These last few months through this coronavirus pandemic and social isolation we have been unable to physically, socially and emotionally connect with loved ones and friends.
As human beings we are instinctively social animals, and it is natural for us to feel alone or lonely when isolated from others, our brains have adapted to rely on social connection as a means of survival.
The absence of social connection triggers the same primal alarm bells as hunger, thirst and physical pain, sending signals to our brain that we are in danger and our survival is at risk.
No wonder loneliness has such a severe impact on us, and currently the number of people feeling lonely will have risen with social isolation separting people from their friend and families.
A report in 2017 said that 9 million people in the country feel lonely some or all of the time.
I would imagine this figure has risen significantly since lockdown.
Under normal circumstances YouGov research showed
People in cities had a higher incidence of reporting feeling lonely than in the UK overall 56% vs 44%. During isolation city dweller often have less ability to get outside, even sitting in the garden can give you a sense of connectedness hearing others etc in gardens around you, making you feel less alone, imagine if you are in a flat without any outdoor space, your feeling of isolation is enhanced.
25% of adults reported being lonely at the weekends, because connections with others can be less at the weekends, without work etc, these past few months every day has seemed like the weekend, does that now mean that 25% of adults are feeling lonely every day?
Nearly 74% of people said when they felt lonely they didn’t tell anyone despite most people having someone they could count on, I wonder if now they feel even less likely to say something because they feel people have enough burdens of their own to deal with?
Before her unfortunate death politician Jo Cox was starting a movement to recognise the impact that loneliness has on our population, citing loneliness as one of the greatest public health challenges of our time.
The recent pandemic has to put this in the spotlight even more
Social isolation has meant people being on their own for much longer periods of time especially if they live alone, however you can feel lonely when you are all alone, but you can also feel lonely when you are in a room full of people.
If you are isolated with family, it is not unusual, despite being surrounded by family to still feeling lonely.
Loneliness is not just about the connections we have but also the meaning of that connection. Loneliness in this circumstance could be triggered by unpleasant feelings you get when the contact you have is not the contact you desire
Loneliness is an unwelcome feeling of lack or loss of companionship, which happens when there is a mismatch between the quantity and quality of the social relationship that we have and those we want.
Loneliness will affect us all at some point in our life, no one is immune, whether you live alone or are surrounded by others.
People feel lonely for all sorts of reasons but generally there are 3 types of loneliness
Social loneliness is the lack of a wider social network of friend neighbour or colleagues, this of course is very apparent for many of us right now
Emotional Loneliness is the absence of a significant other with whom close attachment of meaningful relationship exists, again currently there may be partners who are having to isolate from each other and there is a hole that person once filled physically and emotionally.
Existential loneliness is described as a universal aspect of the human species, a condition which expresses the separation of the person from others, this is particualry apparent when there is the death of someone close..
Even the fear of this in the environment we are in can bring on a premature feeling of this, worrying about losing those close to you bringing on a feeling of loneliness.
You may also have lost someone close to you through this pandemic and are exepriencing this.
Loneliness can be a transient feeling that comes and goes, often occurring at particular times of the year such as holiday season Christmas etc when there is a need to be close to others or observing others being close to family and friends.
It can also be chronic, this means that someone feels lonely all the time.
Although your feeling of loneliness at the moment may be transiet, it could be you are experiencing this for a much longer time frame than you have previously and so it feels much more intense for you.
If you struggled with chronc loneliness you may have been able to have moments of feeling better at certain times ie loved ones visiting of being able to visit friends, but of course currently these opportunities have been taken away from you so it seems there is no respite to the loneliness you are feeling.
The strength of loneliness can change from moment to moment and it may be you are feeling the intensity of your loneliness much more over these last few months than you did previously.
So what can you do about it?
There is no one way to effectively deal with loneliness, people are different and most will need to find a way that works for them. But there are lots of different things that you can try that may help you, it may be that you have to try a few, a combination of them or work out how regularly you need to do things that work for you and then keep doing them.
1. Connecting with others
Remember I said as humans our survival is based on our connections with others and so being in contact with others prevents our survival instinct, anxiety, from trying to come to our rescue.
Whether it be a deep connection or a brief exchange with others both can have an impact on how you feel.
If you’ve been alone with no connection and someone takes the time to just check in with you, the loneliness can feel less intense. A hello from someone in the social distancing supermarket queue could have a huge impact if you've not spoken to someone for days.
If you know someone who is on their own, give them a quick call or text, but don’t be offended if they do not respond, they may not be ready for connection, but you have shown them you are there if they need you.
When feeling lonely and you take the time to just say a couple of hellos to others, even strangers you are having a connection and this will help. quantitity as well as quality of connections are important, if you haven't spoken to anyone for a few days reach out, whether that be to friends, family, strangers, helplines.
It might be by text, phone call, facetime, it doesn't matter, just take the time to make the connections, whether it be for 1 minute or an hour you are still enabling your brain to register you are not alone.
It is not just human connection that breaks the cycle of loneliness, connection with animals can produce the same feelings for you so getting a pet if you live on your own can be a useful addition to reduce your loneliness.
A study conducted last year discovered that dog owners have better social and communication skills and therefore makes it easier for them to engage with humans and be more involved with the community.
Taking your dog for a walk can be a great conversation starter with others, breaking down barriers that you might feel are there.
2. Are your negative thoughts feeding your Loneliness?
You may be starting to ask what is wrong with you and feel like it is all your own fault that you are lonely
You can start to beat yourself up, then the more alone you feel, the more you start to have those thoughts of not belonging or feeling rejected, you then feel more alone and so you keep up that viscious cycle.
Left alone with your thoughts you can become your own worst enemy, if you continue to be critical of yourself you start to believe this critical voice.
Your inner critic feeds into your feelings of isolation, it encourages you to avoid others and you can even push others away when they reach out to help us because you feel beyond help and so you remain in that lonely state.
Loneliness is not about the amount of time we spend alone but rather how we feel about being alone.
Long term loneliness can structurally and biochemically change your brain.
Studies now show that being alone for long periods changes your neural responses to positive events and images, and that you actually suppress the feelings associated with them. You start to perceive the world through a negative filter.
Loneliness leads us to seeing things as hopeless, we may feel everything is out of our control and there is nothing we can do about it. We then find it difficult to summon up the energy to look for happiness or make changes that will be positive for us.
Learning to quieten down the critical voice is important, find ways to be kind to yourself, do not blame yourself and start to appreciate even the smallest things in life.
At this time it may be difficult for you to see any positives, but they are always there if we look hard enough.
So take time to focus on the good things in life, or bring up happy memories of a time before Covid 19 and the things you enjoyed, take some time to plan in something you enjoy that helps you feel positive, whether it be reading a book, doing a jigsaw or listening to music you love.
3. Learn to be alone
If you have no-one else in your life, you always have you. Love yourself first, because that's who you will spend the rest of your life with.
Through this isolation period one of the biggest things that you can learn, is how to be happy in your own company.
This may feel counter intuitive and you may be feeling you should be doing everything you can to be connected with others, but this can increase your feelings of loneliness if it is not possible.
However learning to enjoy your own company means you can be on your own and not feel alone.
Currently we have a lot of time on our hands and it is a great opportunity for self development and discovery, starting to understand yourself better.
Try using the time alone to learn a new skill or indulge yourself in an interest that you don’t share with others, helping you to learn that you do not have to rely on others to be able to bring you happiness.
What part are of your life would you like to improve, focus on it right now,
When you are not happy with yourself, you can't enjoy your own company, you come from a place of insecurity, neediness and dependacny and this can spiral into an unhealthy approach to relationships with others.
Use this time to gently nudge yourself towards becoming the best veriosn of yourself, if you are happy with who you are you will be happy with your own company.