symptoms associated with social isolation are warning signs of unhealthy social isolation:
- Avoiding social interactions, including those that were once enjoyable
- Cancelling plans frequently and feeling relief when plans are cancelled
- Experiencing anxiety or panic when thinking about social interactions
- Feeling distress during periods of solitude
- Feeling dread associated with social activities
- Spending large amounts of time alone or with extremely limited contact with others
It's important to remember that you're not the only one who feels lonely. One in five people in the UK say they experience feelings of loneliness, and during the coronavirus pandemic, many more of us felt anxious and isolated.
For most of us, our experiences of loneliness don’t last forever, as we’re able to take the steps to make changes in our lives. Some of the ways you can do this include:
Talking therapies can help you understand how your feelings of loneliness can impact the way you think and act and will aim to equip you with techniques and strategies to manage this. For example, if social situations are making you feel anxious, developing coping strategies through talking therapies will help you tackle difficult situations in the future.
Take it slow
The idea of ‘putting yourself out there’ or meeting new people can feel terrifying if you are lonely, especially if you have felt that way for a long time. There is no need to rush into anything. Try doing something you know you will enjoy but are also aware has a social aspect. This could be engaging in a sport you enjoy, reaching out to someone online you feel you may have similar interests with, or start volunteering for an organisation you feel passionately about.
Talk and be open
Concentrate on quality not quantity. Focus on building strong bonds and strengthening pre-existing relationships; talking openly about how you are feeling and using kind language around the subject of mental health will allow others to feel comfortable opening up too.
Connecting with yourself
Mindfulness can help you become aware of your thoughts during difficult times and choose to accept or reject them. When we become our best allies, it can help us to feel less alone. We can connect with ourselves by becoming more self-compassionate. Self-compassion enables us to have a non-judgmental attitude towards our thoughts and emotions, it allows us to embrace imperfection and leads us to be more present and less dismissive to way things affect us.
Like most things, social media can have its pros and cons. It’s important to recognise how using social media is making you feel. Social media can be a great platform to connect with others and engage in your interests however, it can also be used to compare ourselves or our lives to others. Allow yourself time away/breaks from social media if you recognise that it is being detrimental to the way you feel and think.
It is important for individuals dealing with social isolation to have self-care strategies. This is particularly true when the factors contributing to isolation present real barriers to accessing outside resources.
- Engage in relaxing activities. Exercise and stretching, reading, listening to music, meditation, journaling, and hobbies can help relieve stress that can be associated with isolation.
- Follow a routine. Daily routines promote a sense of purpose and normalcy.
- Maintain healthy habits. Eating well, getting enough sleep, and engaging in physical activity can promote better mental health.
- Stay connected. If conditions limit in-person contact, phone calls, email, texting, social media platforms, and videoconferencing can be used to stay in touch.
- Be positive when you talk with people
- Get involved in societies or voluntary work
Keep trying even if your first attempts are not very successful - you may be expecting too much of yourself and others.
Additional resources that may be supportive:
Get help with loneliness - British Red Cross
Telephone befriending service - Age UK