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Loneliness and mental health

Loneliness and Mental Health

Loneliness is affecting more and more people in the UK and this has a huge impact on both our physical and mental health. Worryingly, loneliness can increase your risk of death by 26% (Holt-Lunstad, 2015) and loneliness, living alone and poor social connections are as bad for your health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day (Holt-Lunstad, 2010).

There’s no magic cure to combat loneliness, but if you’re struggling and feeling alone, it’s important to work out why you feel this way and then take steps to change your life for the better. We’ve put together a guide to understanding what loneliness is, what the different types are and tips to help you tackle loneliness, reconnect with yourself and others.

What is loneliness?

According to the Campaign to End Loneliness, the definition which best describes loneliness is:

“Loneliness is a subjective, unwelcome feeling of lack or loss of companionship, which happens when there is a mismatch between the quantity and quality of the social relationships that we have, and those that we want (Perlman and Peplau, 1981).”

Loneliness can come and go, affect you all the time or it can impact you on certain days such as Christmas.

What are the different types of loneliness?

  • Emotional – this is when a significant other is absent and you may or may not still have a close attachment or meaningful relationship with them
  • Existential – part of the human condition where a person feels separate from everyone around them
  • Social – lack of a wider social network of friends, neighbours or colleagues

Nine ways to start combatting loneliness

1. Recognise your feelings

You may feel down and brush it off or not quite know what has caused it. Sometimes there aren’t any particular reasons why you feel blue, but if you can identify your low mood and link it to being alone, you can start to put into action these tips to help overcome feeling alone. Have a think about your current situation and why you feel the way you do. What does loneliness mean to you? How does it make you feel? What do you feel you’re missing in life? What would you like to change?

2. Keep a journal

Writing about feelings can help process them, we often have events that continually play in our minds, writing them down is a way of clearing our mind. Asking yourself ‘why do I feel lonely?’ and writing your thoughts down can help to identify areas in your life that you need to process or require support with.

3. Reconnect with yourself first

Now it’s time to reconnect with yourself. Hopefully you’ve worked out what you feel you’re missing, so now spend some time thinking about what you want to achieve. What do you need from life? What interests you? What motivates you? What kind of people do you want in your life? By discovering what you want, it will help you take the right steps to get there.

4. Focus on quality not quantity

It’s important to identify that connectedness is about the quality of relationships, not the quantity. So, make sure the relationships you have in your life make you feel good about yourself; spend time with kind-hearted, genuine people. Time is precious, so make sure you spend it with the right people.

5. Be mindful

Mindfulness is the practice of becoming aware of your thoughts and emotions as they happen, so you recognise them and accept them rather than trying to control or suppress them. Becoming more aware of the present moment can help you enjoy the world around you more and understand yourself better. There are many free apps to get you started. For more information visit the NHS Mindfulness website.

6. Fancy a meet up?

Try visiting sites like Nextdoor which feature get-togethers with people in your local area. There are a wide range of events featured by people just like you, who want to find like-minded others to do activities with. There’s something for everyone, with categories ranging from sports to learning and food and drink to music. If there isn’t anything in your area yet, why not try setting something up yourself? Think about what interests you and go from there.

7. Get into nature

In 1982, the Japanese government introduced ‘Shinrikyo’ (forest bathing) to improve health and wellbeing. Shinrikyo is about the pleasure of being among trees. Studies by Chiba University reported that 30 minutes in a forest environment can lower blood pressure, the pulse rate, and concentrations of cortisol –  which is body’s main stress hormone. It works with certain parts of your brain to control your mood, motivation and fear.

8. Take exercise

It can be easy to overlook how important exercise is to mental health. Exercise does not just produce dopamine, the “happy chemical”, it also boosts the brain’s ability to cope with stress by creating new neurons in the ventral region of the hippocampus, an area of the brain linked to the regulation of anxiety.

9. Stay connected

At times of stress, we work better in company and with support. Stay in touch with other people regularly on social media, email or on the phone, as they are still good ways of being close to the people who matter to you.

For men, the idea of reaching out is daunting. If you think a friend, husband or dad is struggling with depression or other mental health disorder, there are ways to help. Read our article on how men can improve their mental health.

For more advice and tips on how to look after your mental health during this time visit the Mental Health Foundation website.

Further links

Seek help and advice from support groups such as MindYoung MindsAge UK and Campaign to End Loneliness. Remember, there is always support out there and there are always things that can be done. Being lonely is easily overcome and it isn’t a forever feeling.

You can also read some of our similar articles on mental health such as spotting the signs of depression in men and where to get support.

Help for your mental health at Benenden Hospital

If you've been affected by anything mentioned in this article, or would like to discuss your mental health, our fast access GP services can help. Book your appointment online today or contact our Private Patient team via Livechat or on 01580 363158.

Published on 12 June 2023