More than 66 percent of British adults are lonely, so what can we do about it?
Feelings of isolation can be overwhelming, and sadly it seems that it’s on the rise – and not just among older people, as you might expect. According to the Office for National Statistics, Britain is the loneliness capital of Europe. It seems that many of us Brits are unlikely to know our neighbours or feel that we have friendships we can rely on in a crisis. In fact, nine percent of us of all ages don’t have a single close friend. All of this can have an affect on our health, both mentally and physically, leaving us feeling helpless and unsure of where to turn. With this in mind, we’ve called in the experts to show us some easy ways to take charge of the situation for good.
You don’t have to be alone to feel lonely. “It’s possible to experience feelings of loneliness even when you’re surrounded by colleagues, friends or family,” says Alexandra Lees, life coach and co-founder of Wu Wei Wisdom (wuweiwisdom.com). “Often this happens when you lose the connection with the ’authentic you’ and are unable to honestly express yourself in your personal or professional life. Many people also crave positive attention from others so they can feel good about themselves, but this often doesn’t work and so they end up feeling lonely. Remember that you don’t need to be a social butterfly or always busy to be a successful or happy person.”
There are various triggers for loneliness, including bereavement, retirement, children leaving home, being shy, living far from family and having a low income – and it’s not simply a mental health issue. “One of the reasons that loneliness is so bad for us is that it makes it harder for us to control our habits and behaviour,” says Chloe Ward, technician at Smart TMS, a mental health clinic specialising in transcranial magnetic stimulation (smarttms.co.uk). “Tests by US psychologists show that the expectation of isolation reduces our willpower and perseverance, making it harder to regulate our behaviour, leading to overindulgences of things like food and alcohol. Further research in 2008 found that middle aged people who are lonely report more exposure to stress. Those who are lonely are more likely to withdraw from engaging with others and less likely to seek social support which, in turn, makes them more isolated. Studies have also shown that loneliness can affect the immune and cardiovascular systems, placing individuals at risk of health problems.” But wait, there’s more: “Lonely people are more likely to suffer from depressive symptoms, as they’ve been reported to be less happy, less satisfied and more pessimistic,” Chloe tells us. “Research has found that loneliness puts individuals at greater risk of cognitive decline and gives them a 64 percent increased chance of developing clinical dementia.”
It makes for a scary read, particularly as this is an issue that could affect any of us, and at any time. “Middle age is a period of life and development that is often neglected,” says psychotherapist Toby Ingham (tobyingham.com). “This is a point in life where we either have or haven’t ticked off our earlier ambitions, be them having a family or getting to a certain level in our career. In our late 30s and 40s, we can start to feel flat and that life and the world is passing us by. It’s easy to mistake this period for the beginning of the end but it doesn’t have to be like this. In fact, it should be a time to reflect on where we are and to think about what we want to do next.”
If you recognise that you’re lonely, the best thing you can do is to use this feeling as important information that you need to respond to and do something about. Toby explains: “We need to use the feeling of loneliness as a signal that something requires attention. Perhaps a relationship has failed, your children have left home, you’ve suffered bereavement, or maybe you’ve been made redundant. Any of these things can affect your confidence, so you are bound to need time to adjust and recover.” Luckily, there are lots of different ways to overcome loneliness so you can feel happy once again.
“You’ve recognised that something requires attention, so it’s important to develop a supportive attitude,” Toby says. “Use this as the beginning of focusing on the changes you’re going to make. Be patient – you need to give yourself some time to see the kind of things you want to do next.”
“The desire to keep up with the Joneses is not a new one but the rise of social media has only exacerbated the problem by giving us the chance to constantly compare ourselves to others,” says Eugene Farrell, head of trauma support services at AXA PPP Healthcare (axappphealthcare.co.uk). “If you’re already feeling lonely, the idea that everyone else’s lives are more idyllic than yours can make you feel even more isolated and alone. Remind yourself that people only share what they want others to see about their lives. Don’t form unrealistic expectations about life and friendship based on what you see online.”
“If you’re feeling lonely, don’t suffer in silence,” says Tim Hipgrave, emotional health lead at Nuffield Health (nuffieldhealth.com). “The best first step you can take is to talk to someone. If you feel like you don’t have anyone close to you, or are uncomfortable talking to friends or family, it might be worth talking to someone neutral. The Samaritans provide a free helpline (116 123) to anyone struggling with their emotional wellbeing.”
“If you’ve felt lonely for a while, throwing yourself in at the deep end could only serve to make the problem worse,” Eugene tells us. “Instead, dip your toes into the water first by going to a local café or sports event where you’re surrounded by people and just enjoy sharing their company. You could also try a class where you can dive into the activity itself to distract you from the pressure of introducing yourself to people straight away. With loneliness, slow and steady often wins the race.”
“Loneliness is often, though not always, a symptom of an underlying cause,” Tim explains. “You might have trouble trusting people, or you may feel isolated due to depression, for example. It’s a good idea to think about what might be causing your loneliness and try to address these issues head on. A therapist can help you to discover your root cause and make positive changes.”
“Exercise releases feel-good hormones, so working out regularly can help improve your outlook, making you feel more positive,” Tim explains. “Finding ways to keep active, such as joining a gym class, can also introduce you to new people and provide regular contact points to build connections into your weekly routine.”
“If you’re in a relationship but are still lonely, it could be a sign that you’re feeling misunderstood and that you take one another for granted,” says life coach Olga Levancuka (olgalevancuka.com). “Be open about your feelings. It might be that they don’t realise that you feel so isolated but, once you’ve opened up, it can be the first step to solving the problem.”
“A great way to connect to people in your local area is to volunteer your time,” says Tim. “Pro-actively supporting your community will introduce you to new people and help you to feel grounded in your area. Research has also found that helping others makes us feel happy, so volunteering can help improve your mental wellbeing, too.”