Loneliness: the social pain

When we think about loneliness, we might think of a person who lives alone but being alone and feeling lonely are quite different. Being alone is a physical state of being by yourself whereas being lonely is an emotional state. Loneliness can happen when you are by yourself or can be experienced when you are surrounded by others.

Perhaps it sounds strange that you can feel lonely in a crowd? Consider, when you have been at an event or meeting when you felt like an outsider and didn’t fit in, perhaps everyone was talking about something you didn’t understand or weren’t aware of. Not feeling like you can contribute or haven’t had the same experiences as others, can lead to feelings of loneliness. Feeling isolated from those around you, especially family and friends, can feel particularly painful.

We also need to remember that because a person lives alone doesn’t mean they are lonely. Many people need “alone-time” in order to recharge their emotional and mental batteries, other people are very content in their own company. So be careful to not assume that a person living alone is crying into their pillow every night wishing to be with others.

However, loneliness can lead to mental health issues and mental health issues can also lead to loneliness. A study by Loades M, et al (2020) which reviewed 63 different studies on loneliness in adults and young people, showed a clear association between loneliness and mental health issues. According to the study, the length of time a person has experienced loneliness was a key factor in future mental health problems.

As a therapist, I have worked with clients who struggle with mental health issues and feel that others in their life don’t understand or perhaps they don’t want to share their experiences, fearing that they will upset or worry those they care for. This can result in feelings of isolation that others “don’t/won’t get me” or “I need to cope with this by myself” resulting in loneliness. I have also supported clients who live alone and struggle with the challenge of very little human contact.

Feeling lonely can happen for many reasons:

  • Experiencing a loss – through death or a relationship break-up
  • Retiring and losing the social contact you had at work
  • Changing jobs and feeling isolated from your co-workers
  • Starting at university or a new school or college
  • Moving to a new area or country without family, friends or community networks
  • Have no friends or family or are estranged from family
  • You are a single parent or are a carer for someone
  • Belonging to a minority group and live in an area without others from a similar background
  • Are excluded from social activities due to mobility problems or a shortage of money
  • Experience discrimination and stigma because of a disability, long-term health problem, including mental health problems or because of your gender, race or sexual orientation
  • Have experienced sexual or physical abuse – you may find it harder to form close relationships with other people
  • Other people find they feel lonely at certain times of the year, such as around Christmas.

UK Mental Health awareness week (9-15th May 2022) decided to focus on loneliness and encouraging people to build meaningful connections. So, during this week, your mission which you haven’t chosen to accept is to….

  • Reach out to family or friends you haven’t spoken to for a while – consider calling or seeing them face to face
  • Consider contacting previous work colleagues or perhaps old university, college or school friends
  • Speak to someone at work who you haven’t spoken to before – it’s amazing what you can learn about your organisation with a friendly “So what do you do?” conversation over a cuppa
  • Especially consider those in your life who live alone or who you know are going through a tough time as they may not be as “fine” as they are telling you
  • Consider holding an event to encourage people to get together at work, in your community centre or in your own home with friends and family.

For more information on UK Mental Health awareness week and for ideas on events, go to www.mentalhealth.org.uk/campaigns/mental-health-awareness-week.

For support with your mental health or to support others in your life, go to Samaritans 116123 or [email protected], MIND.org or visit the NHS website for hints and tips if you are feeling lonely www.nhs.uk/mental-health/feelings-symptoms-behaviours/feelings-and-symptoms/feeling-lonely. The Counselling directory is a useful online register for approved counsellors in your area – www.counselling-directory.org.uk.

Emma Campolucci is a passionate people person who has devoted the last decade to learning ways to support people grow and develop. She has a psychology degree and is a qualified counsellor. She has developed and delivered courses on Stress Management, Improving self-confidence and self-compassion and Journaling for Wellbeing.

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