Maybe you have a busy work life, maybe you work solo from home, maybe you have a few friends you see often, or rarely, or lots of friends you wish you had time to see more of. Whether you are a shy person, an extrovert, single, or in a relationship, loneliness can affect us all.
It’s a subjective feeling, which means we can be surrounded by other people – close family, good friends, pleasant colleagues – but still feel disconnected. It’s no surprise that loneliness isn’t good for our health, in fact a 2010 study declared that it can be as damaging to our bodies as smoking cigarettes. Long-term loneliness can put us at risk of conditions such as heart disease, stroke and high blood pressure and it’s not good for our mental health either with an increased risk of depression, cognitive decline and dementia.
Counsellor, life coach and NLP practitioner Anna Williamson explains that the feeling of loneliness can be damaging for our self-esteem too, creating a cycle that can be difficult to break free from: “Psychologically our confidence and self-esteem take a massive drop. We start to think about things a little more than we would normally. We become more insular. We start ruminating and thinking about what we should, or could, be doing – all quite negative language, which tends to come hand in hand with feeling lonely.”
Anna felt very lonely after the birth of her son, when she suffered from post-natal depression and PTSD. She found it difficult to ask for help, even though she knew friends and family were willing to offer support. “The overwhelming feeling of being a new mum sent my anxiety levels through the roof. I felt very lonely within my own head,” she says. “I had lots of people willing and waiting and wanting to help me, but when you’re in that moment and you’re so riddled with anxiety, it’s very difficult to even fathom what you want and what you need.”
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Loneliness is the main theme of Gail Honeyman’s best-selling novel Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine. Eleanor, who is in her early thirties, can’t recall exactly when someone last visited her home: “No one’s been in my flat this year apart from service professionals; I’ve not voluntarily invited another human being across the threshold, except to read the meter.”
In creating her character, Gail was inspired by a news story she read about a young woman who could go for a whole weekend without speaking to another human being. Her novel charts Eleanor’s story as she is drawn out of her shell by a new friend, Raymond. While Eleanor’s personal story is fictional, the fact of her loneliness, and the anxiety she feels at the idea of social contact, or asking for help, will strike a chord with many of us.
Why are we lonely?
Loneliness has been described in the media as a modern-day epidemic, but what exactly is causing it? Anna believes that loneliness has increased because our society has become more dispersed: “The stats now say that one in 10 people are purporting to feel lonely. Talking to those I work with and studies I’ve read show there are many factors, but one is certainly that we often live further away from our family, so that close-knit network of yesteryear tends to be more fragmented.
“Opportunities are greater and wider. We can work in different countries and commute and all of that, and that’s great, but [it can mean] that we’re more removed from our family members than we used to be, or perhaps even other cultures are. For example, with my husband’s family back in Sicily, you’ve got three or four generations still living within a hundred yards of each other.”
The world’s largest study on loneliness, compiled by the BBC last year, found that around a third of people who completed the survey often felt lonely, with young people being most affected. Forty per cent of those aged 16-24 reported that they often felt lonely compared to 27 per cent of over 75s. While social media gives us more ways to connect with others than ever before, ironically it seems as though we’re actually less connected and more lonely as a result.
“Social media can make us feel like everyone else is having more fun than we are, that they have stronger friendships and that they’re going away on holiday together. I certainly don’t do the things that I see lots of other people engaging in and it’s easy to feel like I’m not as connected,” says Suzy Reading, psychologist, yoga teacher and author of The Self-Care Revolution. For Suzy, the way we communicate has changed dramatically in her lifetime and she reflects that things were different when she was younger: “I think if you look at the way that we would communicate as kids, you would go and run around with the children on your street after school, or you would phone a friend from school and maybe spend a ridiculous amount of time on the phone.
“Now it’s social media, where there is connection, but the nature of the connection is different and it’s not always positive, it’s not always constructive and you’re sitting in your house rather than being somewhere face-to-face. You’re removed by screens.”
According to Suzy, this loss of connection can be psychologically damaging. “The need to have a sense of belonging, connection, is one of the cornerstones of wellbeing. So if we feel disconnected, it’s the source of a great sense of being unsettled. Feeling like you don’t fit in, it leads to anxiety, it leads to depression. It can manifest in feeling like we’re not good enough.
“Connection is literally food for the soul, so if we’re missing that we feel fundamentally cut off and un-nourished.”
How to cope with loneliness
Counteracting feelings of loneliness isn’t always as simple as just joining a club. Finding others who share your hobbies and interests can benefit some people, however, for others it can be overwhelming. If you’ve been feeling lonely for a long time, Suzy recommends starting small and finding new ways to make connections: “We can connect with people we don’t even know and get a great sense of zest from that moment of shared belonging and shared experience.
“This is not just feeling connected with your nearest and dearest, which is of course very important, but it’s the incidental connections in your day that you can mine.
“It’s setting the intention to be in tune with other people and we don’t have to necessarily be massively skilled at it. It’s behaviour like making eye contact, it’s listening, it’s asking questions, it’s demonstrating an interest. It’s cultivating a feeling of ‘we’re in this together’. And that might be with the person who serves you coffee, or the person who serves us when we’re buying our groceries. It could be as simple as you’re out for a walk or out for a jog and you just give a passer-by a nod. That helps us to feel like we’re plugged in.”
While our natural instinct is to want to reach out and help people who are feeling lonely, it’s important to recognise that some individuals do, in fact, enjoy their own company – particularly introverts, who often need time by themselves to recharge after a period of socialising. People who are genuinely feeling lonely may become withdrawn and less engaged with friends and colleagues.
“We all know what to look out for, it’s when people are just not themselves. They may not be contributing in the same way or they may be withdrawing from social situations or look tearful or stressed, or they are saying worrying things,” says Suzy.
If you’re in doubt, Anna recommends asking questions to see if the person you are concerned about does want to socialise more. “It’s all about communication and being honest. If someone habitually spends time by themselves and likes hanging out in their own company, that’s fine. They aren’t lonely. Just because someone wants to be by themselves doesn’t automatically mean that they’re lonely.
“But ask people that question: do you want some company? Would you like to hang out? Are there any times in the week that you would like to socialise? And wait for their response. They might say: ‘Actually, I find Sundays a bit lonely, because everyone else is hanging out doing fun Sunday things and I’m on my own on a Sunday.’ So it’s asking people what meets their needs. Some people feel lonely in the evenings. Some people feel lonely at lunchtime on a Monday, for example. Find out what’s going on in that person’s life and respect what they feel and discover what they need to make sure that they are fulfilled.”
Who’s on your team?
If you’re feeling lonely, this quick exercise by Suzy Reading can remind you who’s there for you.
Make a list of everybody in your life who is ‘on your team’
“Look at that list and you’ll go: ‘Oh my goodness, there are all these people who are in my corner.’ Seeing all of those names is very galvanising,” says Suzy.
Nourish your connections
Ask yourself whether you’ve nourished that relationship recently and what you need to do to strengthen that connection.
Play to your strengths
Think about those people in your life and thinking about how you can engage with them in the most constructive way. “Different people have different strengths and that we come together in different ways. Some people who are naturally gifted at being there for you when you need an ear, or a warm hug, so they’re the people that you go to when you need that. Other people are great problem-solvers and who will tell you how to fix things. You go to those people when you’re ready to hear that information.”
Where to find support when you’re feeling lonely
If you feel that you can’t go it alone, there are plenty of sources of help and advice out there:
Mind is a UK-based charity that offers lots of advice for coping with loneliness. It also has an online community, Elefriends, if you need someone to talk to.
This handy website is a great way to find activities and groups in your area, covering everything from walking to life-drawing classes. There’s no fee and no obligation to go to any meetup.
The Great Get Together
Set up in memory of British MP Jo Cox, the Great Get Together is a bi-annual event aimed at bringing communities together.
The Lonely Hour podcast
Listening to the experiences of others can help you to feel that you’re not alone. This podcast presented by writer Julia Bainbridge ended in 2017, but there are lots of episodes for you to catch up on.
Growing Old Disgracefully
This network, founded by Shirley Meredeen, now 85, is for older women who want to “make friends, have fun and grow”.