How to Deal With Loneliness and Feeling Isolated
Most of us have felt lonely at one time or another. Indeed, during the coronavirus lockdown, almost a quarter of adults felt lonely, suggests a survey by the Mental Health Foundation (i).
And while loneliness is frequently associated with older people, during the lockdown the most affected group was younger people aged 18 - 24, with 44 per cent of people of this age saying they felt lonely. According to the charity, the survey’s figures show that millions of people of all ages in the UK were experiencing feelings of loneliness at the time of the survey, which was during March and April 2020.
Long-term loneliness, meanwhile, has been associated with an increased risk of mental health problems, including depression, anxiety and stress (ii). It may affect your physical health too, says a study published in the journal Perspectives On Psychological Science, which suggests loneliness could affect your health as much as being an alcoholic or smoking 15 cigarettes a day (iii).
An Office for National Statistics report also suggests people who are in poor health experience loneliness more often (iv). The opposite may also be true, with those saying their general health is ‘good’ or ‘very good’ significantly less likely to say they feel lonely.
The UK mental health charity Mind reminds us that feelings of loneliness aren’t the same for everyone, though one common definition is that loneliness is the feeling we get when our need for rewarding social contact and relationships isn’t met (v). It’s also true that there are different kinds and various degrees of loneliness, ranging from a vague, empty feeling to a deep sense of deprivation.
And it’s also true that loneliness isn’t just caused by being on your own. Even people with lots of friends, those who are in a relationship and those who live with their family can still feel lonely. According to Mind, this can happen when people aren’t alone but when they don’t feel understood or cared for by those around them (v).
Causes of loneliness
Being socially isolated as a result of the coronavirus lockdown had a major impact on how lonely people felt. But several other things can cause loneliness too – here are a few examples:
Losing a partner, a close friend or a relative is often given as a reason why some people feel lonely. For example, the Office for National Statistics report on loneliness, published in 2018, found people who were widowed were significantly more likely to say they felt lonely some of the time (iv). They were also the least likely to say they never experienced loneliness compared with people who were married or in a civil partnership. People who have recently gone through a relationship break-up may be similarly affected as those who are bereaved.
When you retire from work you don’t just give up your job, you also lose the company of the people you worked with and the social status your position gave you. And depending on your financial situation you may also find you’re having to manage on a much lower income, which means you may not be able to afford to socialise as much as you did when you were working.
Being away from family
If you don’t see your family and friends very often, it can contribute towards feelings of loneliness. This can affect older people who live on their own. However younger people – those starting at university, for instance, or people who have just moved to a new area or country where they’re far from their family or friends – can experience loneliness too.
Having financial problems such as being in debt can contribute to feelings of loneliness, as you may not have the money you need to go out and socialise as often as you’d like to, meaning you may not see your friends that often.
Caring for a loved one
Caring for others can be demanding, and some carers may neglect their own health and needs so that they can focus entirely on the person they’re caring for. Carers who give up a paid job to care for a loved one may also have less money coming in, which means they may not be able to afford to go out and mix with other people very often. Single parents may also find it hard to have a social life.
Starting a new job
If you’ve just changed jobs you may be missing the work colleagues you used to spend a lot of time with. If you’ve moved to a new location to start a new job, the impact it may have on your feelings of loneliness may be even greater.
Loneliness and your health
According to the Campaign to End Loneliness, if you feel lonely it can increase your mortality risk by 26 per cent (vi). That means you’re 26 per cent more likely to die than someone who doesn’t feel lonely.
The charity also suggests that loneliness increases the risk of…
High blood pressure
Coronary heart disease
Cognitive decline and dementia
Loneliness and social isolation may also affect many other aspects of your physical and mental wellbeing, including your self-esteem, your stress levels, how well you sleep, how much exercise you do and how likely you are to smoke, drink too much alcohol or indulge in other risky behaviours. Meanwhile people affected by social isolation may tend to eat fewer healthy foods than those who say they aren’t lonely.
What can you do?
The good news is there’s lots you can do to combat loneliness:
Keep in touch
If you’re feeling lonely because you’re isolated from your friends and family – such as during a lockdown – it’s important to try and fulfil your need for social interaction another way than spending time with people face to face.
Try making a list of the people you want to keep in touch with on a regular basis, then phone them, send them an email or text, or make a video call so you can see their faces. Make these calls, texts and emails a regular part of your week – draw up a schedule so that you’re in touch with at least one person every day. If the person you’re in contact is also feeling lonely or vulnerable, you’ll be helping them as much as helping yourself.
However, if you don’t have anyone you’re close to right now, why not try to reconnect with someone you haven’t been in touch with for a while?
The internet has made it so much easier to find people you’ve lost touch with over the years. Start with social media websites like Facebook – you may be surprised at how easy it is to find people from your past. And remember, social media websites aren’t just for finding people either – they make it much easier to keep up with where they are and what they’re doing too.
Alternatively, dust down one of your old address books and give someone you haven’t heard from in ages a call. The conversation may be a little awkward in the beginning, but you could end up rekindling an old friendship. If you don’t feel confident speaking to a long-lost friend initially, try sending them a text first (or an email if you have their address).
Try a befriending service
If you can’t think of anyone you could get in touch with, consider contacting one of the many befriending services that operate around the country. These are usually run by charities and other organisations, and they work by matching you with a volunteer who calls you regularly on the phone (some even do home visits). Many befriending services are for older people, but there are some that provide support to families, people with learning disabilities and people with mental health problems – try using the UK Befriending Directory to find a service that would suit you.
You could also consider volunteering as a befriender yourself. Volunteering is an effective way to meet other people, and as a befriender you would be helping others who are socially isolated too. Alternatively, you could volunteer for a charity that’s close to your heart – there’s lots you could do, from working with children, animals or people with problems to getting involved in a historical or environmental preservation project or helping backstage at your local drama society.
To find volunteer roles online, visit do-it.org. Your local library may also have details of volunteer projects near where you live.
Join an online forum or support group
Another way to connect with others when you’re stuck at home is to find an online group to share your feelings with.
For instance, the mental health charity Mind has an online community called Elefriends, where you can chat with people who may be familiar with what you’re going through. Mumsnet.com, on the other hand, is an online community for parents, with gransnet.com aimed at grandparents. Also for older people is pensionersforum.co.uk, or visit Age UK’s website for a list of local online forums for the over 50s. If you have a health problem, Patient UK has forum groups for a range of conditions and categories.
Use parasocial connections
When you can’t get out to see friends and family, watching a favourite TV show, reading a book you love or listening to music you’re familiar with could a more effective alternative than you realise.
According to researchers from the University at Buffalo, non-traditional social strategies are just as effective as traditional ones (vii). They found that people feel connected through lots of different ways, and that traditional strategies – such as spending time with a friend – aren’t necessarily better than non-traditional ones. In fact, participants in the study who used a combination of both types of strategies felt the most connected, the researchers claim.
However, it’s not a good idea to spend all your time watching the soaps or reading old novels. Being physically active is important too, and it’s a great way to boost your mood. The more active you are, the more your body releases ‘feel-good’ hormones called endorphins, which can help you stay upbeat during periods of social isolation.
There are loads of ways to stay active indoors – work out to an exercise DVD, follow a workout on YouTube or just dance around your living room. If you can get outdoors for some exercise that’s even better, as exposure to nature has been linked numerous times to positive mental health (just make sure you stay safe if you’re practicing social distancing).
However you stay active, try to be moderately active for at least 150 minutes each week, as this is the amount recommended to keep you healthy.
Write it down
When you feel lonely look for ways to express your feelings – write them down in a diary, for example, or write an imaginary letter in which you talk about them. This exercise could be helpful, as you may start to recognise other feelings that are connected to your loneliness, such as anger, sadness or frustration.
Join a group
If you can get out and about, try spending time with other people who share your interests. Just think about what you enjoy doing, such as going to the cinema, learning about the environment, reading, listening to music or taking long walks in the country. Then look for a local group or society that caters for your interest – if you enjoy reading, for example, try joining a book club. Your local library may have details of groups in your area that may be of interest, otherwise try searching online.
Meanwhile, if being social isolated is affecting your mental health, read about some of the other things you could do to help yourself here.
Supporting your mental health the natural way
Taking certain nutritional supplements may also help you to cope with isolation-related difficulties, such as anxiety, stress, low mood, depression and poor sleep.
St John’s wort
Originating in parts of Europe and Asia but now grown in temperate regions across the world, St John’s wort is a popular herb used for the relief of slightly low mood and mild anxiety, based on traditional use only. There’s evidence it may be more effective than a placebo at treating mild to moderate depression (viii), with studies suggesting it’s as effective as some popular prescription antidepressants (ix).
If you’re taking any other medicines be aware that St John’s wort may interact with some other medicines (always consult your GP before taking it).
5-HTP – or 5-Hydroxytryptophan – is an amino acid that’s often used as a remedy for depression and low mood. Some studies suggest it may be as effective as conventional antidepressants (x). There’s also some evidence that 5-HTP may help with anxiety disorders (xi).
Growing at high altitudes, rhodiola is a herb used traditionally throughout Europe for stress relief. Also known as arctic root or golden root, its roots contain many active ingredients, including rosavin and salidroside. There is some evidence it may help reduce anxiety and stress more effectively than a placebo (xii), with one study finding it effective in people with burnout symptoms (xiii). Elsewhere experts have found it may improve mental alertness in people with sleep difficulties (xiv) and that it may help alleviate symptoms of depression (xv).
Used by the ancient Greeks and Romans and with a history of traditional use for the temporary relief of sleep problems and mild anxiety, valerian may be a good choice you’re not sleeping well. Indeed, studies suggest it may help improve sleep quality (xvi), with one clinical trial finding that 30 per cent of postmenopausal women taking valerian root extract said they slept better after four weeks, compared to four per cent in the placebo group (xvii).
Lavender aromatherapy oil
Lavender essential oil has a long-established tradition of helping you feel more relaxed and to sleep better. One study even suggests lavender oil may be an effective natural way of treating the signs of anxiety (xviii). Place some lavender in an essential oil burner, or try having a warm bath with a drop or two of lavender oil before bedtime to help you sleep more peacefully.
If you’re experiencing loneliness, it can have an impact on your mental health and your physical wellbeing too. You’re also not alone – even though you may feel like it – as the number of people affected by social isolation has grown so much, the UK government has launched a campaign to tackle it, called Let’s Talk Loneliness.
Yet while it may be something we all experience from time to time, feeling lonely is never easy. This guide aims to offer you some tips on dealing with feelings of social isolation, so that you can feel better faster. Meanwhile why not take a look at some of the other articles in our pharmacy health library’s mental health section.
Available online: https://www.mentalhealth.org.uk/coronavirus/coping-with-loneliness
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Disclaimer: The information presented by Nature's Best is for informational purposes only. It is based on scientific studies (human, animal, or in vitro), clinical experience, or traditional usage as cited in each article. The results reported may not necessarily occur in all individuals. Self-treatment is not recommended for life-threatening conditions that require medical treatment under a doctor's care. For many of the conditions discussed, treatment with prescription or over the counter medication is also available. Consult your doctor, practitioner, and/or pharmacist for any health problem and before using any supplements or before making any changes in prescribed medications.
Christine Morgan has been a freelance health and wellbeing journalist for almost 20 years, having written for numerous publications including the Daily Mirror, S Magazine, Top Sante, Healthy, Woman & Home, Zest, Allergy, Healthy Times and Pregnancy & Birth; she has also edited several titles such as Women’ Health, Shine’s Real Health & Beauty and All About Health.