According to The Red Cross, over 9 million people in the UK say they often or always feel lonely at some point in their life; and the pandemic has only added to this already worrying statistic.
Social connections help provide us with a sense of identity and belonging; the perfect antidote to loneliness. But you don’t have to be ‘physically alone’ to feel lonely. You can find yourself in a crowd of people and still feel sad, withdrawn and isolated inside.
Loneliness is a feeling everyone experiences at times and often these feelings won’t last, however chronic loneliness can be detrimental to your health and wellbeing. That’s why this year’s Mental Health Awareness Week focuses on the theme of loneliness, as a key factor in shaping our mental health.
So in this article, we’re going to look closer at the symptoms of loneliness, how it can impact your mental health and ways you can overcome it.
Loneliness and mental health
Mental health charity Mind describe the link between loneliness and mental health as ‘strongly linked’.
Feelings of loneliness can cause you to isolate yourself from others, knock your confidence and deplete your energy levels. This isolation alters your routine, reduces social contact, and disrupts connections in turn affecting your mental health.
Mental health problems like anxiety and depression can make people isolate themselves from those around them. Activities and social events become a struggle and meaningful interactions start to decline. This leads to further isolation and feelings of loneliness, making it harder to recover from a mental health condition.
The signs of loneliness
Sometimes it’s hard to identify when loneliness is the emotion you’re feeling. You might think it’s just a low mood or you’ve been feeling lost. Here are some of the identifiers of loneliness:
- Low confidence
- Feeling frustrated
- A lack of purpose
- Problems sleeping
- Feeling trapped, isolated or alone
- Problems concentrating
- A change in eating habits
- A loss of identity
- Isolating yourself from others or seeking out more interaction than usual
- Thoughts of self-harm and, in the most extreme cases, suicide
Loneliness can feel like an isolating bubble at times but there are things you can do to make it better. We’ve pulled together some helpful tips below:
Identify the cause
When swamped in feelings of loneliness, it can be hard to get to the root of why you feel the way you do, and remember, it doesn’t always have to be physical isolation that triggers the emotion. Figuring out what’s making you feel lonely, may help you to find a way of feeling better. Some common causes include:
- A health condition that limits your movement
- A relationship breakup or divorce
- Unemployment or starting a new job
- Recently moving to a new area
- Losing a loved one
- Being a new parent
- Having no friends or family
- Children leaving home
Connection is an important contributor to a healthy mental state and there are several ways you can create more connections in your life:
- Talk to people you trust about how you feel. Admitting that you’re lonely can be hard, especially to those closest to you. But sharing thoughts, feelings and emotions can help you process these feelings and move forward towards a solution.
- Join a class or group. It could be a sport you’ve always wanted to try, an art class or a book club — expanding your circle of people helps to improve your sense of connection.
- Healthy hugs. Studies show that hugging a loved one boosts connection, slows the heart rate and reduces stress. So get hugging!
Research shows that periods of loneliness can affect your self-esteem and overall identity. A healthy sense of self-esteem helps us to gain confidence in social settings and therefore boosts the possibility of connecting with others. However, boosting your self-esteem takes time, and it isn’t always easy, so remember to be kind to yourself. Try to make small changes like celebrating your successes, practicing positive daily affirmations, setting yourself small accomplishable goals or even just taking care of yourself a bit more.
Spending time in nature
Green spaces and scenic surroundings can have a healing effect on mental health. Spending time outside provides a vitamin D boost, reduces anxiety, and also increases the likelihood of social interaction. The outdoors offers new experiences, sights, smells and a sense of awe, which can contribute to feelings of expansiveness when you’re feeling isolated.
Reach out for help if you need it
If you’re struggling with loneliness, then remember help is available. It could be that you have a health issue preventing you from interacting with others, you’re grieving the loss of a loved one, or you’re experiencing suicidal thoughts. You don’t have to face these problems alone. There are free confidential helplines and NHS talking therapies that could help.
Helping others who are lonely
Loneliness is unpredictable, and it’s not always easy to spot in others but we all have a part to play in reducing loneliness. As individuals, we can reach out to the people closest to us and support them when they need it. You might find this conversation a difficult one to approach but research shows that it’s the small gestures that count the most. A phone call, surprise text or thoughtful acts of kindness, make a difference and help to let someone know you’re there, and that you care. For more information about loneliness and how you can help to lift someone out of loneliness visit this NHS webpage.