Written by Dr. Mark Winwood
Dr Mark Winwood is a leading psychologist, and Clinical Lead for Mental Health Services at AXA Health.
"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," says Dr Mark Winwood, Clinical Lead for Mental Health Services at AXA Health.
Background to loneliness
A 2014 survey by the Office for National Statistics, found that Britain is the loneliness capital of Europe, with many Brits unlikely to know their neighbours or feel they have friendships that they can rely on in a crisis.
Most people think loneliness only affects the older generation. In many ways this is true: the charity Age UK reports that over 1m older people always or often feel lonely.
But loneliness also affects young people. Our own 2014 research showed that British adults aged 18 to 24 are four times as likely to feel consistently lonely compared with those over 70. Our 2015 study in association with Netmums also highlighted the effect of social isolation on new mums.
Now new research suggests that loneliness could become as big a public health issue as obesity and smoking.
Researchers at the University of Chicago and the University of California found that that there are physiological changes triggered by the experience of loneliness that are similar to those experienced when we feel threatened. This decreases production of white blood cells, reduces your immune system, and increases inflammation in your body.
Here, we explore the definition of loneliness and tips on how to manage it.
What is loneliness?
"The terms 'loneliness' and 'social isolation' are often used interchangeably, but are distinct concepts," explains Dr Winwood. "People can be socially isolated without feeling lonely, or feel emotionally lonely even though they are surrounded by people daily."
Social isolation is an objective state that refers to the number of social contacts or interactions you have. Loneliness is more of an emotional state. While it is not in itself a mental health problem, the two are explicitly linked, with loneliness often the result of poor mental health or vice versa.
How to cope with loneliness
If you feel lonely, following the tips below will help you get started and move in the right direction:
- Making new connections is arguably the most obvious way to combat loneliness, but it can really help. Joining a group or class you are interested in will increase your chances of meeting like-minded people to make friends with. For example, joining an exercise club is a great way to socialise and can give your mental health a boost. 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 have a fairly big social circle but don't feel truly close to any of them, the underlying issue may be that you need to open up more. Letting your friend or acquaintance in on your vulnerability or honest opinion can help to deepen your connection with them.
- Stop comparing yourself with others. The desire to ‘keep up with the Joneses' is not a new one, however the rise of social media has exacerbated the problem by giving people the chance to constantly compare themselves with 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 friendships 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 on social media or by email.
- Helping others is also a popular route to meet people, improve your mental health and do good for wider society. You'll not only give something back to your community, but it 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 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.
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