Take a look around you wherever you are reading this post.
Are you in a café, surrounded by people sitting alone with their laptops? Are you on public transport? Take a moment to look up, and see how many of your fellow travellers are looking down, heads in their phones. How many are using headphones to block out the sounds of life around them?
Or maybe you are home alone, convinced that everyone else is out there having fun, deliberately leaving you out, or worse, forgetting you. Or maybe your thoughts go to the people you just know are happily at home with their families or friends, feeling loved and appreciated.
These are the unhelpful (and almost always untrue!) thoughts that creep into our minds when we’re lonely. Because humans are social creatures. We’re wired to connect. From the moment we’re born we begin the process of attaching to others. We thrive with connection, and many of our anxieties stem from fears of being cast out from the group.
And yet, with our increasingly busy lives, technology and social media keeping more of us at a distance from our community, loneliness has become one of our most concerning mental health issues.
Loneliness is the feeling of sadness or distress we experience when our social needs aren’t being met by our current social connections.
There is now a greater push for recognising and addressing loneliness in the elderly, with governments establishing programs to tackle loneliness in older adults, and the UK recently appointing the very first Minister for Loneliness.
But perhaps this is just the tip of the iceberg, as loneliness affects all age groups.
Why are we so lonely?
Although most adults are adept at using social media and other electronic communication, ‘Millennials’ have rapidly adapted to this form of communication. So well, that it has created its own set of problems.
Whilst the average Australian will spend around six hours a week on social media, for young women this is much higher at around two hours per day. Certainly, social media is not all negative. But 14 hours a week of scrolling through a highly curated stream of information can distort our sense of how, or if, we fit in, and the quality of our life in comparison.
This reliance on instant communication is also significantly reducing time spent in meaningful face to face contact. Also consider that body language contributes over 90% of the information we receive when we’re speaking with someone – what must we be missing!?
The flexibility of technology means we can work from anywhere – many can relate to working from home and not seeing or speaking to another living soul all day. Over two million Australians are self-employed, and around half of these do not have any employees. We are more than ever, a world of solo entrepreneurs, probably all working from the aforementioned cafes! The stable, long-term work community is increasingly a thing of the past.
One in four Australians is living alone. Whilst this definitely does not make those people lonely, it does mean that we need to start thinking differently about how we form and maintain quality connections.
Who is at risk?
People going through times of transition are at greater risk of loneliness. Changing schools, moving out of or away from home, new motherhood, retirement, loss of employment, divorce or death of a partner, are all periods that may increase a person’s sense of loneliness. Often, this will be a transitory episode, and as social connections build in the new phase of life, loneliness recedes.
But in other circumstances loneliness may become more entrenched. Children and young people who are or have experienced bullying, people with physical or mental health issues, people with disabilities, carers, unemployed and retired individuals, may all find it difficult form new social connections.
Loneliness has a significant impact on mental and physical health
Feeling an absence of support from people around you can increase stress. With no one to share the mental load of everyday life, or to help you handle bigger problems, stress hormones are higher. Here at Birch, we maintain that everyday life can be stressful. Feeling like you are going it alone really can make things harder.
When loneliness is a factor, brain functioning may be impaired, making decision-making more difficult. We also experience increases in inflammation, impacting our cardiovascular system and increasing the risk of heart attack, stroke, obesity and early death from a range of factors. Based on their significant impact on life expectancy, the health impacts of loneliness have been compared to cigarette smoking!
Other physical symptoms associated with loneliness are:
Headaches, aches and pains, frequent illnesses
Low energy and motivation
Changes to appetite and weight
Low mood, anxiety, panic and paranoia
Worthlessness, hopelessness or thoughts about suicide
Increased substance use
Fear not – short periods of feeling lonely will not see you carted off to hospital, but it is a sobering thought that entrenched loneliness can have such a significant effect.
Social consequences of loneliness
The other unfortunate consequence of loneliness, is that it tends to shift our perception of the relationships we do have. Lonely people are more likely to view their existing social relationships negatively.
Feeling lonely usually makes us feel pretty bad about ourselves, and this also impacts the way we might interact with others. We may become more withdrawn, and lose our ‘social fitness’ - forgetting or feeling anxious about how to be around other people, putting up barriers to protect ourselves against expected rejection, and even losing our ability to understand how others are feeling.
Consider this: if you feel like people don’t like you or wouldn’t bother to get to know you, how might you behave around them?
Probably, you would want to protect yourself against hurt. So you might be closed off, give short answers, end conversations quickly, or not approach them at all. These kinds of behaviours, although they are helping you feel safe, can often be misinterpreted as rudeness or snobbery.
Or, you may be more likely to refuse invitations and avoid social interactions altogether, which just strengthens the feelings of loneliness and the belief that nobody wants to really know you. And, sadly, the cycle continues.
As scary as it may be, it is harder for others to form a meaningful connection with us if we have our protective barriers up. So we need to be brave, challenge these expectations of others, and ourselves, and maybe have a little refresher of our social skills.
What can you do to feel more connected?
Increase the Quality of your connections
Feeling connected is more about the quality of relationships than the quantity. So, if we can, it’s often easier to start with what we’ve already got.
Go through your phone, email and social media contacts and find people you haven’t seen in a while. Reach out! Most people will be happy to hear from you. Tip: choose people who you know make you feel good about yourself.
Put your phone down when you’re with people. When you’re with them, really engage. Ask things about what’s going on in their life, and think about a few things you’d be willing to share with them.
When with other people, try not to focus on thoughts about what they are thinking of you. Move your attention to them – be interested in the person you are talking with and the conversation will always be better!
Simple relaxation strategies, such as deep breathing, can help with feelings of anxiety that come up when in social situations.
Put aside some time to reflect on how you might behave around others. Without being judgmental – because any skill can get rusty with a lack of practice – try to be open and curious about whether the way you interact with other people could unintentionally be pushing them away. This can be really hard! You may need to consider this one with a trusted person in your life, or with a psychologist.
Increase the Quantity of your connections
Get out into your community – introduce your self to your neighbours. Just start with a smile and saying hi! You’ll be amazed how much difference it makes.
Read your local newspaper to get a feel for what’s going on around you.
Look for volunteering opportunities. Doing something for others makes us feel good, helps build connection, and best of all, helps others.
There are a range of apps available designed to get people connected. Here are a few:
· Meetup: Meet people who share your interests (e.g., photography, hiking etc)
· Patook: Strictly platonic friendship app
· Tinder social: groups of your Tinder friends can meet up with other groups of Tinder friends
· MeetMe: chat with others online
· Knockchat: meet people in your local area online before meeting in person
· Bumble BFF: an offshoot of Bumble, this version helps you find your new best friend
· Bvddy: find local athletic groups in your area from croquet to Acroyoga!
Join a class or group. Local community centres often offer an array of classes, groups and activities that might take your interest. If that seems like too much of a commitment, maybe a one-off class might be up your alley. Laneway Learning has a wide selection of informal evening classes on offer.
Tip: it can be pretty intimidating to turn up to a group situation on our own – especially when we know one of the reasons we’re there is to build connections. Those nasty loneliness thoughts can get the better of us and keep us away. So try coming up with another reason that you also want to be there, for example, research, building a skill, developing an existing interest, or training for a sporting event. This helps to see yourself as someone who is curious, interesting, and passionate about their goals – and others will see you in the same way!
Increase your ‘alone’ Confidence
Get a pet! Here at Birch, we are pro-pets. Walt, our happy Birch cocker spaniel, brings happiness to our rooms whenever he visits. Pets of all kinds help build connection, reduce stress and are often a good way to link with the local community. You can read another of our articles about the wonders of pets here.
Get out there by yourself! See a movie (it’s not that scary!), go for a long walk - maybe somewhere you’ve never been before - and pay attention to your surroundings, go to an event, treat yourself to something special.
Write about how you are feeling. This can help you to make sense of your emotions, and also help get them ‘out of your head’ so you can spend your time engaged in something that feels more meaningful.
Cook yourself a delicious meal – meals need not be shared with another to be enjoyable. Promise!
And if you are reading this post and don’t feel lonely, please try to reach out to someone who you think might be.
If you are struggling with loneliness, or your mental health, help is possible. You can see your General Practitioner (GP) or find a psychologist at https://www.psychology.org.au/Find-a-Psychologist
If you are feeling suicidal, contact Lifeline’s 24 hour crisis support service on 13 11 14, seek immediate help from a GP, or attend your local hospital ED.