Loneliness is something that affects people everywhere, yet so few of us feel comfortable talking about it. Research shows that over 9 million people across the UK are often, or always, lonely (Co-op and The British Red Cross).
Loneliness is complex and can affect people in different ways. Some people feel lonely when they’re in a room full of friends, whilst others feel lonely after the death of a partner, or when they move to a new area. What’s clear is that with recent restrictions on social gatherings and meeting with friends and family, it’s no surprise that a sense of loneliness and isolation is something confronting an ever growing number of us.
Acknowledging that you’re feeling lonely isn’t always easy. Some people judge themselves and avoid discussing their loneliness with others, due to embarrassment or fear about what people might think. But being hard on yourself and keeping lonely feelings bottled up can make it even more difficult to take positive steps towards solving the problem.
It is possible to overcome loneliness, but it can help to first gain a greater understanding of what it means to be lonely, and how this can impact your mental and physical health. Let’s take a closer look at these points below, before discussing what actions you can take to help reduce feelings of loneliness and isolation, and hopefully start feeling happier and more whole again.
What is loneliness and what causes it?
Loneliness is often perceived as the act of being alone, but it’s actually an emotional response.
People who feel lonely tend to feel unwanted, empty and/or alone. They might crave human contact at the same time as feeling unworthy of the attention of others. Some lonely people find themselves avoiding social meetings with others because their state of mind convinces them that they are unlikeable.
Loneliness can have multiple root causes, and while there are people who feel lonely because they are lacking human contact, it’s also entirely possible to feel lonely and isolated without actually being alone.
Common scenarios which might cause people to feel lonely include:
Having a great circle of friends, but missing the deep connection and intimacy that comes with being in a romantic relationship.
Having a great relationship with your spouse, but feeling that you don’t have many solid friendship connections.
Bereavement. When someone we love dies, or when we are going through a divorce or separation, we can feel lonely.
Empty nest syndrome. If your grown up children have recently left home, then this can leave you feeling pretty empty – and you might experience a loss of purpose. Many parents feel that they aren’t needed anymore when their kids leave home, which can bring on loneliness.
Having positive relationships with a partner and with friends and family, but still feeling alone inside your head. This can happen when you don’t share enough of the same interests, experiences and beliefs as the people around you, causing you to feel somewhat misunderstood and disconnected. People in this situation sometimes describe having an out of body experience in social situations – as though they can see and hear themselves smiling, laughing and chatting away, but inside they just feel empty.
Constantly comparing yourself to others. Have you ever felt quite content, until you spent an evening scrolling through your social media feeds and wondering why everyone seems to be doing something so much more exciting than you? Many of us have, and it can leave you feeling left out.
Feeling lonely during large-scale celebrations and events – such as the Christmas period – where social gatherings are more prevalent. For people who’ve lost friends or family members, or who don’t have friends or family to celebrate with, this can be an incredibly lonely time.
Feeling shy or socially awkward. This can make forming meaningful connections much harder. Even if you’re keen to get out there and socialise, you might avoid social situations or talk yourself out of them, because you’re worried that you won’t know what to say or do.
How can loneliness affect my health?
We all feel lonely sometimes, but if loneliness becomes the norm, then it can have a detrimental effect on your mental and physical health. Common symptoms of persistent loneliness (which researchers describe as feeling lonely more than once a week) can include:
- Feeling empty, unwanted or alone
- Increased stress levels
- Low energy levels
- Feeling anxious or unable to rest
- Low confidence and self esteem
- Increased attachment to material things (you might find yourself constantly buying things)
- Physical aches and pains including muscle aches, headaches and stomach pains
- Substance abuse
- Anti-social behaviour
Research has also shown that people who experience persistent loneliness are much more likely to suffer from health conditions such as dementia, heart disease and depression.
7 tips for coping with loneliness
Loneliness is something that we might encounter at various different life stages, so it can be helpful to have a few tools to hand to help you cope – and where possible, overcome it. Here are 7 ways to try and tackle feelings of loneliness that we hope you will find useful.
1. Acknowledge how loneliness could be affecting your life
Loneliness can manifest itself in a number of ways and can have several different root causes, so it’s not always easy to identify. It’s also not uncommon for us to be so busy with work and other commitments, that we simply don’t find the time to stop and acknowledge how we are really feeling.
Not everyone realises that loneliness is affecting their life. Some people may attribute a low mood to depression, before realising that they are in fact lonely. You might find yourself binge-watching TV shows or repeatedly buying things online and wondering why you feel so empty. People often do this because they are trying to fill a void that would usually be filled by connecting with others in meaningful ways. Or perhaps, rather than enjoying social media, it just makes you feel deflated and left out – because you are constantly comparing your social life to that of others.
It can be painful to admit that you are lonely because as humans we thrive on forming and nurturing meaningful human connections. And when we acknowledge that we are lonely, we are acknowledging that this is something that we are lacking, in one way or another. But doing so, and realising the impact it could be having on your life, can help you to carve a more positive path forward.
2. Try to foster meaningful, high quality relationships
When people have plenty of people around them but still feel lonely – it’s likely to be because the majority of their relationships don’t run deep enough. For example, you could have 50 acquaintances that you regularly say hi to and have a chat with – but if you don’t have any shared interests or experiences, then you won’t be able to create strong and meaningful bonds with these people.
Similarly, if you have a loving family and partner but they cannot fully relate to something you’re particularly passionate about, or are going through, then you might feel lonely because you feel misunderstood – or because there isn’t anyone in your life who can share your passion. As we age, we evolve, and develop new interests and passions, and not everyone who is already in your life will share in these. So sometimes, we have to make a conscious effort to make new friends and connections as our interests branch out.
For this reason, it can be a good idea to spend some time doing some self-exploration. Consider what really matters to you in life – what are your passions, interests and core values? Once you identify these things it can become easier to connect with likeminded people. For example, if you’ve recently developed a passion for oil painting, then it might be helpful to join an art community or class, where you can meet other artists. Or if you are particularly passionate about fitness, then you could try joining a running or cycling community – or attending a gym class (when gyms open again).
Sometimes your relationships can act like a bit of a jigsaw, where each high quality relationship that we form can act like an important piece of the puzzle. When there’s an important aspect of your life that you would perhaps like to share with someone but can’t, then it’s as though a piece of your puzzle is missing – causing you to feel lonely. A helpful way to combat this is to try to get to the bottom of which aspect of your life is causing you to feel most lonely. This will place you in a better position to start considering how to form meaningful, high quality relationships in this area.
3. Expect the best outcome - don’t assume that people will reject you
Overcoming loneliness can be much more of a challenge if you have a tendency to assume the worst outcome for every social situation. When we convince ourselves that we’re unlikeable or that we might be rejected if we completely relax and be ourselves – we tend to either avoid situations where we could make solid connections with people, or we hold back and avoid giving too much away about ourselves.
If you’ve become accustomed to expect the worst from social situations, then at first it can be tricky to steer away from this line of thinking. But once you do, you’ll be much more likely to say yes to social invitations, to initiate contact with others yourself and to build stronger bonds with people – which can all help to reduce feelings of loneliness and isolation. Next time you’re invited to catch up with an old acquaintance, try not to think twice about it before you accept. Often the longer we ponder over whether to accept an invite, the more likely we are to overthink the situation and say no. If you find yourself dreading the event and are worried about it being awkward, then try to put a positive spin on things – what if you really enjoy yourself, and end up arranging to meet up again? And what if you have more in common with this old acquaintance than you initially thought?
When it comes to loneliness, it’s easy to trick yourself into feeling that you have to stay lonely, due to fears that you won’t fit in, or that you won’t be liked. But you can remove the power from these thoughts by shutting them down, replacing them with something more positive and simply showing up. You might be surprised what can happen when you choose to believe in a more positive outcome.
4. Try to focus on the positives of being alone
While it’s important to nurture meaningful relationships with others, it’s equally important to become comfortable being alone with yourself when sometimes there is no alternative. There are times in our lives where we will all find ourselves alone, but being alone doesn’t always have to mean feeling lonely, if you can learn to enjoy time by yourself and focus on the positives. As part of the human condition, we often want what we can’t have, so reminding yourself of the positives of being alone can be a helpful way of reducing cravings of being somewhere else.
Part of being able to enjoy your own company involves learning how to manage some of the negative thoughts and emotions that might rush in when you’re alone and you allow yourself to just be. Try to carve out time in your day – say 30 minutes or an hour – to deal with any draining emotions or negative thoughts that you might need to work through. If you’re a worrier, then this can be particularly helpful because while it can be hard to switch off your worries, allocating a specific time slot for them, will hopefully allow you to control and minimise them. Given the negativity in the news flow at the moment, one thing some of the team are doing is ring fencing a 30 minute slot to catch up on the day’s news and worry about it then, avoiding the need to continually check to see what’s happening throughout the day.
By allocating specific time to worry, this allows you more time to get truly stuck into the things you enjoy – such as reading a good book, taking your time to cook a really nice meal or getting some exercise in. It can also help to focus on the perks of alone time. You get to spread out, put the radio on loud and dance like no one’s watching and be one hundred percent yourself, which is all incredibly positive. If you can learn to love your own company, and try to focus on some of the positives of being alone, then you might find that feelings of loneliness subside.
Many people find that it is actually the feeling of being wanted and included that stops them feeling lonely – not the act of attending a social event. Have you ever sat at home alone on a Friday evening feeling lonely, only to have a friend call you up at the last minute? And then as if by magic, a night snuggled up on the sofa doesn’t feel so bad after all? Often, just the fact that someone thought of you and wanted to see you can give you the validation and reassurance that you need to be able to snuggle up on the sofa without being plagued with lonely thoughts. But becoming more comfortable with your own company will often make spending a Friday night at home alone seem much more okay – and will hopefully ease feelings of loneliness.
5. Try not to compare yourself to others
Sometimes loneliness develops when we spend too much time comparing ourselves to others. The rise of social media has made this all the more common. People now spend hours scrolling through their social media news feeds wondering why they don’t go out for dinner several nights a week, or why they aren’t jet setting around the world like their friends or acquaintances.
But this can leave you feeling stressed and left out.
The reality is, that there is no way of knowing whether the people you are comparing yourself to are truly happy, or whether they are just creating the impression that they are. Either way, their journey and experiences are no reflection on you – so try to keep things in perspective. The only person you should ever compare yourself to is you, when you’re reflecting on your own goals and achievements. It’s quite tricky to find true contentment if you’re constantly wishing you had someone else’s life, so it’s a good habit to try and break.
6. Be brave and speak up. It will get easier
It’s not unusual for people to feel lonely because they feel invisible and are afraid to express themselves, or to voice their opinion through fear of judgement. If this sounds like you, then you might feel that it’s much easier to blend in and keep quiet, than to speak up. But, this can keep you living in a perpetual state of loneliness. We all have thoughts, opinions and beliefs and it’s often only when we share them and have our voices heard, that our place in the world feels more established, and our sense of purpose and self-assurance increases.
Speaking up can mean many things – speaking up at work, learning to be more honest with your friends and family about your thoughts and feelings, or finally having the courage to let people across all aspects of your life see the real you. The first few times you speak up in uncomfortable situations can be nerve-wracking and take you completely outside of your comfort zone (expect sweaty palms and a racing heart!). But the more that you do it and the more you learn that your thoughts and feelings are valid, and that other people are willing to listen to them – the easier it becomes. Those first steps are always a little daunting, but they can be some of the most rewarding steps you will ever take.
7. Believe in yourself
It may sound trite but believing in yourself can help you take a significant step towards overcoming loneliness. Remind yourself that you have a lot to offer the world, and that you are worthy of the love and attention of others. Try to boost yourself up, rather than putting yourself down. Being lonely isn’t a reflection on your character, or something that has to be permanent. There are plenty of people out there who would be both appreciative and grateful for your company, so try to remind yourself of that whenever you need to. And why not pick the phone up and make an old friend smile right now?
A final note...
It is possible to work on reducing feelings of loneliness and isolation using the steps above. However, if you find yourself with persistent feelings of loneliness or are struggling to cope, then don’t be afraid to reach out for help. If you’re feeling really low and struggling to pick yourself back up, then it’s worth contacting your GP, who can talk you through any help that might be available to you. Or, if you need somewhere to turn quickly, then you can also contact Silver Line, Samaritans or Crisis Text Line who are there 24/7 to support people who could use a listening ear. Try to keep in mind that just because you feel alone, it doesn’t mean you are alone, and things will get better with a little time and perseverance.
Do you have any additional tips that you’d like to share on coping with loneliness? Email us at [email protected] or leave a comment below.