‘Loneliness is an issue that can affect the physical and mental wellbeing of people of all ages. While addressing your experience of loneliness may take time, taking steps to build new and improve existing connections will help to improve your health and overall wellbeing,’ explains Dr Mark Winwood, Director of Psychological Services at AXA PPP healthcare.
Background to loneliness
According to the Office for National Statistics, Britain is the loneliness capital of Europe, with many Brits unlikely to know their neighbours or feel they have friendships that they believe they can rely on in a crisis.
This is particularly a problem among the older generation. The charity Age UK reports that half of older people consider the television their main form of company. However, it is important to not view loneliness as purely an emotion felt by the older generation.
For example, the charity Relate found that 9% of Brits of all ages don’t have a single close friend, while our 2014 research showed that British adults aged 18 to 24 are four times as likely to feel consistently lonely than those over 70. Life events can also cause loneliness.
In 2015, we conducted a study in association with Netmums that highlighted the effect social isolation can have on new mums.
ACAS showed that around 20% of homeworkers sometimes feel socially isolated. Dr Mark Winwood, Director of Psychological Services at AXA PPP healthcare, explains how you can avoid isolation when working from home.
Despite the internet being widely regarded as the ultimate tool to connect people, a report by Childline in 2016 highlighted that for younger people, it may in fact be having the opposite effect. The report found that huge pressure created by the always-on nature of social media was leading them to feel isolated, insecure, unpopular and ultimately lonely.
What is loneliness?
‘The terms ‘loneliness’ and ‘social isolation‟ are often used interchangeably, but are distinct concepts,’ explain Dr Winwood. ‘People can be socially isolated without feeling lonely, or feel emotionally lonely even though they are surrounded by people daily.
Social isolation tends to be defined as an objective state referring to the number of social contacts or interactions. While loneliness in itself is not a mental health problem, the two are explicitly linked, with loneliness often the result of poor mental health or vice versa.
There is lots of research that has uncovered the physical and mental health risks of loneliness. For instance, one study found that loneliness can increase the risk of high blood pressure (Hawkley et al, 2010), and there has been lots of research to show how loneliness has an impact on cognitive decline (James et al, 2010), dementia (Holwerda et al 2010) and depression (Cacioppo).
A 2013 paper by A. Steptoe et al found that isolation was a key factor in mortality rates and health in a population of over 50’s, so both loneliness and isolation both seem to take a toll on our health.
How to cope with loneliness
If you don’t know where to start, following the tips below will get you moving in the right direction:
- Making new connections is arguably the most obvious way to combat loneliness, but the effects of doing so can be acute. Joining a group or class you are interested in will increase your chances of meeting like-minded people to connect with, while volunteering is also a popular route for individuals to meet others, and improve their own mental health in the process by doing good for wider society. Increasingly too we are turning to the internet for companionship, with community groups existing in almost every niche interest group you could imagine.
- Be more open. If you feel that you have plenty of connections but don’t feel truly close to any of them, the underlying issue may be that you need to open up to them more to deepen the connection, letting the friend or acquaintance in on a vulnerability felt or your honest opinion about an issue.
- Stop comparing yourself to others. The desire to ‘keep up with the Joneses’ is not a new one, however the rise of social media has only exacerbated the problem by giving individuals the chance to constantly compare themselves to their peers. 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 exacerbates our negative experiences. Remind yourself that people only share what they want others to see about their lives. Don’t form unrealistic expectations about life and friendship based on what you see online.
- Keep all lines of communication open. 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. Talk over Skype, exchange photos and keep up to date with the latest news from friends and family with Facebook or simply keep in contact by email.
- Volunteering will not only allow you to give something back to your community but will also help you to feel more connected, involved and needed. There are lots of volunteering roles that need your skills and experience.
- Pride comes before a fall. Don’t be afraid to reach out to people and ask for help, companionship or just a chat. They may be feeling lonely too!
- Take it slow. If you’ve felt lonely for a while, or experience anxiety around new social situations, throwing yourself in at the deep end could only act to exacerbate the problem. Instead, dip your toes into the water first by going to a local café or sports event where you are surrounded by people, and just enjoy sharing their company. Or try a class where you can dive into the activity itself to distract you from the pressure of introducing yourself to people straight away. With loneliness, slow and steady often wins the race.