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Loneliness: building meaningful connections (Mental Health Awareness Week 2022)

May 9, 2022

Feelings of loneliness affect millions of people in the UK, and can contribute to poor mental health. Research from the Mental Health Foundation has found that – unsurprisingly – levels of loneliness increased during the pandemic, with many people feeling more isolated and less connected with others.

The Foundation has made loneliness the theme of this year’s Mental Health Awareness Week (Monday 9 to Sunday 15 May), with the aim of exploring its effect on our mental wellbeing, and what we can do to address it.

Loneliness has been shown to trigger the same areas in the brain as pain, so its impact shouldn’t be underestimated. While it isn’t a mental health condition in itself, it can lead to problems such as low mood, low self-esteem, and depression.

Reconnecting after the pandemic

Lockdowns will have taken their toll on many people’s mental health, exacerbating the sense of separation for those who didn’t have close family or who lived alone, for instance. Some might be finding hard to ‘reverse’ this, and rebuild relationships.

If this sounds familiar, think about the social activities, friendships and interactions you enjoyed before the pandemic. What was important to you? Who was important to you? Why? How can you reconnect with each of those activities and people? Start making plans to do so, one by one to build your confidence, at your own pace.

Watch out for negative thoughts and predictions. For example, if you contact a friend you haven’t seen for a while to suggest meeting up, and they don’t reply or say they’re busy, you might think ‘they don’t want to see me’ or ‘nobody can be bothered with me any more’. As a result, you might be reluctant to contact people, which will increase feelings of isolation. This ‘vicious cycle’ can be broken 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 they have a lot on their plate, or on their mind?

Communicating our needs

Absolutely anybody can feel lonely – not just those who are single or live alone. A lack of meaningful relationships can lead to feelings of isolation, or a belief that we don’t matter, or we don’t ‘belong’. This tends to happen when our needs aren’t being met by the people around us.

Some people struggle to verbalise what they need – which might be intimacy, support, advice, or some help to solve an issue, for example. This could be because it’s difficult for them to put into words, or they don’t feel they can talk about it, perhaps because they’re worried they won’t be taken seriously.

If this is the case, ask yourself how long you’ve kept how you’re feeling to yourself, and tried to ignore it. How has that worked out for you? Do you owe it to yourself to try something different?

We might also have negative beliefs and expectations about sharing what’s on our mind. It’s worth challenging these. How likely is it that the person or people you want to talk to will be bored, or laugh at you, based on your past relationship?

Before sitting down to talk, think about exactly what your needs are, and write these down. Do you want practical help? Ideas? For them to just listen, and acknowledge they’ve heard what you said? For them to agree to work with you to improve something? When you talk to them, explain why having the need met is important to you. Describe how you feel now, and what you’ll feel if things change.

Others are able to communicate what they need, but they don’t feel heard or understood by the person or people they’re speaking to. This leads to feelings of rejection, and a sense that you’re not a priority in their life.

Again, in this situation it’s a good idea to write down what you want to say, so it’s clear in your head. Ask them to set aside some time for a conversation; you could say you’re struggling with something and would really like to talk about it. Chose a time when it is easier to talk, where neither of you are tired or have had a drink, and choose a comfortable and familiar environment to talk in.

Sharing your needs with another person will not always make a difference – sometimes people are simply not prepared to compromise or change how things are. If this leaves you feeling rejected or unloved, thinking about whether they meet your needs in other ways might help bring perspective. Do they do other things that support you and make you feel valued? Where else could you get that particular need met?

The Mental Health Foundation has some good resources to help with nurturing relationships, 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.

Please do seek support if loneliness is making you feel especially down or depressed. You can talk to your GP about what help is available, or you could try online CBT, which is very effective at treating depression – you can find out more about that here.

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