One definition of loneliness is that our need for contact is not being met. However, this isn’t the same as being alone. Some people choose to be alone and can live very happily without a lot of contact with other people. You can also have lots of friends or be part of a big family but still feel lonely.
Loneliness can have many different causes and affects all of us in different ways. Certain lifestyles and the stresses of life today can make people socially isolated and more vulnerable to loneliness. It can also have a big impact on your mental health, contributing to anxiety, stress and depression. Not feeling part of the world in which you live is part of a vicious circle where you then stop trying to maintain friendships and then feel excluded.
Certain situations might also make you feel lonelier – if you lose a partner or someone close to you, you’re part of an ethnic group with few community networks, experience discrimination because of a disability, a relationship breaks up, you’re a single parent finding it hard to go out, you retire and no longer have the company of work colleagues (sometimes a blessing too!).
Internal feelings of loneliness can come from within a person and they don’t disappear regardless of how many friends someone has. There are lots of different reasons for this including not liking yourself (how will others like you if you don’t feel that you’re a good person?) or lacking self-confidence. If you felt unloved by your parents or family when you were a child, you can grow up still feeling unlovable when you’re an adult.
Sometimes people isolate themselves, even within a relationship and underneath this can be to do with a fear of being hurt emotionally. So being single doesn’t always mean being lonely and being in a relationship doesn’t always mean happiness.
People try different ways to avoid this inner loneliness including spending a lot of time socialising and thereby not having time to ponder on it too much, or they develop a dependency on drugs or alcohol to escape these feelings.
Studies show that socially isolated people suffer from lower self-esteem, experience more stress and are more likely to have problems sleeping than those with a strong social support system. When extreme feelings of loneliness are almost overwhelming, thoughts can turn to suicide. If you are concerned about such thoughts, you can pick up a phone to contact the Samaritans at any time of the day or night. Otherwise, talk to your GP who may refer you for NHS counselling or look for a private counsellor (look on the Counselling Directory or BACP website for qualified therapists).
So, how can you combat these feeling of loneliness? For some people it’s about making more social contact with other people, either friends or family. If you’re feeling ‘low’ this can take a lot of effort but if you don’t do so then you’re likely to end up more lonely and isolated than ever.
Take small steps at first:
- go for a short walk in the fresh air and try to say ‘hello’ if you see anyone from your road or who looks familiar to you.
- text someone in your family, just to see how they are.
- If you’re in a group of people, try to make a few comments easier though it seems easier to keep quiet and let everyone else talk.
- try having a short talk with the cashier when you pay for goods in the shop.
- if you have children, maybe you could make conversation with one or two other parents at the school gate.
If you are out of practice talking to people, it may seem daunting to do so at first and if you don’t get a very enthusiastic response it’s even harder! However, try not to take it personally – someone else might respond more positively and some groups are notorious for being ‘cliquey’!
Another way of making connections with people is through shared interests, values or experiences. If something interests you, whether that’s walking, watching films or going camping, there will be other people who feel the same. There is usually information about local clubs or groups in the library or you can look online.
If, despite doing your best, you don’t manage to achieve the social contact you’d like, it may be worth learning how to feel more comfortable in your own company. This can be rewarding if you focus on the pleasure it gives you. Having time to reflect and think can be positive.
Techniques like yoga, pilates or writing a journal can help to achieve a peace that frenetic socialising can’t. Getting a dog or cat is another way to alleviate loneliness, especially as they’re usually pleased to see you when you arrive home!