How to combat loneliness
Updated: Jan 28
Loneliness could very well be our next public health crisis, with research showing that an increasing number of Australians feel isolated and alone. Alisa Camplin examines the rise of this phenomenon, and outlines some strategies for dealing with it.
Most of us probably don’t realise how many people around us are feeling lonely. Sometimes it’s obvious, but often it’s those that appear upbeat and connected that are experiencing periods of isolation and an unhealthy level of loneliness. Recent research by the ABC has shown that one in four Australians describe themselves as lonely, with 30 per cent of the population saying that they don’t belong to a friendship group. The issue is so pervasive that extensive study is being conducted both locally and internationally to identify causes of, and solutions to, the loneliness phenomenon. It’s a serious societal health and wellness problem that we really need to address.
First, we need to recognise that when we talk about loneliness it’s not the same as simply being alone. It’s possible to be surrounded by people and still feel lonely – for example, in a marriage or in a work environment. It’s the quality, not the quantity, of relationships that make the difference. In fact, solitude can be good for you – especially if it’s sought out deliberately.
The true experience of loneliness though is subjective and unique to the person experiencing it. It’s also worth noting that while many of us maintain relationships through digital mediums, they’re not necessarily as effective as face-to-face contact and can inhibit us from experiencing meaningful connections.
Who becomes lonely?
Loneliness doesn’t discriminate. It’s something that can affect individuals of any age and background. Although, there are particular segments of society who are more vulnerable to experiencing loneliness – like new mothers, teenagers, the elderly, and the sick. Some individuals struggle with their social skills and sometimes people find that their circumstances leave them feeling isolated and even trapped.
There are a whole host of reasons that people may end up feeling lonely – and often it’s not due to their own actions. Unfortunately, we can be quick to blame lonely people for not being proactive in fostering their social connections or ‘getting involved’.
Loneliness and health
Not only is loneliness detrimental to mental health, but it has also been linked to adverse physical outcomes. Research has demonstrated that loneliness is a risk factor when it came to coronary heart disease and stroke – on par or more so than light smoking, hypertension, and obesity.
In fact, a 2015 study showed that social isolation resulted in a 50 per cent increase in premature death. Conversely, people who forge strong social connections tend to live longer – to the extent that a 1979 study found that people with close social ties and unhealthy lifestyles tend to outlive lonely people with healthy lifestyles. I just find this staggering!
What’s being done?
Fortunately, loneliness is being recognised as a serious health issue in some parts of the world. In the UK, Prime Minister Theresa May took the step of appointing a Minister for Loneliness who was tasked with addressing this growing crisis in January of 2018. Initiatives are happening in the pop-culture landscape, as well. For example, Oprah Winfrey launched the ‘Just Say Hello’ campaign with the aim of encouraging social integration of those who feel isolated. This activity was spurred in part by the revelation that up to 60 million Americans suffer from feelings of loneliness.
Closer to home, the Australian Coalition to End Loneliness is actively working towards dealing with the issue. With members that include the Australian Red Cross and the Salvation Army, as well as several academic institutions from across the country, they’re at the forefront of research and intervention locally. I’ve been fortunate enough to participate in roundtable discussions to look at what can be done in this area.
Loneliness is a transient state
On a personal note, I have definitely experienced loneliness. Most recently, it was as I was making the transition into parenthood. It was a more substantial feeling than the pain of sleep deprivation that accompanies becoming a parent. I felt isolated at home and away from my normal working life. There was also an identity shift that occurred in the early days, which was compounded when my husband went off to work each morning to pursue his professional goals and interact socially with others.
It was a rapid change to my life, and I felt lost in that. There was a disconnect between the idea that having a child is the greatest joy of your life, and realising that full-time parenting can actually be more tiresome than you expect it to be. While I wasn’t able to recognise it at the time – I was grieving the change to my social life. I missed the social connections that had brought me mental stimulation, joy and regular personal contact.
When I spoke to my GP about how I was feeling, she encouraged me to foster connections with others who were going (or had been) through similar experiences. In my case, that meant getting involved with a local mothers group, talking more honestly with working mothers that I knew, and spending time with my own mum. It also helped me to understand the fact that sometimes you become lonely at a particular point in your life for a period of time, but that stage won’t last forever. It’s important that you try and avoid being ashamed of feeling lonely.
How to help - reach out and reconnect
The best thing you can do for someone struggling with loneliness is to reach out and make contact – talk to those around you and consciously increase the volume of those contact points.
Don’t just send a text message, take five minutes out of your day to call a friend, spouse, or parent and check-in with them. Even better, arrange a time to meet up for a coffee and a chat. There’s no substitute for human contact. Strive to deepen those connections, and remember that we’re all innately social creatures hard-wired to seek meaningful connection.
By being more aware and investing a little extra time and energy, we can all help combat loneliness.
Originally published on www.onelife.aiavitality.com.au on April 18, 2019.
Alisa Camplin is an Olympic Gold Medalist, in-demand Keynote Speaker, Corporate Ambassador, and Human Performance Consultant who delivers results-driven Resilience and Human Performance Training and Development Programs. Connect with Alisa.