Loneliness and the need for connection
Updated: May 9
9th May 2022 marks the start of mental health awareness week. This year’s theme is loneliness.
Loneliness is something that we all can experience because it’s transient for the majority of folk, meaning it comes and goes and varies in intensity. But when it is long-lasting/chronic, it can have serious implications on your mental health. Feeling lonely isn’t in itself a mental health issue, but the two are linked. Loneliness can make you more susceptible to mental health disorders, cognitive deterioration and can negatively impact your self-esteem to the point where you begin to doubt your worth. You may also find yourself feeling lonely as a result of social anxiety because it leaves you struggling to make meaningful contact socially. For as long as I can recollect there have been times when I have struggled with loneliness, just feeling like I didn’t quite fit in and I was just a tad different, not helped by the fact that some kids and adults can be downright bloody cruel. When I was studying for my degree, I learnt though that there’s a reason behind behaviours. Does that justify them though? Not always. Even nowadays, I compare my headspace to a pinball machine. I struggle if sat in my own headspace for too long, I have always overanalysed, I will spend far too much time reconciling with my thoughts, ruminating till the cows come home. This has always been the case for as long as I can remember, I’m my own biggest critic and my want to be “good enough” is something I think I will always wrestle with, no matter how much personal counselling I have. But, it is something I’m getting better at acknowledging and dealing with. It’s funny, I was talking about battling in supervision the other day. My supervisor said that my face lit up. The thing is, I can’t remember a time when I’ve not had to battle and that being said there’s a familiarity in it - that near-constant state of hyperarousal with adrenaline surging around my body and being in fight mode is far easier to grasp than being with my own thoughts.
Types of Loneliness
There are different types of Loneliness we can experience throughout our lives:
Emotional loneliness is felt when a person feels like they are disconnected from the world around them, unable to form relationships, especially when they need to get something off their chest because they feel they might be judged. Emotional loneliness is often experienced as a result of relationships throughout childhood that weren’t nurturing or supportive enough.
Social loneliness is the lack of a wider social network of friends, neighbours, colleagues or acquaintances that offer companionship or a sense of belonging within communities. It can be situational; this is when a person’s circumstances may have changed, some examples include: they may have started a new job, moved house, a relationship may have broken down or they might have suffered a bereavement. There may be certain times of the year that people struggle with too.
There is also existential loneliness which relates to the nature of your existence where folks are unable to find the meaning in their life.
Or loneliness can be chronic; this means someone feels lonely all or most of the time.
Loneliness is subjective
Whilst loneliness is subjective for us all, it has a lot to do with perception and just shows that we are all human. I know first-hand that even if you have family members and a strong network of friends around your own head can be a lonely place in the entire universe, especially when trying to process life-changing events and all the emotions that go with them. Loneliness can stir up a myriad of negative thoughts which can impact your feelings and behaviours, creating a vicious cycle. I realise that loneliness is not always the same as being alone. Many moons ago I made a choice to live alone (well with a crazy furball, who’s a lovable little shit). I was a bit of a social butterfly, work filled my weeks until I left. Then uni work mixed in with lunch dates aplenty took over from this. I then had to try and focus on trying to establish a business, enjoying weekends filled with football, friends, lots of banter and a few scoops. Granted I’d not been to a game in a few months for health reasons, but that was my choice, I was comfortable coming home and being in my own company without having to consider others ( well maybe the neighbours). Then suddenly in the blink of an eye, it was no longer what I saw as a choice, and isolation meant I saw less of everyone – family, friends, people in street, the staff at the local pub or supermarket, even the taxi drivers that ferried me about – those folks that offer familiarity throughout the week, month and even a year or two in covid’s case, that offer us stimulus without us realising and gave a sense of belonging. On top of that, I had people trying to manipulate me because my actions didn’t suit them. It was a complete and utter joy (not) but I'll tell you something for nothing, I would do it all again in a heartbeat if it meant I was able to protect myself and those I care about.
Steps I took to see me through
Saying the pandemic was a difficult time is putting it mildly, especially considering the length of time it went on and all the uncertainty it created. Fantastic neighbours, pottering in the yard, playing music, taking up gaming, focusing on self-care, Friday night House Party quizzes, Journaling (it helped me to put my thoughts into perspective), doorstep visits and Saturday night Skype calls helped me through, I also had a bash at jigsaws but the cat was far more interested in knocking the pieces off the table so they ended up around the room. Life is slowly returning to normal, it’s been strange reintegrating. I am still taking it a step at a time and some of those steps seem bigger than others but they all count, you do what is right for you at your own pace. I’m getting out there more and more I’ve yet to return to the football but that time will come (yes, I’m a glutton for punishment)
As I have said before, finding the right counsellor is key to therapy being a success but finding the right coping mechanisms for you is important too. I asked folks what activities they thought might help in dealing with loneliness, and some responses were:
Get a pet
Join a peer support group or a befriending service
Learn a new skill
Getting Crafty (art n crafts)
Get lost in a book or listen to podcasts
Watch a film
Join online message boards
Get all those jobs around the house done
Maslow’s wise words
Abraham Maslow (1987, pp. 20-21) once said “Lack of interactions, human relationships, and the sense of belonging may result in depression or loneliness, while, an abundance of love and community often sustain people through difficult times” I didn’t realise a true this statement was until the pandemic hit, I guess I am thankful that covid hit during times when the world is full of technological advances although I am very aware that not everyone had such devices at their fingertips.
It's a fine line…
There is no denying that the advancement of technology has been fabulous for keeping in contact and for allowing a more flexible way of working but there are downsides as well. Technology, more specifically smartphones and social media have changed the way we fundamentally interact with each other, they prevent people from making personal connections. Social media can leave you feeling alone and detached because it can leave you exposed to an idealised view of what others are experiencing, leading to comparison.
Let's not even get me started on the impact of trolling which appears to be happening more than ever.
And the research says…
As mentioned above loneliness is subjective although research does suggest though that there is a higher prevalence of loneliness in people who:
Have caring responsibilities
Are isolated due to mobility problems
Have experienced discrimination in one form or another
Live within areas of high deprivation
Have experienced abuse
Are from minority groups
Talking helps, whether that be talking to a mate, to someone you know or a counsellor or a therapist. It might be that you just want to be heard and not judged or it might be that you are in the thick of it with your friends and still feel lonely. That might be a sign of something else going on, it could be depression or social anxiety. Counselling can provide you with a safe space in which you can explore your thoughts and feelings relating to loneliness or any other topic you so wish. A counsellor can provide you with the right strategies for dealing with things in a positive way. For those interested in finding out how counselling could help you I offer a free 20-minute consultation in which we can discuss what you want and whether we would be able to work together.
A word to the wise.
As we enter a cost of living crisis which may leave some people isolated and feeling lonely it might be helpful to remember:
For someone experiencing loneliness reaching out to others may be a daunting prospect and it may feel really uncomfortable but self-compassion and taking things at your own pace is key, try not to compare yourself to others, people will always have opinions but there’s only you in your shoes. We all deserve to be cherished, not only by ourselves but by those around us. No matter how lonely you feel it doesn’t mean that you are unlovable.
Maslow, A.H. (1987). Motivation and Personality. (3rd ed.). New York, NY: Harper & Row.