Loneliness is a sensation we will all feel at some point in our lives. For many, it’s a feeling that only lasts a moment, appearing in certain situations. Others, however, may feel lonely all or most of the time.
There are different types of loneliness, and while everyone can feel lonely, older people are more likely to suffer the effects. According to Age UK, 1.4 million older people report feeling cut off from society, and 3.9 million older people agree that the television is their main form of company.
While feeling lonely isn’t itself a mental health problem, chronic loneliness can have a massive impact on health, happiness and well-being. It’s associated with depression, sleep problems and stress and more recently, we learned that the effects of loneliness and isolation can be as harmful as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and is more damaging than obesity.
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It’s a problem that is growing, but is often pushed to the back of our minds. Most of us will feel lonely at times and it often passes. But there are some people, particularly in later life, whose loneliness is defining their lives. And this number is growing.
Loneliness is defined as a subjective, unwelcome feeling of lack of companionship. But, there are two types of loneliness; emotional and social. Emotional loneliness is when we miss the company of one particular person, such as a spouse, sibling or best friend. Social loneliness can be experienced when we lack a wider social network (a group of friends, colleagues).
While loneliness is linked to social isolation, it is not the same thing.
“Isolation is an objective state, where the number of contacts you have can be counted. One way of describing this distinction is that you can be lonely in a crowded room, but you will not be socially isolated” - Campaign to End Loneliness
It’s common to mistake being alone as feeling lonely. But choosing to be alone is a positive thing. It’s a conscious decision that can be restorative, re-energising and calming. The feeling of loneliness isn’t a choice. It comes from a feeling of being disconnected from others.
In the UK, more than half of all people aged 75 and over live alone. And more than half a million older people will spend a week or more without seeing another person. This needs to change.
More than 900,000 people aged 65 and over in the UK report feeling lonely all, or most of the time.
As loneliness is a personal experience, it can affect people differently. There are a number of factors associated with feeling lonely, especially later in life, such as:
- losing a loved one
- moving away from friends and family
- loss of social content and enjoyment at work
- having health problems which limit your ability to socialise/leave the house
Whatever the cause, it is a deeply personal, heart-wrenching feeling. No one should have no one and yet, more than 1.4 million older people feel this way.
Who is affected?
Everyone can feel lonely. While older people are more affected, it’s important we recognise the feeling and understand that we are all vulnerable.
Mental health problems are closely linked with loneliness. With one in four of us living with a mental health problem, chances are that many young people are also feeling lonely.
Self-harm is the biggest killer of young people in the UK and much of that is down to the stigma of mental health and people not knowing where to turn. They can’t speak about their troubles, so instead, they turn to self-harm as a way of releasing their emotional pain.
Widowed and divorced people are also at risk of loneliness. Their companion, which they believed to be lifelong, has gone. For whatever reason, they are alone and this isn’t something you expect to feel, especially as a younger adult.
If you have moved away from your friends and family, perhaps for a new job, you are thrust into the unknown, knowing nobody. These days, making friends can be tough. You may spend weeks meeting new people, but they are not the companions you want. You are lonely.
Loneliness affects us all differently and you may be able to manage feelings easier than others, or at least for a longer period of time. Most of us need some form of social contact to maintain good mental health, but we are all different. You may need a large group of friends to feel satisfied, or you may be content with a smaller circle.
However you are affected, prolonged feelings of loneliness can be detrimental to mental health.
How does it affect mental health?
It can be a vicious cycle, mental health and loneliness. If you’re experiencing mental health problems, it can be a very isolated time. You may feel like there’s nowhere to turn, or as a result of stigma, feel too scared to talk or seek help. Likewise, loneliness can impact your mental health and happiness massively.
Social interaction is a part of life and it’s human nature to crave companionship and compassion. When this is taken away, you can feel very lonely indeed.
There is plenty of research on the impacts of loneliness on mental and physical health, and this research continues. Currently, it is suggested that loneliness increases the likelihood of mortality by 26% and can increase the risk of high blood pressure, coronary heart disease and stroke.
The effects of loneliness and isolation can be as harmful as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and is more damaging than obesity.
On mental health, research suggests that individuals who are lonely are more prone to depression, and loneliness in older age increases the chance of suicide.
We aren’t always aware of the impacts of loneliness because we don’t expect it to affect us. Usually, feelings ease after a while and we get on with our lives. Many of us fear being alone, but the reality is, you don’t expect how much it can change your life until it does.
Counselling for loneliness
If you’re feeling lonely, speaking to a counsellor can help. It can help you feel connected with someone and supported. By talking to a counsellor, you can experience validation - it’s OK to feel this way, it’s not your fault and support is available.
Long-term loneliness can lead to a number of mental health problems, and increase the risk of developing certain health conditions. Experiencing a mental health problem, like depression and anxiety, isn’t easy - and it’s even harder going through it alone. If you are lonely or feel like you have nobody to talk to, a counsellor can help.
How can it help with related conditions?
Anxiety is the term used to describe feelings of worry, fear and unease. When experiencing anxiety, you will typically feel both the emotional and physical sensations of worry and nervousness. Related to the ‘fight or flight’ response, if ongoing, anxiety can be incredibly overwhelming, hard to manage and can affect everyday life.
Fight, flight or freeze? Learn more about these natural instincts.
Depression is a condition in which you will experience a low mood for a long period of time. It is an intense, overwhelming sadness that lives with you, making it very difficult to enjoy life.
According to the NHS, one in 10 people will experience depression in their life. While everyone experiences it differently, it can be managed. A common treatment option for depression and anxiety is counselling. While the therapies offered will depend on you and your situation, cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) has been proven effective.
Other talking therapies may include:
- interpersonal therapy
- psychodynamic therapy
- group therapy
- art therapy
When experiencing loneliness, the idea of reaching out and asking for help can seem pointless. Who can support you if there’s no one around? But the thing to remember is that there is help available. If you’re not ready to contact a counsellor, there are other options. There are charities and resources dedicated to helping those who feel lonely. They may organise events, activity groups and coffee meetings; bringing people together.
Charities such as Age UK, The Silver Line and Contact the Elderly work to combat loneliness, and support those in need. They have befriending services and volunteer opportunities, connecting people who feel lonely with a conversation and companion.
What support is available?
If you’re feeling lonely, you may benefit from signing up to the Age UK befriending service. There are two different types of befriending services; face-to-face and telephone.
Volunteers can sign up to this service and will either carry out face-to-face visits, or schedule a weekly telephone call. With both types, each older person is assigned a ‘befriender’, who provides regular, friendly conversation and companionship over a long period of time. Befriending provides those who feel lonely with a link to the outside world and a source of regular communication. Often, befriending acts as a valuable support and can even be a gateway for other services the person may be missing.
Advice for staying connected
Whether your feelings of loneliness are fleeting or have been with you for a long time, it can be deeply emotional and overwhelming. Doing anything can seem hopeless, but trying to think positively, and taking the steps to help yourself out of loneliness can be useful. Remember, it’s not your fault you feel this way, and there is a way out.
Think about yourself
What's making you lonely?
If you’ve been feeling lonely for a while, the first step is to recognise it and try to understand what has caused it. The reason may be more clear, for example, if you’ve lost a lifelong partner, being without them will obviously have an impact.
Loneliness is common in later life. Friends and partners grow old and pass away, and your family are living their own lives - you can’t bother them with your problems. You’ll be fine, you think, but actually, you haven’t spoken to anyone in weeks and it’s starting to affect your well-being.
Think about what you would like more of - maybe you miss your family. If so, invite them to visit or call them for a conversation. When feeling lonely, it’s easy to believe people don’t want to see you, as they’re too busy. This is understandable, but often, people will accept an invitation to spend time with you.
Look after yourself
Your mental and physical health can be affected by loneliness, so try to look after yourself. If you are able, go for walks and move your body regularly. Eating well and keeping active can help maintain good well-being and can help you to relax more in your own company.
Loneliness can be all-consuming and your days can blend into a never-ending, painful experience. Try to establish a routine, get up in the morning and have breakfast, spend time outside and speak to people where you can.
Make new connections
The simplest way to ease feelings of loneliness is to socialise more. This may sound obvious, but trying to reach out and meet new people can really change a life. Think if there is anything you’re particularly interested in; an activity group or class in your area, that could help you meet new, like-minded people.
When you’re older and retired, it can feel like you’re out of options, but if you’re able, why stop? If you’re feeling lonely, take a look at local volunteering opportunities. Volunteering is a great way to meet people and socialise, and helping others can make you feel good.
Take it slow
Reaching out isn’t easy and taking things into your own hands can be daunting. If you’re not ready to jump straight in, take it a little slower. Start by going to the cinema or a cafe with a book; somewhere you can be around people, but not expected to talk to them.
If you’re interested in joining a class or a group, there’s no harm in calling whoever runs it and asking questions. Or, consider joining a class that doesn’t necessarily run on conversation - a creative event, where people are focused on what they’re doing, rather than those around them.
Talk about how you’re feeling, can anyone help?
Do people know how you feel? You may have plenty of friends and family, but if they don’t know how you’re feeling, they may not realise how much you need them. It’s not easy, but opening up to loved ones can really help. Remember, there is no shame in feeling lonely.
If you’re not comfortable opening up to family, consider speaking to someone less involved. Perhaps a friend, through an online community or even a professional.
Get some help if needed
If it’s affecting your mental and physical health, it might be time to consider professional support.
You don’t have to go through this alone. As lonely as you feel, there will always be someone to talk to. If you need a helping hand or are worried about your health, talk to someone.
What our experts say
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Adriana Gordon - London Private Counselling (PGDip, Reg MBACP)15th March, 2018
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