How does one describe the feeling of loneliness? For me, it feels like a boa constrictor, coiling its way from the pit of my stomach and all the way up, around my spine. It inveigles itself into my chest, around my lungs so they might just burst. It hits me most in the throat—where it lumps itself so I can hardly breathe. It’s exhausting, it’s rubbish, and it feels laden with pain and shame.
Natural forms of self-care aimed at improving your physical and mental health are, for want of a better phrase, so hot right now. From breathing techniques for anxiety, to the benefits of cold water swimming, and walking for your mental health—looking after your physical and mental well-being is de rigueur. But still, loneliness is a feeling I hate to admit: I fear sounding like an absolute loser.
The taboo around the issue is discussed quite as much, despite its devastating impact on people's quality of life? An article in the Lancet titled The Growing Problem of Loneliness begins, "Imagine a condition that makes a person irritable, depressed, and self-centered, and is associated with a 26% increase in the risk of premature mortality." Adding that it affects all people, is indiscriminate of age, income, education, sex, or ethnicity, and that it's contagious. "Such a condition exists," they say, "loneliness."
For me, growing up gay with nobody to tell, as well as being a bit of an oddball, being on the outside felt safe. Loneliness felt safe. Now, as a fiercely independent, impossibly busy, strong-willed woman with plenty of friends and family—I don't really fit what you'd 'expect' of someone gripped by feeling alone. And yet, this old frenemy reappears from time to time. Generally in times of transition, like moving home, or through the isolation of heartbreak—when it feels like an entirely new beast.
Ironically, I'm definitely not alone in feeling lonely. According to the Campaign to End Loneliness, 45% of adults in England feel, "occasionally, sometimes, or often lonely." That's approximately 25 million people, with older people and disabled people worst affected. I fight it as much as possible, and the good news is—so can you.
What are the different types of loneliness?
"Generally, we talk about two types of loneliness—social and emotional," says Dr Beverley Fehr, a professor of social psychology at the University of Winnipeg, Canada. Dr. Fehr has dedicated her career to researching and writing about interpersonal relationships.
She continues, "We experience social loneliness when we lack a network of social connections that includes friends and even acquaintances. We feel emotional loneliness when we are lacking a close, intimate relationship with one or a few other people."
If you want to delve deeper into the multiple sub-genres of these two types, social scientist David T. Hsu, wrote Untethered. This ground-breaking report delved deeper into the loneliness epidemic, breaking its causes down into 16 key categories.
- Major changes in one’s role (eg. becoming a caregiver)
- Certain occupations, which tend to exacerbate isolation
- Current or past incarceration
- Growing older
- Identified with a group that faces discrimination
- Having a long commute
- Not participating in religious, civic, social, or shared interest groups
- Lower income
- Major changes in one’s social circle (eg. loss of a spouse, partner, or friend)
- Living in a home or neighborhood that is geographically distant
- Certain mental or physical health disabilities
- Living alone
- Language or cultural barriers
- How and how much time one spends on smartphones, social media, and other media
- Lacking access to neutral public spaces (eg. parks, sidewalks, plazas, cafes)
- Having limited mobility
How to deal with loneliness
1. Catch up with old friends and family
We all need to invest time in maintaining friendships, even if it feels like a lot of effort. The energy you put into friendships and family relationships is an investment.
Robin Hewings, the programme director of the Campaign to End Loneliness, spoke to woman&home about ways to combat the problem. He was drawn to the issue because of the profound ways that loneliness can people while also being a universally relatable feeling.
"There is no one way to effectively deal with loneliness," he says, "but there are lots of different things that can and do help."
Robin says, "Reach out to your friends by picking up the phone or sending them a message through social media. You may feel that your friends are busy and will not have time for you, but you may be surprised when you take the first step to connect."
2. Invest time in new connections
She suggests that the best thing to do is get involved in a community gathering, or as she calls it, a 'congregation.' Not necessarily like the religious kind, but as Jillian explains, "When we gather purposefully, we experience a sense of shared humanity. We feel less alone."
Robin agrees that putting yourself out there and finding a community is essential. "Joining local groups or classes based on your interests is one of the best ways of making new connections," he says.
He also suggests that volunteering is another excellent way to get involved in your local community. "Not only is it a great way to meet new people, but you can also develop your own skills and interests."
Dr Fehr adds, "I would encourage people to reach out to others. If this feels too threatening, perhaps start with an online group of people who share similar interests or hobbies."
3. Look outside yourself and acknowledge your community
It might sound obvious, but if there's a person you see regularly, why not offer them a smile or say hello. Dr Fehr explains that research shows that we often develop friendships with people whose paths we cross on a frequent basis.
"So I would suggest going to the same coffee shop at the same time so that you can get to know the 'regulars,' she suggests.
Robin agrees wholeheartedly and adds, "Say ‘hello’ to a neighbor, your local shopkeeper, or a person at the bus stop," suggests Robin. "Brief exchanges with others can positively impact how you feel about yourself and can make you feel more receptive to other, possibly more meaningful, relationships."
4. Don’t keep it to yourself
Although therapy might not be something you've considered or may seem inaccessible to you, there are many options available. From affordable online therapy, to community support groups, and even online forums too.
Robin suggests, "Talking to someone about how you feel and learning positive coping techniques can be a helpful way to cope with the negative emotions associated with loneliness. You can access talking therapies through your doctor, community support organizations, or privately."
Your neighborhood may have a Community Hub to connect you with a range of services, groups and activities to meet your needs.
Robin tells woman&home, "Community Connectors and Social Prescribers can also help to connect you with opportunities to improve your health and wellbeing more broadly."
So talk to your doctor about options local to you, and they'll be able to help you find something suitable.
5. Plan your week to do something you enjoy
Robin suggests that organization is key. "Plan your week to include a hobby or activity that makes you feel good, such as doing something creative, reading, gardening, or listening to music."
Going outside regularly, be it in your garden or a walk to the park, is a great way to boost your mood. It can help you to feel more connected to your neighborhood and the natural world."
6. Stay healthy
Prioritize looking after yourself. Make sure you are eating healthily, being as active as you can be by learning how much exercise to do per week, and sleeping well. Not only will this make you feel better all round but taking part in group activities, alongside people with shared interests, is a great way to make new connections.
Dr Fehr suggests, "you may want to go to a gym or workout class. Any activity where you will cross paths will people on an ongoing basis can be facilitative of friendship formation."
7. Practice gratitude and focus on the good things in life
It's completely normal to accidentally fall down a negative rabbit hole during periods of loneliness, which are hard to get out of. So it's vital to try and be positive, as much as possible.
Think about the good things in your life, your happiest moments, and those to come.
Can you feel lonely but not alone?
In short, absolutely. So if you're feeling lonely, despite ostensibly having plenty of people in your orbit, you're not alone.
Dr Fehr explains, "You can feel very lonely around other people, especially if you feel you aren’t connecting with the people around you. Research has shown that people also can feel lonely in their marriages if they don’t have a healthy, satisfying relationship with their partner."
Loneliness comes in all shapes and forms, adapts itself to fit situations you never thought it would. Remember not only to look after yourself, but those around you, because this common issue is something we can beat together.
Aoife is Junior News Editor at woman&home.
She's an Irish journalist and writer with a background in creative writing, comedy, and TV production.
Formerly Aoife was a contributing writer at Bustle and her words can be found in the Metro, Huffpost, Delicious, Imperica, EVOKE and her poetry features in the Queer Life, Queer Love anthology.
Outside of work you might bump into her at a garden center, charity shop, hot yoga studio, lifting heavy weights, or (most likely) supping/eating some sort of delicious drink/meal.
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