Loneliness, what is loneliness?
Loneliness is an unpleasant emotional response to a perception of isolation; it is a state of mind. Loneliness can also be described as social pain. Researchers define loneliness as feeling lonely for more than a week.
Why have we decided to look at loneliness?
As the country enters the 8th week of lockdown, although the lockdown guidance has been altered slightly this week the country is still, in all intents and purposes, enduring a lockdown period. Over the last 7 weeks many people up and down the country will have felt the immense pain and emotions of being alone.
In this article we want to shine a light on the loneliness issue and look at what we can do to help people who are feeling lonely.
But first, it is worth reminding you the current guidance from the Government is to stay alert to the possibility of the Covid-19 virus, whilst staying at home unless you cannot work from home. When out of the house you should limit the contact with other people, maintaining the 2 metre distance that we have all been observing so well over recent weeks, and to ensure that hands are washed thoroughly and regularly.
Lockdown and loneliness
7 weeks ago, on the 23rd of March, the Prime Minister Boris Johnson declared that the country should stay at home. This was the start for more people to feel alone, particularly if they live on their own.
Traditionally, it is believed that the elderly are most likely to feel alone, a study in 2018 showed that 200,000 elderly people had not had a conversation with a friend or relative in over a month. A lot of work has taken place over recent years to help the elderly not feel alone. This current situation may have led to even more than this stark figure, maybe they have felt this feeling because their lifelong partner has died and left them a widow, and their loved ones rarely or never visit, leaving them alone and lonely for weeks or months on end. Whilst, this is the still the case, it is not just the elderly that feel alone.
A recent survey that took place on the 2nd and 3rd of April found that 24% of adults (1 in 4) said that they had felt feelings of loneliness in the last 2 weeks. When asked with the same question before lockdown, only 16% (1 in 6) of adults said they had the feeling of loneliness.
Loneliness can cause people to feel empty, alone and unwanted. Some people who feel alone often crave the contact with others, sometimes however their state of mind can make this more difficult.
It is important to remember that loneliness is not just about being physically alone. There are many ways that people can feel alone, even if they are surrounded by people and a friendship group or family. An example of this may be a member of the military who has been posted on a mission surrounded by fellow military personnel but can feel alone as they aren’t with their normal social group.
How do I know if I am feeling lonely?
There are many indicators of feeling lonely. It is worth being aware of your own circumstances, and how you react to events and things in your life. We would recommend talking to someone if you are concerned about yourself, especially if you are unable to pinpoint why you are concerned about yourself.
Indicators of feeling alone include:
- A constant feeling of being tired
A study in 2011 linked loneliness to sleep fragmentation, which is about the arousals and awakenings that disrupt the normal stages and architecture of one’s sleep. To put this simply, sleep fragmentation is about not being able to sleep through the night and continually waking up. The 2011 study found that loneliness is a significant indicator of sleep fragmentation, as well as finding that ‘lonely individuals do not sleep as well as individuals who feel more connected to others.’ With this in mind it is an idea to be aware of your sleep pattern, it is possible that the amount of time that you are awake is so short that you may not remember it in the morning, if you do notice this it may be worth keeping a sleep diary to help you monitor this.
- Caring a lot about material possessions
A study that was carried out over 6 years of 2,500 found that loneliness causes people to go out and buy material things, the study does go on to stress that this does not go the other way i.e. materialism does not cause loneliness.
- Taking really long and hot showers
Firstly, we would like to point out that personal hygiene is important and that taking a hot shower is not necessarily a sign of loneliness, however a study in the scientific journal Emotion found that there is a link between physical and social warmth. The study found that if someone is feeling lonely (socially cold as the study called it) they are more likely to try to substitute emotional wealth with physical warmth by taking hot showers and baths.
- Can’t stop binge-watching TV Shows
During this period of lockdown, we are sure that you have binge-watched that series you had been meaning to watch, but normal life had overtaken that possibility, maybe you have finally got round to watching that series everyone is talking about. This is perfectly normal and probably doesn’t indicate that you are lonely. However, a study that was completed at the University of Austin, Texas found that in some way loneliness and binge-watching TV were linked. The study found that the more lonely and depressed the participants were, the more likely they were to turn to binge-watching tv in order to replace negative feelings.
- Consistently making mountains out of molehills
Psychology Today says that ‘lonely individuals report higher levels of perceived stress even when exposed to the same stressors as non-lonely people, even when they are relaxing’.
- Spending a lot of time on social media
A study carried out on social media use found that a heavy use of social media was associated with feelings of social isolation. It was found that those who spend more than 2 hours on social media a day were twice as likely to feel lonely than those who spend 30 minutes or less on social media.
- You’ve gained weight
Weight gain is a common side effect of depression, and therefore this doesn’t surprise that weight gain can be a side effect of loneliness. Food is known to provide a comfort for nurturing and nourishing ourselves, it comes as no surprise that it is the most obvious way of filling ourselves up. What people who feel lonely are actually craving however is not food, but moreover personal interaction, intimacy, love, friendship and/or someone who they can spend and experience life with.
As a footnote to gaining weight, remember that we have been in a period of lockdown, and a lot of us have resorted to baking, and snacking at times in the day that normally we wouldn’t, all due to boredom in the lockdown period.
- A constant feeling of having a cold
A side effect of loneliness can be a weakened immune system, this can leave you susceptible to colds and other viruses. What a vicious cycle this could be, if you imagine staying at home with a virus which you got because of a weakened immune system due to loneliness, and the staying home leads to isolation from others, leading into an increasing feeling of loneliness.
Effects of loneliness on health
Loneliness has been proven to have an effect on the health of a person. A study has found that the effect of loneliness on health can affect mortality in the same way as smoking a cigarette 15 times per day; this makes loneliness more dangerous than obesity.
Other health complications with loneliness include an increased risk of heart disease, arthritis, type 2 diabetes, dementia and higher blood pressure. This makes loneliness a medical and mental health condition that can severely affect someone.
Government strategy on loneliness
Back in 2018, the then Prime Minister, Theresa May launched the Government’s first cross-Government loneliness strategy. In her speech launching the strategy, Theresa May said:
‘Loneliness is one of the greatest public health challenges of our time’
So, what is the strategy?
The strategy outlined by Theresa May includes:
- By 2023, GPs will be able to refer patients experiencing loneliness to community activities and voluntary services.
- An Employer Pledge to help tackle loneliness in the workplace, with a network of high-profile businesses, including Sainsbury’s, Transport for London, Co-Op, British Red Cross, National Grid and the Civil Service, pledging to take further action to support their employee’s health and social well-being.
- The Government partnered with the Royal Mail in Liverpool, New Malden and Whitby, which saw postal workers checking up on lonely people as part of their rounds.
- A 1.8 million pounds funding to increase the number of community spaces available.
- Added loneliness to the ministerial portfolios at the:
- Ministry for Housing,
- Community and Local Government,
- Department for Business,
- Energy and Industrial Strategy,
- Department for Transport,
- Department for Health and Social Care and
- Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport.
- Incorporated loneliness into ongoing policy decisions with a view to a loneliness ‘policy test’ being included in departments’ plans.
- Embedded loneliness into relationships education classes so children in primary and secondary schools can learn about loneliness and the value of social relationships. Loneliness will feature in the Department for Education’s resources for teaching from September 2020.
- Pilot projects to support flexible and inclusive volunteering for people such as those with long-term health conditions, which will be rolled out in up to five pilot areas in England.
- Meeting tech companies to discuss loneliness – Tracey Crouch ,Minister for Sport, Civil Society and Loneliness and Margot James, the Minister for Digital and the Creative Industries will explore the impact technology has on loneliness and how they can help prevent it.
What support is there for loneliness?
There are many organisations who offer support for people who are concerned for their mental health as well as dealing with loneliness, these include:
Not all of these organisations are specifically for people who are feeling alone, but are able to offer support, guidance and a signpost to other organisations who can provide targeted support.
What can I do to support someone who feels lonely?
Some people who are lonely may be aware of the fact but not know what to do about it, others may not be aware that what they are feeling is loneliness. However, if you suspect someone is lonely there are 3 main key things that you can do.
These 3 key things are:
- Be there,
- Be patient,
- Encourage and support.
How can I Be there I hear you cry. In simple terms it is about just being there for them, letting them know that you are there and that you care. It may be as simple as just picking up the telephone and having a chat. Don’t be afraid to ask the person how they are feeling, or if there is anything that you can do to help them. It can be a great comfort to know that there is someone who is willing to help or just listen.
The feeling of loneliness can be associated with poor mental health, anxiety or even poor physical health; this could make the person you are concerned about irritable or feel misunderstood. You may need to offer them some gentle assurance and assistance. Should the person you are trying to help react in an irritable way, Be patient, discuss the issues with them and show them that you are there regardless of their reactions.
With your encouragement and support the person may be able to access the support and services that they need to create new social interactions, which can help to tackle their social isolation and feelings of isolation.
We would suggest the most important thing that you can do is check in with people in your community who are deemed at risk of loneliness, maybe it could be as simple as offering to get some shopping in for them in this strange time that we find ourselves. This offer alone may satisfy 2 needs for the person, the first being their basic physical needs to survive, the second is that the offer could also be an icebreaker into breaking the isolation that they are feeling.
We would like to leave you this month with one overarching thought for this article, this thought is: