What is loneliness?

Loneliness is a distressing experience that occurs when a person’s social relationships are perceived by that person to be less in quantity, and especially in quality, than desired. The experience of loneliness is highly subjective; an individual can be alone without feeling lonely and can feel lonely even when with other people.

Prolonged loneliness is associated with depression, poor social support, neuroticism, and introversion. Studies have shown that loneliness puts people at risk for physical disease and that it may contribute to a shortened life span.

Growing number of lonely people in the UK

Nine million people in the UK suffer from loneliness – including Janet. “I can go for days without speaking to anybody,” she says. Sometimes, she goes to the supermarket just to have someone to speak to. If she did not, she believes she could easily go for months without speaking to another person.

The problem is not restricted to the UK….

Here in Spain, there are large numbers of expats who are of retirement age, this is the age group that is most at risk of suffering from loneliness. Although many people who are in their 50s, 60s and 70s have active social lives, there are also many that are heavily reliant on their partners. These long term relationships are great for mental and emotional well-being, but after the death of one partner, the balance is tipped and a vast gaping hole appears in the life of the remaining partner. Where before the team of two would be able to cope with the strains of living in a foreign country, they would muddle through with little or no language, now the burden rests squarely on the shoulders of one person. Socialising before may have been outings for meals together, trips to see fiestas and shops together. Doing these things alone is often not appealing and a once-social person can quickly become introverted and lonely. Feelings of loneliness in these instances are exacerbated by overwhelming grief after the loss of someone so important.

Women choosing to live alone in their 20s and 30s 

Loneliness is not only for bereaved pensioners. Single people who can look like they are happy with their independent life can often suffer from loneliness when they are alone. In fact, Psychology Today states that Loneliness does not depend on how many friends or relationships you have. Loneliness depends entirely on the subjective quality of your relationships—on whether you feel emotionally and/or socially disconnected from those around you.

In recent years there has been a growing trend for women to choose to live alone in their 20s and 30s and they often continue to do so whilst friends pair off. Living alone doesn’t indicate loneliness but whist social media seems to make the world seem smaller, it has the perverse effect of making people feel more insular, less sociable and more cut-off from reality. These feelings contribute to loneliness and are common in many counties today. Dr. Brian Primack is the lead author of a recent study that discovered the more time young adults use social media, the more likely they are to feel socially isolated — lacking fulfilling relationships and a sense of belonging.

UK Government taking action

Loneliness is seen as so impactful now that the UK government has appointed a Minister of Loneliness, Tracey Crouch. This was after reports in 2017 had found the following;

  • Loneliness was as harmful to health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.
  • Cold and loneliness ‘lethal in winter’.
  • Young women get lonely to.
  • Modern life is making us lonely.

How can we help ourselves and others?

People usually describe feeling lonely for one of two reasons:

  • they simply don’t see or talk to anyone very often
  • even though they are surrounded by people, they don’t feel understood or cared for

Deciding which is the case for you may help you to find a way of feeling better.

New connections

It can be helpful to think of feeling lonely like feeling hungry. Just as your body uses hunger to tell your body you need food, loneliness is a way of your body telling you that you need more social contact.

That means the simplest way to ease feelings of loneliness can be to try to meet more, or different, people.

  • Can you think of anything you’re interested in, a class or a group you’ve heard of, that could help you connect with new people?
  • Talking to people online has helped me find an understanding support network and makes me feel less alone.
  • Volunteering is a good way of meeting people. Helping others can also really help improve your mental health.
  • Join an online community

Open up

You might feel that you have plenty of connections, but what is actually wrong is that you don’t feel close to them, or they don’t give you the care and attention you need. In this situation it might help to open up about how you feel to friends and family.

If you don’t feel comfortable opening up to the people you know, you could try making new connections.

Talking therapy

Opening up to a sympathetic and experienced professional can be very useful in learning where and why you feel how you do, coming to terms with your feelings and then learning how to cope with them and if possible, change them. If you feel psychotherapy will help, you can meet with Steve Ashley at Medcare and chat to him about how you are feeling and together you can work through it.

For more advice on loneliness visit: https://www.mind.org.uk/information-support/tips-for-everyday-living/loneliness/#.W6zL32gzaM8

See more about Steve and psychotherpy at Medcare here.

To book an appointment with Steve, call 966 860 258 or email doctors@medcarespain.com