In what’s been the strangest year for many of us, we ask the experts what we can do when we crave company…
While we might be more connected to the world than we ever have been because of technology, statistics show that we’re the loneliest. A survey by the Mental Health Foundation found one in 10 of us feels lonely often, and 48 percent of people think we’re getting lonelier in general in the UK. As the government tightens social restrictions across the country once again, this coming winter may isolate many people. With less face-to-face interaction available we’re relying on platforms such as Skype and Zoom to stay connected to those we can’t see in person. But as we look to face a socially distanced Christmas, what else can we do to keep our spirits lifted during this time?
When was the last time someone told you they were lonely? We’re very good at articulating certain emotions: happiness, nervousness, anger and sadness, yet, many of us struggle to admit when we feel lonely and it’s this ‘social silence’ that puts people in danger. The impact of loneliness on our health is quite severe. A study carried out by Brigham Young University showed that loneliness increases the risk of premature death by 20 percent and in other studies, effects of longterm loneliness are said to include decreased memory; an increased risk of cardiovascular disease; stress; depression and even premature ageing. “It’s human nature to feel lonely from time-to-time, we are social creatures after all,” says psychologist Dr Meg Arroll. “But, recent research has shown that loneliness can be as bad for our health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, so it should be taken seriously indeed. Although it’s not a health condition per se, it can negatively impact mental and physical health, functional ability and quality of life. However, because it’s what we call a ‘modifiable risk factor’ we can develop interventions to tackle loneliness. ”
Thankfully, research shows that we can fight back at loneliness. Having just three or four close friends is enough to ward off loneliness and reduce the negative health consequences that come with it. However, close friends aren’t always easy to come by. “There are many causes of loneliness including bereavement, relationship breakdown, experiencing discrimination, having highly demanding caring roles, retiring, changing jobs, moving home and starting at a new school or university,” says Dr Arroll. “Indeed, most major life transitions can lead to feelings of loneliness in the beginning. For loneliness to become a chronic issue, the general feeling of disconnect from others turns into symptoms akin to anxiety, social anxiety, depression, insomnia, low self-worth and a heightened stress response.” Here, Dr Arroll has tips on how to reach out when you’re feeling disconnected from the world:
1. Take it step-by-step: Rather than throwing yourself in the deep end, start by just going to places that you have an interest in such as a park, café or gallery. Keep expectations in check and don’t feel you must talk to others straight away, just being in a new environment is a good first step. Once this feels a little more comfortable, investigate local common interests or support groups – this way you’ll have a joint topic to talk about. This can include online groups, but some of these groups lack moderation, making them difficult to navigate.
2. If you’re alone and feeling lonely, try to avoid alcohol, sugar and other substances and limit the amount of time you watch TV or boxsets for, as these tend to make feelings of loneliness worse.
3. Attend to your physical needs – try to go for a short 10-minute walk every day as this can lift your mood and helps with sleep. Eat as well as you can and keep a regular routine that you enjoy.
4. If you do feel that loneliness is causing anxiety or depression, visit your GP and ask for a referral for talking therapies such as cognitive behavioural therapy – this will help to break maladaptive thought patterns (behaviours are those that stop you from adapting to new or difficult circumstances) that may be contributing to isolation and loneliness.
5. Even if we’re not lonely ourselves, there are probably people in our life who we know are isolated. You can connect with these people too. “Post a note through their door with your contact details, in case they need help with something such as shopping during the winter months,” says Dr Lynda Shaw, neuroscientist, business psychologist and change specialist. “Set up the less tech-savvy members of your family with video calling so you keep in touch and help them with online deliveries. Research shows that helping others activates parts of our brain associated with wellbeing. Even a call to someone elderly can make a huge difference to their day.”
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