Dr. Balu, Consultant Psychiatrist
We’re more connected than ever. At least, that’s what social media would have you believe. Rarely do we spend more than a few hours away from our phones – texting, scrolling or flicking through Stories. And, yet, according to a 2018 Kaiser Family Foundation study, we’re experiencing a loneliness epidemic, with more than a fifth of UK and US adults admitting to feeling lonely.
Those numbers came in pre-COVID. Now, after nine months of intermittent lockdowns and restrictions, the risk of loneliness is undoubtedly higher than ever before. Cigna’s 2020 Loneliness Index found that 61% of all American adults report feeling increasingly isolated. And that isolation may be having a knock-on effect on your mental health.
“Loneliness is not just about being alone,” says consultant psychiatrist Dr. Balu. “It’s about a lack of connection, and it can sometimes stem from or cause common mental health issues, such as anxiety or depression. People experiencing panic attacks, post traumatic stress disorder and a lack of control can often feel lonely, as they get the sense that nobody else understands them.”
Similarly, prolonged feelings of loneliness may lead to those same, common mental health problems. “We’re all social beings,” says Dr. Balu. “We need human contact to feel connected, and if that doesn’t happen, it turns into more stress, which can trigger other negative emotions.”
So, how might you manage loneliness – particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic? Here, Dr. Balu reveals seven steps to take if you’re feeling lonely…
1. Acknowledge and Accept Your Feelings
The first step to managing loneliness is to acknowledge that you feel lonely. It’s an uncomfortable admission, and one that you may be tempted to push down by filling your schedule with work or Zoom calls. While keeping busy can sometimes help, pretending that nothing is wrong will not, as it means you may engage in behaviours that further your feelings of isolation – such as stressing over deadlines.
“Once you start accepting that you’re lonely, you look at connecting,” explains Dr Balu. “Lack of connection is what drives most of the loneliness. I’ve had patients who have been with a group of people or with a big family, and still felt lonely. This is not specific to lockdown, but happens with general loneliness, and it could be due to many reasons. The sooner you recognise these feelings, the sooner you will start to identify the cause.”
2. Connect with Others
If a lack of connection is cause for your loneliness, it makes sense that reaching out to others is important. Tell loved ones how you feel, making purposeful, honest contact with the people who understand you most. However, don’t see this as a tick-box exercise. “Telling yourself you have to make 20 calls per day, or berating yourself for not picking up the phone will make you more stressed. As will speaking to people who aren’t supportive,” adds Dr. Balu.
If you don’t feel ready to open up to people you know, there are a host of support groups that help you make friends and build connections within your local community, such as Next Door and MeetUpMondays. Book clubs, running groups and volunteering also help you meet new people, forming bonds based on common interests.
3. Connect with Yourself
Connecting with yourself is crucial to managing loneliness, too. “Do not hesitate to express yourself. Many people feel lonely because they are not confident, they have a fear of being judged, they have been let down in the past and they have trust issues,” says Dr. Balu.
“It’s very important to be able to express oneself. If you’re not able to express yourself in words to somebody else, you can be creative. Try drawing, writing or singing for yourself. This is very important, because once you start expressing how you feel, you start getting that connection going – both with yourself and with others.”
4. Have Self Compassion
Lockdown 2.0 has put the world in something of a productivity limbo. Because you have fewer opportunities to socialise, you may put pressure on other parts of your life, such as work or fitness. However, one thing to remember is that you’re going through a difficult year. You don’t have to learn a new language, take on extra work or redecorate your house just because you’re in lockdown.
Instead, congratulate yourself for coping through a global pandemic. “Self-compassion is important, so don’t be hard on yourself,” urges Dr. Balu. “When you put extra pressure on yourself – worrying about deadlines, for example – you put yourself in a bubble, where you can end up feeling more alone. It’s about having the perspective to say ‘it’s okay, I’m doing okay’.”
5. Put Social Media into Perspective
Instagram can be an invaluable tool for connecting you with people around the world. However, it’s a highlight reel; a place where people show the best parts of their day, and tend to edit out the bad. If you find yourself comparing your life to someone’s Stories, and feel lonelier as a result, try limiting your time on social media. You can even add time limits on your smartphone,
“One thing I ask my patients is, ‘Are you using social media to enhance your life? Or are you letting social media control and distress your life?’” says Dr. Balu. “If you are inspired by the posts you see or you’re using social media to connect with somebody, that’s a good thing.” However, if you find you experience negative emotions after scrolling, it may be time to take a step back.
6. Know When to Seek Professional Help
Don’t wait for loneliness to become unbearable before you seek professional advice. “Prevention is better than cure,” explains Dr. Balu. “Mental health problems are very common, so there’s nothing to be ashamed of when asking for help.”
He adds that, because the sense of isolation can lead to further mental health problems, it’s important to take your feelings seriously. “Complications of mental health problems are what cause disability and distress, and that is what we’re trying to prevent by seeking professional help much earlier in the process.”