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Combating loneliness & establishing relationships in the digital age

June 19, 2023
Alexandra Hopkins

Loneliness Awareness Week (which took place last week, the 12th-18th June) was set up by Marmalade Trust to get people talking about loneliness and how we can combat it, so that we can support ourselves and others.

Anyone can feel lonely, but we tend to associate loneliness with elderly people. It’s certainly true that many older people struggle with loneliness; 1.4 million people over the age of 50 often feel lonely, and the circumstances that we’re more likely to encounter later in life, such as becoming a widower and poor health can increase feelings of isolation.

However, it may be surprising to learn that the age that a person is most likely to experience loneliness is actually between 16-24 years old. Some people think that the increase in smartphone usage is to blame for young people feeling lonely as screen time can prevent face-to-face interactions.

One study found that longer screen time, frequently picking your phone and using communication apps can prompt feelings of loneliness in young adults.

Like anything, there are pros and cons to using smartphones and social media. While technology has its communication benefits, we shouldn’t replace real-life connections with virtual ones, but instead, try to find a balance between the two.

Whatever your age and circumstances, if you’re experiencing loneliness, please don’t suffer in silence. Loneliness Awareness Week encourages us to have these important conversations and find ways to bring meaningful and fulfilling connections into our lives.

What is loneliness?

It’s normal to feel lonely from time to time; 45% of adults feel lonely occasionally or often in England. Loneliness isn’t something to be ashamed of and the more that we talk about it, the more that we break the stigma around it.

Everyone’s experience of loneliness is personal to them. You may feel lonely every now and then, due to a specific set of circumstances, or you may feel lonely all the time.

Loneliness tends to occur when we feel disconnected or isolated from others. Perhaps you’re missing meaningful relationships in your life, you’ve moved somewhere new, or you're grieving the loss of a loved one. Feeling lonely is the mind’s way of telling us that we’re craving connection and companionship.

The difference between being ‘alone’ and ‘lonely’

Feeling lonely doesn’t mean being physically alone, it means feeling alone, and being physically alone doesn’t necessarily mean that a person is lonely. For example, some people are happiest in their own company and don’t feel the need for other peoples’ companionship.

This also applies the other way around; you could be in a room full of people, surrounded by family, friends or colleagues, and still feel lonely. This might happen because you don’t feel valued or understood by the people around you, or if you don’t feel as though you can be your true self with them.

Equally, you may find yourself constantly communicating with your friends via social media, but these interactions may be small, such as liking a post or exchanging emojis instead of words. This can be less fulfilling than having an extended conversation or meeting in person, therefore causing you to feel lonely.

Is loneliness a mental health issue?

While loneliness isn’t a mental health condition, the two can impact each other. Loneliness can contribute to mental health issues, such as low mood, low self-esteem and depression, while mental health issues can increase feelings of isolation and cause us to withdraw.

It’s common for people with social anxiety to struggle with feelings of loneliness as their mental health condition may prevent them from engaging with others. They may avoid things like seeing family and friends, creating connections at work or even making eye contact with people. Find out more about social anxiety here.

How can loneliness impact our physical health?

Not only can loneliness impact our mental health, it can also have consequences on our physical health. According to research, loneliness can increase the risk of high blood pressure, coronary heart disease, strokes, cognitive decline and dementia. Overall, loneliness heightens our chance of death by 26%.

How to prevent and overcome loneliness

Clearly, loneliness is a serious problem that can’t be ignored. The good news is that there are changes you can make to prevent and overcome loneliness. It may take some time to feel a difference but making a conscious effort to change is the first step.

  1. Talk to someone you trust

    Is there someone in your life that you can reach out to for support? If you haven’t told anyone that you’re feeling lonely, your friends and family may not realise that you’re struggling. Try opening up to someone so they can look out for you.

    If you’ve been lonely for a long time and it’s impacting your wellbeing, you may want to speak to your GP or a health worker about how you’re feeling.
  2. Focus on meaningful connections

    The quality of our relationships is important. We may have lots of people in our lives, but if we don’t feel personally connected to them, we can still feel lonely. Perhaps you could work on strengthening a current relationship with a friend or family member. You could start by calling them to catch up or arranging to meet and then make it a regular thing.

    If no one comes to mind, you could try making new connections. Perhaps there’s a group you could join where you can meet people with similar interests to you, like a book club, exercise team or a place where you can volunteer. It may seem scary at first, but you’re more likely to meet people by putting yourself out there.

    Lastly, be wary of how much time you’re spending on social media. Liking and commenting on your friends’ photos isn’t as fulfilling as catching up on a video call or meeting face-to-face.
  3. Look into peer support

    There are different services which are purposely set up to support people experiencing loneliness, both nationwide and locally. While these groups may not fulfil your social needs entirely, they’re a good way to get the ball rolling with meeting new people. Here are a few that you could look into:
  • Age UK offers a befriender service for older people.
  • Befriending Networks has an online directory of UK befriending services.
  • MeetUp helps people find face-to-face groups of people with shared interests.
  • Reenage sets up social activities for people over the age of 75 without social support.

4. Consider talking therapy

If you feel as though a mental health issue is causing you to feel lonely, or loneliness is worsening a mental health condition, you could try talking therapy. At ieso, we offer online Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) for a range of mental health conditions. CBT can help you manage your problems by changing the way that you think and behave. Our service is judgement-free and can be accessed from home. Find out more on our website.

ieso Online Therapy
This blog has been written by a member of the clinical team at ieso.
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