Loneliness is a societal issue
13-17 June is Loneliness awareness week. And while this article will have some tips for the individual, if we can listen not just to lived experiences and mental health professionals - but also master planners and architects, we can make societal changes, and they may make the biggest impact on our emotional health in this regard.
We live in a very fast-paced world where social media connections are sometimes "mistaken" for meaningful connection. It is no wonder that we can feel like we're missing out if we don't have our smart phones and feel desperately lonely in a crowded room.
Loneliness is best described as a feeling of sadness BECAUSE of not having friends/family around – it is a sense perhaps described as the “lacking” (or perhaps “loss”) of companionship. It is not to be interchanged with solitude as a choice, and neither is it to be confused with “isolation”.
In the case of chosen solitude, you have actively sought to spend time on your own, and often feel fulfilled and occupied throughout; and Isolation is where you can objectively count the number of contacts someone has – it is factual rather than emotional.
Research into loneliness reveals that reported feelings of it can relate to physical ill health - increasing the risk of heart attack, stroke and depression.
Spotting the signs of loneliness
Indeed the signs of loneliness can be similar to depression…indeed, loneliness can result in depression, and so in some cases, rather than recognising that someone is depressed and just focus on treatment to alleviate that, a slightly deeper conversation may reveal the cause as loneliness, and you then have more options to support them.
Things to watch for – in yourself and others:
- Changes in personal grooming, eating habits and sleeping. While you may not see these first hand, you may notice if, for example, a work colleague has suddenly lost a lot of weight, or they are distracted, or dishevelled, or seemingly lacking in energy for anything.
- Refusal of invitations – although this seems counter-intuitive ie. That someone who feels lonely is rejecting the opportunity to go out; if the sense of loneliness has affected their self esteem they may be viewing the invitation as a “pity invite” or they may worry that they will feel or be awkward. This behaviour may also present as a change in communications – for example if someone used to call a lot, and then they don’t, perhaps something is going on.
- (in contrast to the above point) A wealth of meaningless interactions – one night stands, getting drunk regularly with people you do not know well, going out just for the sake of going out and often feeling sadder after the event has ended can be another indication that you are trying to compensate for the loss of something in your life.
- A desire for contact – even if it is not meaningful to you. Recently Age UK reported a case where an elderly person ordered parcels just to speak with delivery drivers, and we may ourselves have experiences where someone seems to share a lot with you (when you hardly know them), and this may simply be because we have a need for contact of some kind – perhaps to feel that we are not forgotten.
- Over Shopping/Over Eating – Another way which experience has taught us is very effective to feel better is shopping and eating – we get a dopamine hit the moment we spend money, or with that first bite…it is notable that the positive effect decreases over time, and it is swiftly replaced by feelings of anxiety or guilt – which exacerbate the feelings of sadness.
If you recognise these behaviours in yourself or others, take a moment to ask yourself – what is really going on right now…what emotional void am I really seeking to fill
What can we do as individuals?
Once you acknowledge that you are feeling lonely, try and work out what it is you are missing eg. A regular group to associate with; engagement in a hobby; people dropping in all the time; people who share your sense of humour or approach to life.
Then it may be possible to take steps to rebuild that network – one connection at a time.
1. Join a class, club or volunteering – something you always wanted to try, or something you always enjoyed. There you may meet like-minded people where you know it will be possible to connect on some topics of conversation. Volunteering may also allow you to feel extra fulfilment at being able to give a little time back to the community.
2. Talk about your feelings with a coach/counsellor – Your GP may be able to refer you to free counselling support (although waiting lists can be long), but professional intervention, as well as working with your feelings of loneliness in a healthy way, may also help you address any reasons or behaviours which may have led to the situation in the first instance.
3. Remember that your physical health can affect your mental wellbeing - Eat, sleep and exercise – Getting outside into nature for that walk adds the bonus of vitamin D, and serotonin, to your physical activity which can also produce endorphins or even a boost of dopamine if we achieve a fitness target. - Make your bed every day!! This seems like such a trivial thing to do, but it’s a simple act of self care - we spend around 8 hours (a third of our day) in the bedroom, you are worth being welcomed back to a straightened duvet cover. (This also goes for washing up and taking the bins out!) Feeling better about yourself is likely to make you feel more motivated to meet others.
4. Accept invitations – even if you are unsure if you will enjoy the event. At least you will know for next time, and you might meet other people who think the same while you are there. OR Invite people over. Being a host can be energising, and it doesn’t take a lot of work to pour a few nibbles into a bowl (and have sanitizer standing by for all the sharing). Arrange a film/sport/games night –you don’t need to worry about how to make small talk.
5. Make advance plans – This gives you something to look forward to – so call up those old friends and make a date to see them
What MUST we do as a society?
But the issue of loneliness needs more than individual determination and practitioner support. One can social prescribe as much as you like, and you might sign up for those clubs or groups - only to find there's no public transport, no disabled access, or the funding gets withdrawn.
For example, in 2012, Greening Dementia found that gardening and being out in nature brought the following benefits:
- A more positive emotional state
- A more positive physical state
- Improved verbal skills and memory
- Joy with multisensory activities
- A higher degree of independence and self esteem
- Opportunities for social interaction
As such they recommended that being outdoors would be beneficial for those diagnosed with dementia.
BUT a later study by Natural England in association with Dementia Adventure, The Mental Health Foundation and Innovations in Dementia entitled “Is it Nice Out?” found that allotments and green spaces seemed to be underused by this demographic.
And when those with dementia were interviewed they cited practical reasons for their lack of usage including:
- Lack of confidence (untrained staff)
- No transport links
- No parking if they could come by car
- No information about the places that were dementia friendly
- A lack of support to get to the venues
- A lack of seating
As such the recommendations from the research by the Alzheimer's society went beyond the individual and training of professionals and carers, focusing hugely on accessibility:
- Matt tiling (gloss times can be perceived as wet)
- Clear markings where there are stairs or trip hazards
- Seating areas which look like seating areas (eg chairs that look like chairs)
- Opportunity for assistive technology to keep track of people’s locations
- Safe routes with places to rest and hydrate
- Clear labels eg “hot” and “cold” rather than colours or symbols
- Wide pathways to enable a chair, or to walk side by side with a carer
- Places for “accidental contact” – like seating areas to congregate
- No overly bright lights nor dark shadows – natural lighting is preferred
We have an opportunity to create change
Wouldn't it be wonderful if we could be pro-active as well as responsive?
What about taking a broader, multi-disciplinary approach where we not only listen to the communities and mental health practitioners - but also the master planners, the designers, the architects...these are people who can DESIGN multi purpose social spaces, PLAN for urban connectivity, AND CREATE a place where all of us can thrive...together...sustainably. AND, do it right (because organisations such as award-winning URBAN and consultancy WILD know their stuff - if we would think to ask) and our biosphere will not suffer in the process!
Perhaps it is not about retro-fitting wellness anymore? Let's get government and councils connected with those who can CREATE it, and maybe we'll make something beautiful...together.
Dr Audrey Tang is a chartered psychologist and author with a specialty in the practical "how to take action", rather than just giving explanation and advice. Listen to her podcast Retrain Your Brain here; or her Radio Show "The Wellbeing Lounge", and catch her practical masterclasses Psych Back to Basics on DisruptiveTV & Energy Top Up for resilience. For self development tools based within positive psychology: click Her YouTube Channel . Twitter/IG @draudreyt