This year’s theme for Mental Health Awareness Week is loneliness with the aim to encourage us to consider the impacts of loneliness on mental health and how we might all play a part in reducing loneliness in our communities.
What does it mean to be lonely?
Loneliness is a human experience, one which perhaps we can all recognise at some point in our life. It is characterised by a sense of isolation, a separation or disconnection from others, and a difficulty in connecting with the world, ourselves and other beings. Loneliness can both drive and create feelings of distress. The experience of loneliness can affect our mental health and well-being, just as feelings of distress and poor mental health can produce feelings of loneliness.
Connection as human beings
As human beings we are social creatures. Since the time of our early ancestors we have lived in groups and communities and we have had a drive to connect with others because this enables our safety and security in life. However, the way we connect with and exist around others has changed drastically since the days of our early predecessors. In much of the Western world at the least, we typically no longer exist in small tight knit communities. Our friends, family, loved ones and work colleagues can be scattered across the globe. Not to mention, the way we make connections has changed, meaning we make contact with others in a multitude of ways via instant message, e-mail, video call, telephone, voice note, letters. It’s not all about in-person contact anymore. This expansion brings new opportunities to connect with others, but it can also be accompanied by a sense of overwhelm or experiences of FOMO (fear of missing out).
The impact of COVID-19
The COVID-19 pandemic and the isolation and separation we have had to endure is enormous. We have kept apart in order to keep both ourselves and others safe. Many of us may have been experiencing lock downs alone, whilst others have experienced a sense of disconnect and isolation having been separated from their broader work/ school/ social community. Some of the social groups most affected by the pandemic include single parents, children and young people unable to attend school, older adults and those experiencing unemployment. Whilst the pandemic brought enormous loss and grief across the globe, it also brought opportunities for connection and togetherness, with families and friends accessing new apps to contact one another, and communities coming together to support the more vulnerable among them.
Life after ‘lockdown’
Now the world is opening up, but there may be many of us feeling left behind as the pace ramps up in everyday lives. Many of us may still be left reeling in the aftermath of the last few years, and some may need to take time to re-engage with society and with others. The loneliness of lockdowns might feel a thing of the past for many of us, but for some, loneliness may continue to loom large.
What can we do about loneliness?
The antidote for loneliness is connection. There are many small ways we might attempt to make connections in everyday life: connecting with pets, to friends and family, to passers by, to nature and the world around us, and to the broader beliefs and values that we share with others. If you are experiencing loneliness, try one new way of connecting each day: make eye contact with a stranger passing you on the street, maybe smile at someone or say hello, little acts of kindness are a very good way of making a positive connection with acquaintances or strangers. Try to look for opportunities in your day to connect more; for example, if you’re in the supermarket, if you usually pay using a self-scan checkout, try going to a checkout with a shop assistant and make eye contact when you say hello or thank you. Notice how these little moments of connection make you feel, does something change? What does it feel like to challenge yourself to be bold and make small connections? When out and about, try to engage each of your 5 senses.
- Sight – what can you see around you? Notice the different hues of colour, the shapes of objects.
- Hearing – notice the sounds around you, really tune in to what you can hear in a moment.
- Touch – what can you feel or touch in your environment. Notice the feeling of your feet on the floor or earth beneath you, or touch a leaf or the bark of a tree.
- Smell – Can you smell anything right now? What does it smell like?
- Taste – Try to tune into the way that something tastes.
Loneliness is something we can all do something about. If you are not currently experiencing loneliness, there may well be someone in your community that is. If you were feeling lonely what might help you with this experience? How can you make small connections in everyday life that might change someone’s day? Is there someone you have lost connection with who might need a little bit of support or a check-in right now? Making connections with others in our community and our environment can start to lift the heaviness of loneliness.