We’re a society more connected than ever before and yet so many of us are feeling isolated. Yes, one thing’s for sure, while you might feel on your own, you’re definitely not alone in feeling lonely
It was previously thought to affect older generations primarily but, as we now know, loneliness is more commonplace than that. And, although it isn’t recognised as a mental health problem in itself, loneliness and our sense of wellbeing are strongly intertwined.
As someone who has experienced loneliness, I know the toll it takes on your mental health and on your life in general. Indeed, we know that wellness is not merely the absence of illness – our happiness hinges on much more than that. To be truly happy, we need to feel connected. Whether that connection is to a person, an animal or with a cause, the importance of a sense of belonging should not be underestimated.
Psychotherapist Brian Turner agrees. “As a species, we are programmed to be sociable creatures, to exchange our brilliance through ideologies and opinions. This is how we learn, develop, and find our place in society through the power of interconnections.” It’s having strong relationships with others that means we feel as though we are seen, heard, loved, supported and challenged.
So, if we lose that sense of connection, there are bound to be implications. “If we are isolated (or feel isolated), that cerebral exchange can not occur, and that can make us feel withdrawn and have low self-esteem,” Brian says.
A generation gap
We know that human connections are integral to our sense of self yet, according to new research, it’s the social media generation – a generation with arguably more potential to make connections than any that have gone before – who feel most alone.
Data from YouGov found that 30% of millennials “always or often feel lonely”, which is more than their Generation X and baby boomer counterparts. Just 20% of members in Gen X reported feeling lonely with the same frequency, with even fewer baby boomers (15%) saying the same.
That’s not to say that younger people have a monopoly on feeling lonely. Of course, anyone of any age has the potential to feel a lack of connection to others. However, the general trend in feelings of loneliness, along with the direction that digital communication continues to take, suggests that there’s potential for future generations to feel increasingly lonely.
What does loneliness feel like?
When I started to explore my own feelings of loneliness, I came across a thought that stuck with me: ‘Loneliness is not the same as being alone.’ There are many reasons we can feel a lack of connection in our lives, and it doesn’t necessarily have a direct correlation with spending time alone. But, as with any problem we face in life, it’s important to understand the root of the issue – only then can you address it.
A simple act of kindness can boost endorphins, raise morale, and break the loneliness cycle
It’s possible to identify four distinct types of loneliness: emotional, social, situational, and chronic. Here we take a closer look at the different types to understand how this epidemic is affecting us today.
Feeling excluded or ostracised is the main reason for this type of loneliness – perhaps you have experienced some kind of rejection. This can leave a lasting impact, as you can begin to wonder who might reject you in the future.
Most of us will recognise the feeling of being surrounded by unfamiliar faces, or not having an instant connection with others around us. Perhaps you’ve moved to a new city where you don’t know anyone, started at a new job, or at a new school. But it can also be likened to feelings of grief – that sense of longing you experience when you lose someone close.
This can be one of the more difficult types of loneliness to understand, as emotional loneliness comes from within. Your feelings are not necessarily the result of losing someone, or moving – it’s not as circumstantial as that. One way to think of it is that something is missing from your life – rather than missing something you once had. Perhaps you are craving new friendships rather than longing for old ones.
Chronic loneliness is often a by-product of circumstance, although unlike situational loneliness it can go on for so long that it almost becomes a way of life. As a result, chronic loneliness, more than any other type, is closely linked with mental ill-health and unhappiness. It’s associated with depression, sleep problems and stress, and is thought to be as harmful to our health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.
How can we overcome loneliness?
Experiencing loneliness can be a very isolating time. It can lead to a sense of ‘forgetting’ what we used to enjoy; forgetting our goals and not finding meaning in what we used to find meaningful before. And it can become a vicious cycle, particularly where your mental health is concerned.
You may feel there’s nowhere to turn, or too scared to seek help. But there are things we can do to reclaim our sense of connection. Here, psychotherapist Brian shares some simple ways to combat loneliness.
1. Fight negative feelings with a positive engagement. This could be as easy as smiling and saying hello to someone you pass on the street – a simple act of kindness can boost endorphins, raise morale, and break the loneliness cycle.
2. Be curious and ask questions. This can be helpful if you find small talk difficult, or feel unable to make connections easily. Strive for short conversations that increase involvement and happiness.
3. Ditch the technology. Embrace the world around you through practising mindfulness or volunteering.
4. Social media is OK in moderation, but face-to-face interaction is more enriching. Going out and meeting people can create a sense of commonality.
5. Make positive memories by doing memorable things and discovering new places. Why not make the trip to see a friend you haven’t seen for a while?
Remember, loneliness is a feeling, not a permanent fixture in your life. Whether you feel lonely occasionally, have been feeling alone for a while, or it’s been present for a long time, there are steps you can take to increase your sense of connection with others.
Brian Turner is a psychotherapist and hypnotherapist, who specialises in providing the best therapeutic care for anxiety-based conditions. You can find Brian and more information on counselling-directory.org.uk