How Loneliness Impacts Our Health and Wellbeing
Human Closeness and Connection
Human closeness and connection is an essential part of our mental wellbeing, contributing to our overall happiness and contentment. In fact, our need to connect socially is so hard-wired that being socially excluded can elicit the same pain attributed to an open wound. It is important to understand why we feel lonely as nothing will challenge your happiness more than loneliness.
Relocating to a New Area, Job or School
Most of us will have experienced the pain of loneliness at some point in our lives, such as moving to a new place or job, starting a new school or being excluded socially. In fact, when I first started university I remember feeling the emptiness of the quiet presence of my mum and her endless cups of tea. However negative the effects might be, this feeling is considered normal, and very often this experience of loneliness is beneficial as it motivates us to reconnect with others.
I often advise others who are in a period of feeling alone due to the breakdown of a relationship to develop a relationship with themselves. Think of it as a time to grow and become the person you really want to be. Try planning a new routine by picking out your favourite things to do and incorporating them into your day. It could be something simple like a walk, or pampering yourself with that relaxing bath each evening. These routines you create will become that ‘something to look forward to’ feeling which you have introduced back into your life.
When loneliness continues for long periods of time, it can start to become unhealthy. Prolonged loneliness has become an epidemic which affects people of all ages from different backgrounds, causing adverse effects to our mental health and wellbeing. The reasons associated with prolonged loneliness can include:
Having a Mental Health Condition
People who have a mental health condition often find that loneliness is a double-edged sword. Their mental health condition has made them lonely, and feeling lonely has had an adverse effect on their mental health. Anxiety and depression can very often isolate people which results in them being cut off socially, robbing them of the ability to lead meaningful lives. In order to overcome these feelings of loneliness it is important to reach out and connect with others. This is not easy if the thought of meeting new people triggers feelings of panic and anxiety. Start slowly and perhaps visit an online support community where you can discuss your mental health in a safe, nonjudgmental environment. As your confidence grows, you might think about volunteering; this is not only a great way of meeting people, but research has shown that helping others can really improve your own mental health.
Even though we live in an age where technology has made it easier for us to connect with others, rates of loneliness have in fact almost doubled since the 1980s. Social media platforms, if not used in moderation, can have an impact on feelings of loneliness and isolation because they hamper true social skills. If you are only communicating with like-minded people and not engaging with others who have different viewpoints, then your own point of view will be less open and honest. Constantly comparing ourselves to others on social media creates insecurity and will have an adverse effect on our personal lives and mental health. Taking a break from social media or regulating the amount of time you spend on social media will reap the following benefits:
- Extra free time: Start imagining all of the things you could do if you were not constantly on your phone or computer. Taking a break and connecting with friends or family over a cup of coffee or perhaps joining a sports club will not only give your life that much needed balance, it will allow you to become more productive in a healthier manner.
- Self-esteem: Constant comparison to others on social media and trying to live up to those expectations of perfection is certainly not a confidence booster. Research has shown that those people who constantly use social media to validate themselves experience low self-esteem and increased feelings of anxiety.
- Relationships will improve: Real connections will be made with the people you really care about. Connecting in this way will form lasting authentic bonds that your future self will be grateful for.
Even though loneliness can affect anyone of any age, older people are more vulnerable to feeling lonely. As we grow older we are more likely to experience the loss of our partner or those close to us. We are also more prone to health problems which can make it more difficult to get out and be active in our community. Those feelings of loneliness are completely different to being alone. They are not dependent on how many people you see, but the quality of this social contact which is what makes all the difference. You may be in a room full of people yet if you are missing family, friends or a partner, you can still feel lonely.
Causes of Loneliness
Poor Physical Health
It is extremely difficult to socialise if ill health has resulted in the loss of mobility. There are many useful mobility aids, which range from walking sticks and frames to mobility scooters and wheelchairs, which can help alleviate the loss of mobility.
Lack of Family or Friends
Very often the elderly find that they have reached a stage in life where family and friends have passed away or moved to a different area. This may result in feelings of isolation which add to those feelings of loneliness. There are many charitable groups which offer companionship to those people who may find themselves in this situation.
Moving Into Residential Care
The transition of leaving your own home, with all its memories, and moving into a care home can be very overwhelming for many elderly people. During those first few weeks, regular visits from family and friends or the extra attention from staff will go a long way to ward off those feelings of loneliness.
We can all fight against loneliness by engaging in random acts of kindness.— Gail Honeyman
Effects of Loneliness
There is a pervading sense of hopelessness and helplessness which accompanies intense feelings of loneliness. If left untreated, symptoms can include lack of sleep, lack of motivation, and thoughts of suicide. Being able to spot the signs early when someone is at risk of isolation is so important, especially if you have not seen the person for some time.
- For the elderly: family members or friends can make an effort to include the person by regular visits or Sunday lunch. A much-appreciated phone call can also make a world of difference to an elderly person living alone.
- For younger people: a regular phone call by friends or adult family members, not to mention a catch-up over coffee or a meal, will not only be rewarding for both parties but will show the person you care.
Research has shown that the impact of loneliness on our health and mortality is as high as other risk factors such as high blood pressure, smoking and obesity. People who are lonely tend to lose interest in their personal hygiene and diet, are less motivated to exercise, experience weight loss and/or gain, and have a higher chance of contracting heart disease.
In order to overcome loneliness it is important to understand how you feel and why. Be kind to yourself in the knowledge that with understanding brings awareness. Do not be afraid to cry if you are feeling sad – it is very therapeutic, and the more aware you become of your feelings, the better equipped you will be to overcome them.
Acceptance is acknowledging your loneliness and trying to understand where it comes from. Beginning to form coping methods to deal with your loneliness means you are making the choice to be aware of it. Finally, reach out to others or pursue those interests which make you happy. Stay active by joining a walking club, or consider volunteering where you are given the chance to meet others and give back, which is a great remedy to overcoming those feelings of loneliness.
Questions & Answers
© 2019 Lorna Lamon