Overcoming feelings of loneliness
It’s not unusual to experience feelings of isolation or loneliness in the winter months, as bad weather and dark evenings keep us indoors, and the post-Christmas slump sets in. The third Monday in January has even been named Blue Monday, supposedly the ‘most depressing day of the year’. This year we could find ourselves particularly susceptible to the blues, with restrictions tight and socialising impossible.
Anybody can feel lonely. It’s not only experienced by people who don’t have family, or who live on their own. You might feel isolated if you’re no longer connecting with friends or colleagues you used to see all the time, for example. Human interaction has dwindled for us all: we’re seeing fewer people, and mask-wearing means we miss the small connections we once made while going about our day.
While loneliness isn’t a mental health problem in itself, it can contribute to problems such as depression. Even those who are naturally introverted need social interaction, and a lack of this can impact our mood, wellbeing, self-esteem and motivation.
There’s nothing we can do to change the rules of lockdown, of course – but there are steps we can take to manage feelings of loneliness, and alleviate the winter blues in general.
Make a list of the things you can still do – and the people you could do them with. Think about the social activities you enjoyed before the pandemic. What was important to you? What do you miss about it? How can you try to recreate a sense of that – in a manageable way?
If you were in a book group, for example, you might have relished the conversation as much as the reading! Can you organise a Zoom version? If you miss connecting with colleagues in the office, you could have a virtual coffee break together, or keep in touch through the day via apps like Slack. If you loved chatting with friends about TV shows, try a ‘watch party’ where you view an episode at the same time while messaging each other. If you’re yearning for a sense of purpose, are there any volunteering opportunities in your community?
Fill up your diary! Schedule in everything you plan – and keep the commitment no matter how you’re feeling. If there’s someone you can exercise with outdoors, make a firm standing appointment to go for a walk with them. If you have a support bubble, make sure you know when you’re next getting together, and put it in your calendar. This will make sure you always have something social to look forward to.
Take it one day at a time. Try to live in the present, and focus on the day in front of you, rather than looking months down the line and imagining what they might hold. This can be overwhelming and lead to worry. Make an effort to notice the small details around you when you do go out, particularly in the natural world.
Keep a gratitude diary. At the end of each day, write down three good things that have happened or that you’ve heard about. This could be absolutely anything – from finishing a piece of work, to making a perfect boiled egg!
Seek out positive news. One major difference between this lockdown and the first is that we now have a vaccine. The government is releasing daily updates on how many people in the UK have been vaccinated – following these numbers might help counterbalance the bad news we hear.
Watch out for negative thoughts and predictions. Often when we’re down or anxious our thoughts are skewed negatively, and this can turn into a ‘vicious cycle’ that makes us feel worse. Our thoughts, behaviours and emotions are connected – so if we have a thought about how something is going to be, this may influence our behaviours, and how we feel, which in turn may influence our thoughts again.
For instance, if you message someone to set up a Zoom call and they don’t reply, you might think “they don’t want to speak to me” or “nobody can be bothered with me” – especially if you’re already feeling down. As a result, you might decide to stop contacting people, increasing feelings of isolation. You can break this cycle by acknowledging the thoughts you’re having and challenging them. How probable is it that they don’t want to talk to you? Is it more likely that they’re busy? Have they clearly enjoyed your company in the past?
If you suspect someone might be struggling… Some people find it hard to talk about feeling lonely. They might be fiercely independent, and reluctant to seem needy or be pitied. If you’re worried about someone, first ask them how they’re doing. If they say they’re missing social contact, ask them what they’d like to happen. Not everyone will want to talk about their feelings – they might just appreciate you sharing the odd funny video on WhatsApp.
The Mental Health Foundation has some good resources to help with nurturing relationships through the pandemic, while Mind provides general information on loneliness and where to go for support. For older people, the Age UK website has plenty of practical advice on things like how to have a video call.
Please do seek support if loneliness or the ‘winter blues’ is making you feel especially down or depressed. You can talk to your GP about what help is available, or you could try online cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), which is very effective at treating depression – you can find out more about that here.