Why we need to talk about Loneliness
Mental Health Awareness week this year is themed around loneliness, that is lack of connection. It seems that this is one mental health topic that rarely gets talked about, yet the impacts of long term loneliness can be extremely damaging to our health and wellbeing.
Studies* have shown loneliness is as damaging as obesity or smoking. It increases our chances of developing depression, and in some cases leads to a higher risk of suicide. It can affect the quality and quantity of our sleep, with all the health implication that brings. It is particularly damaging for the elderly and can cause a deterioration in cognitive function and increase in frailty.
The Stigma of Loneliness
Many of us feel uncomfortable voicing feelings of loneliness, it seems to indicate that we are deficient in some way, perhaps lacking in social skills. Reminiscent of awkward times as a child or teenager when we didn’t ‘fit-in’ with the ‘in’ crowd. Social media encourages us to portray a perfect life where we are successful and popular, surrounded by friends and out socialising every day. This is a skewed and one-dimensional view but it’s tempting to start comparing our lives to what we see on Instagram, we will never live up to a manufactured image.
Since the Covid pandemic more of us are frequently working from home, offices are more sparsely populated and particularly for those who live alone this can lead to virtual isolation. The elderly have also suffered, many are still wary to go out and socialise for fear of catching the virus and have become prisoners in their own four walls.
We can of course virtually connect via the various social media platforms but these don’t represent authentic, deep connection that is actually meaningful.
How Can we Build More Connection?
Loneliness is different to being alone, we can be perfectly content in solitude. Loneliness is more about a feeling of connection and belonging. If this is lacking, what can we do to start to change that. In a world that largely seems unwilling to wake up and take action to mitiage the climate emergency we can feel very isolated and lonely. I actually feel a huge sense of connection to mother nature, walking in nature, amongst trees and animals gives me a huge boost of positive energy and sense of connection, and whilst my points below are largely about building connection with others, nature is always there for us to provide connection to our beautiful mother, earth.
1. Being Vulnerable Builds Trust & Connection
The British stiff upper lip has not necessarily served us well. Talking about and revealing emotion is not something that was encouraged when I was growing up, it’s still something that many can avoid. Instead, we learn to hide our emotions for fear of creating upset or conflict. Showing our feelings makes us vulnerable, and it is that exposure of our true self that helps others to see who we really are, helping to build understanding and connection. Of course, we need to voice our feelings in a kind and thoughtful way.
Showing and receiving affection and gratitude is also another important part of building deeper connections. Often when we are feeling lonely we are looking for others to reach out to us but it’s crucial that we do the same. This can be really tough and scary, the classic Feel the Fear and Do it Anyway by Susan J Jeffers is a great read for those who are hesitating to move beyond their comfort zone
2. Listening and Being Present
Listening sounds simple but is often challenging! When we are in conversation, we can often spend a lot of time thinking about what WE are going to say next rather than actually listening to the other person. As a coach I have learnt the importance of being truly present, listening actively, picking up nuances in body, language, voice tone and pitch. Giving someone space to be truly heard is a great skill and something that I would say, many, could be better at. This is another way you can begin to build connection with someone, the gift of space and time to listen. This book by Susan Cain Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that can’t stop Talking is a great read.
3. Prioritising Relationships
Relationships are always changing and evolving, when we are trying to build a deeper connection we need to let the other person know we can be counted on. As with many things it’s what we put in we get back. Relationships and our social life need to be considered as in important part of our lives alongside work, & physical wellbeing. If you feel life is a little unbalanced why not do a life wheel exercise to assess your score across key life areas. Register for a free Bronze Goal Mapping account via this link to gain access to this tool.
We need to demonstrate patience, kindness and act consistently. If a person ‘blows hot and cold’ others don’t know where they stand, they will feel wary and unsure of what your motives are and struggle to understand your true character. This stems from how confident you are at showing up as your true self. If you are portraying a false image, others will intuitively begin to see through the pretence. Being curious and playful is a great mindset to engage with others. Do check out last months blog on playfulness for more tips on this.
4. Open Body Language Helps Build Rapport
Body language has a big influence over how we are perceived by others, it can help or hinder us in building rapport. It is of itself a huge topic but simply put, good levels of eye contact, smiling, open arms and broad shoulders all give out the impression that we are friendly and open to contact. Often when we are feeling fearful or threatened, we can tend to avoid eye contact, fold our arms and keep our body turned away. This is quite a simplistic explanation but tweaking our body language can help us to feel and act more confidently. Just a little bit of eye contact and a subtle smile makes a great first impression. If this is something you want to learn more about do seek out more information at your local library or online.
5. Create Opportunities for Connection
If we don’t currently have a life full of great connections then we need to increase the number of people we interact with. Children will go up to another child and soon be happily playing, even though they’ve never met before. As adults it gets way more complicated! However it is, like most things, perfectly possible to make new connections. One reason it’s hard is that our social circles become much more static as we get older, but there are many opportunities to connect with new people. A great place to start is looking for groups or organisations that share your interests and values. I have found great friendships though local environmental groups and I volunteer at my local refill shop (www.fillinggood.co.uk).
We can often prejudge someone, especially if they are lingering on the periphery of a group. Believe that everyone is worthy of connection and don’t prejudge that those who are not your normal ‘type’ won’t be interesting and valuable to connect with. If we are not careful, we can end up living in a bubble only listening to the voices of those who share our background, experiences and opinions. Deliberately seek out difference and be curious as to where this can lead you.
6. Being Part of Something Beyond Ourselves
Being involved in something greater than us is a wonderful way of feeling connection. This can be a faith, or spiritual path, cause or charity. Working to help the greater good is something this world needs more off. Getting involved in something close to your heart will give you a sense of purpose. This can give you more courage and bravery to do something outside of your comfort zone and lead you to connect with new people. The Conservation Volunteers specialise in connecting those who want to help our environment and for a more general volunteering try the National Council for Volunteering Organisations
7. Believing we are Worthy of Connection
When we feel lonely and isolated we can spend time thinking about why, perhaps coming up with reasons we don’t have those important connections in our life. This often leads us to self-criticism and destructive unhelpful thoughts. Many of my clients have reported feelings of isolation since the pandemic when we had a lot more time on our hands to ponder and inwardly reflect. I urge anyone reading this who identifies with these feelings to start acting today! Thoughts are just that, thoughts they are not the truth. Thinking cannot help us connect to others.
You are your beautiful, individual, imperfect self just like everyone else. It’s time to begin taking action in the direction of connection. You will be happier, healthier and make the world a better place. Good Luck!