We all feel lonely at times – it’s a normal human emotion. We’re biologically wired for social contact, and loneliness is our signal that we need more. It’s totally normal.
Why loneliness feels so bad
Human beings evolved to feel safest in groups, and as a result, we experience isolation as a physical state of emergency.
Imagine if you lived in a tribe and while you were out hunting, you found yourself alone. You’d be under serious threat without the protection of your group – your levels of the stress hormone, cortisol, would rocket up, and would stay raised until you’re back with your tribe.
Loneliness can affect us all
Most of us will experience loneliness at some point in our lives, regardless of age, circumstance and background. It’s a common misconception that loneliness is something that happens to older people.
Loneliness can be defined as a perceived mismatch between the quality or quantity of social connections that a person has and what they would like to have.
By building our understanding of loneliness, we can help ourselves and others to manage the feeling.
Feeling lonely when you’re not alone
You don’t have to be on your own to feel lonely – you might feel lonely in a relationship or while spending time with friends or family – especially if you don’t feel understood or cared for by the people around you. Other people might choose to be alone and live happily without much social contact.
The different types of loneliness
- Emotional loneliness – When someone you were very close with is no longer there. This could be a partner or a close friend.
- Social loneliness – When you feel like you’re lacking a wider social network of friends, neighbours or colleagues.
- Transient loneliness – A feeling that comes and goes.
- Situational loneliness – Loneliness which you only feel at certain times like Sundays, bank holidays or Christmas.
- Chronic loneliness – When you feel lonely all or most of the time.
Three-step approach to tackling loneliness.
- Loneliness is a very normal human emotion.
- As human beings, we are biologically wired for social contact.
- Most of us will experience loneliness at some point in our lives, regardless of age, circumstance and background.
- There are key life points that will increase the likelihood of feeling lonely, like moving away from home, starting uni or a new job, becoming a new parent, going through a divorce or suffering a bereavement.
- See the feeling of loneliness as a clue. Loneliness is a bit like feeling hungry and thirsty. Much the same as when our bodies are telling us that we need to eat or drink something, loneliness is a sign that we need to pay attention to the amount of social contact we’re having.
- We often use words like ‘admitting’ to and ‘suffering’ from loneliness, which can unintentionally add to the belief that something is wrong with us. There is absolutely no shame in feeling lonely and changing the language around loneliness is a positive and liberating step forward.
- The more we talk about it, the more we normalise it and we can move towards a society where it can be spoken about openly.
Identify what it is you need
Reach out and tell someone
- Look at your life and try to identify the areas where you DO have support or someone to talk to.
- When we’ve been lonely for a long time it can start to affect our mental health and wellbeing. If you feel that is the case, make an appointment to see your GP to make sure that you are getting the right support.
- When you’re lonely it can feel like there is no one there for you but loneliness isn’t something that can always be noticed from someone’s outward appearance. It’s not that people don’t care or aren’t there for you, it’s more likely that they don’t know how you are feeling.
- It goes two ways: once you start reaching out to people, they will respond accordingly and your social network can start to flourish.
Internal Connection to yourself
- Do you ever take a minute to sit and tune in to your own feelings? What’s going on in your mind, body, emotions and spiritual connection to a the wider world.
- Taking time for mindful moments, where you breathe, drop into your senses and be present in the moment can really help to build a stronger sense of connection to yourself.
- This can really help to give a more solid foundation, for being aware and confident of what actions you want to take to improve your wider social connections.
Know what you need
- We’re all different and we all need varying levels of social contact. Some of us like to have face-to-face interaction several times a day. For others, it’s a regular phone call, or being part of an online group or forum. What does your mood feel like if you go a few days without seeing or speaking to anyone?
- Some people will find a busy social life too overwhelming, so it’s about finding the level of contact that you feel comfortable with. Work out what you need and then look at how you can fill those gaps in your life with the right amount of connections.
- It’s also important to distinguish the difference between being alone and feeling lonely. Many people are happy with their own company for much of the time and find it to be a positive experience.
- Notice whether you feel happier and more connected when you use social media, or the opposite?
- Instead of scrolling through other people’s timelines, use social media to join new groups or like-minded communities so you feel part of something.
- In real life, try swapping communicating via a screen for a real-life interaction. Meet up with a friend or call someone for a chat, rather than WhatsApping or emailing them.
Build up your daily community
- We live in a world where a lot of the time, we don’t really connect with people for work, shopping or leisure activities. Or we might live away from friends and family and feel like we don’t have a local network or community.
- Think of the ways you can build connections back into your daily life. For example, shopping locally in the same places or choosing a staff-manned check out at the supermarket rather than always using self-service, or walking regularly in your local park or outside space. Even the smallest things like seeing the same faces on a regular basis, or saying hello to your neighbours will help you feel more anchored to a community.
- What community connections are available to you and how can you make the most of them?
Use technology proactively
- Technology has been blamed for rising levels of loneliness but it can still be good for social interaction. Social media is still a great way to connect with others but notice how it makes you feel when you use it.
- If we don’t use the Internet it can feel like the rest of the world is online, which can make us feel even more shut out.
- Whether you live in a bustling city or a rural village, most places have opportunities to meet new people. Could you start a course, or do some sort of physical exercise, or take up a new hobby as a way to meet like-minded people who have similar interests?
- Volunteering is also a great way to meet new people and feel part of a cause or community. Research shows that being kind to others increases our own levels of happiness as well as theirs.
Understanding that loneliness is a normal part of the human experience and part of our biological wiring, is important to realising why it can feel so bad. We can help ourselves and others to manage the feeling by acknowledging it, identifying what we need, and taking appropriate action.
Information sourced from The Marmalade Trust