by Lynne Rodgers (of North Brisbane Psychologists)
Lonely is a taboo word. To admit you feel lonely risks attracting pity or being perceived as a social failure. Yet loneliness is so common it is tipped to be a new public health epidemic. The UK Government has appointed a Minister for Loneliness in recognition of this serious issue.
In a recent survey of Australian adults, 27.6% of people said they feel lonely at least three days every week. One in five (21.4%) said they rarely or never feel close to people, rarely or never feel they have someone to talk to (22.1%) and don’t feel they have someone they can turn to (21.4%). Nearly a quarter (24.5%) say they can’t find companionship when they want it.
Feeling ‘on the outer’ or isolated from other people is more than just feeling sad. Loneliness may be a sense that we don’t enough social connection, or that people around us don’t “get” us. The loneliness we feel signals that our human need for social connection is unfulfilled and should prompt us to reach out to others. Yet we often fear reaching out and relying on others – or being vulnerable. In addition to increasing the risk of depression, anxiety and stress, loneliness is associated with physical health risks such as cardiovascular disease, decreased immunity and poor cognitive health (i.e., memory, attention and planning).
And the irony is most people who feel lonely believe they are the only ones suffering from loneliness.
People can become lonely through a variety of circumstances: changing schools or workplaces, relocating, losing a partner or parent, having close friends move away or die, illness, or changes in lifestyle (e.g., unable to work). While we are all feel lonely at times, studies indicate that young people aged 18-29 and older adults (65 -79) are most vulnerable to feeling lonely. This makes sense considering that young adults are working hard to become independent from their parents and need strong and consistent support from their peer groups to do so. Older adults can go through many changes such as loss of career in retirement, loss of a spouse, or health challenges requiring a strong social support base.
What can be done if you are lonely?
– Think about what you have got to offer in relationships: Relationships mean all interactions with humans, not just romantic relationships. What are your strengths in relating? A sense of humour? Deep listening? Generosity, thoughtfulness, curiosity?
– Develop all domains of your life: Relationships, work/education, leisure, self-care. Take a moment to reflect – do you find yourself with too much activity in one domain, such as work and education, and not enough in another? Seek balance. We get lonely when we are unbalanced.
– Follow your interests: Look online for groups with similar interests (Meet Ups, Book clubs, sports and outdoor groups) or start your own using a platform such as meetup.com. Rekindle old interests you may have dropped. Some online platforms have an interface that you can use to find a best friend (versus a romantic date). On these sites you can chat online with people of similar interests and then decide whether or not to meet face-to-face at a later time.
– Look for ways to turn everyday encounters into meaningful exchanges: Talk to the barista making your coffee or the other people at the dog park. Are there acquaintances in your life who could become friends with more frequent contact?
– Experiment with going out alone: Got to that movie or visit that farmer’s market you’ve been meaning to check out. Try to be in the world doing the things you enjoy rather than deciding you won’t participate until you have someone to go with. You will miss out on a lot if you refuse to only do them with someone else. However, this will be far more difficult if you are suffering with depression or social anxiety or low self-esteem, so working with a therapist on these issues will be the first step here.
– Accept invitations even if they are not your ideal activity or from your “ideal person.” Be open nonetheless. If this is a persistent problem for you and you find yourself with negative view of other people or an expectation of rejection, you may be experiencing some social anxiety. A good therapist can help you work through these negative expectations.
– Create a balance of digital and face-to-face socialising.
If someone is lonely, is isn’t their fault. So let’s work together to lessen the stigma that exists in our culture about loneliness.
What can you do if you suspect that someone you know is chronically lonely?
– Make it safe for them to express these feelings by gently exploring them. Don’t rush to solve their problem (for example saying “I will introduce you to my friends”) or minimize their feelings by saying “Oh you have plenty of friends.” Use empathy.
– Listen non-judgmentally. It takes a lot of effort to admit you are lonely and often people have a fear of being perceived as “needy” when they simply miss the normal social interaction that all human brains need.
– Never describe your lonely friend as needy – it will be heard as a judgment and rejection.
– Integrate them into your life and help them make connections. And don’t forgot to check in regularly – but do it with good intentions. Don’t make them feel like they are an obligation.
– “Look up” from your device to notice other people. There is a great power in noticing we are all here together as humans. Nod, make eye contact, acknowledge others where possible in incidental social encounters at the supermarket, at the bus stop, in the lift at work. Check out Kio Stark’s amazing Ted Talk which will make you think again about the power of noticing and talking to strangers.
Loneliness is increasingly being recognised as a significant mental and social health issue. If you need support and assistance to develop a plan or the confidence and skills to connect with others, give us a call today.