By Jeremy Godwin.
Welcome to Let’s Talk About Mental Health, the weekly podcast/article about mental health and wellbeing by Australian author and speaker Jeremy Godwin that is about much more than just talk; every episode is full of practical advice for improving and maintaining your mental health and wellbeing.
This week I’m talking about loneliness – the negative effects that loneliness can have on your mental health, and different things that you can do to turn it around and improve your wellbeing. Listen now in the Spotify player below or read the transcript below. Let’s talk!
We are in the middle of a loneliness epidemic. Regardless of whether you are young or old, there is an increasing likelihood that you may be experiencing some type of loneliness in your life – and a 2010 research paper by Holt-Lunstad, Smith and Layton, which analysed 148 different studies, came to a fairly blunt conclusion: loneliness kills. Those with stronger social relationships have a 50% increased likelihood of survival, regardless of factors like age or gender (Holt-Lunstad, Smith and Layton, 2010). This week, I’ll be talking about some of the reasons why loneliness happens and what you can do about it.
What is loneliness and how does it affect mental health?
Loneliness happens when we feel disconnected and are lacking quality relationships with other people. We’re more connected than ever thanks to social media but, ironically, social media actually serves to make us less physically social, which can have a negative impact on the quality of our relationships.
There’s a big difference between socialising with others and connecting with others, and while physical isolation may or may not lead to loneliness, by no means does physical interaction automatically guarantee connection with other people. You can be surrounded by people yet still feel lonely if there is no genuine connection. Nor does it matter how many friends you do or don’t have – rather, it’s the quality of those relationships that will have the biggest impact on whether or not you experience loneliness.
As more and more of our relationships happen online, they become far shallower than real-life relationships – after all, just hitting ‘like’ when someone shares something about their life just isn’t the same as a face-to-face interaction, and it’s all too easy to hit the ‘block’ button when you have a disagreement with someone (I know, I’ve done it myself).
Regardless of whether you live in the city or the country, loneliness goes hand-in-hand with both mental and physical health. It’s a major risk factor for depression (Singer, 2018) and it can lead to substance abuse, dietary issues, low energy and physical symptoms, including an increased risk of cardiovascular disease which can have direct consequences on your life expectancy. So, it is in your best interests to do something about it. You don’t have to be lonely, and in a minute I’ll talk through some of the things you can do to tackle loneliness.
What causes loneliness?
First, let’s take a moment to discuss how loneliness can happen. Aside from mental illnesses like depression and anxiety, there can be a lot of different factors that contribute to a sense of loneliness, such as:
- Being disconnected from family or friends
- Finding it difficult to meet new people because of where you live, or because you struggle with talking to new people
- Living on your own and without close relationships with other people
- Going through grief or loss
- Poor health
- Major life changes like changing jobs, moving to a new area, etc.
- Language or cultural barriers
- Feeling that you lack of purpose or meaning in your life
Circumstances change, and your sense of connection vs loneliness can fluctuate depending on a range of factors – for example, it’s not uncommon for people to feel lonely in the winter because there might be less physical contact with other people during the colder weather.
Identifying why you might be feeling lonely is pretty important because unless you know what’s going on deep down inside you might struggle to address the issue, as you won’t be dealing with the root cause. Regular listeners/readers will know that I talk in pretty much every episode about the need to address the root cause of your issues, rather than just treating the symptoms – e.g. If you have the flu but you only treat the cough, then you’re still going to end up with a bunch of other symptoms that will probably knock you about, so it’s definitely worth the effort to get a proper diagnosis and treat the root cause of the issue.
My point is this: if you’re struggling with loneliness because of depression, just going out and trying to make a new friend is very unlikely to address the real issue. Be brutally honest with yourself about what’s going on, and if you need to seek professional help then please do – I’ve talked to a lot of people about seeking help who freak out at the idea of speaking to a complete stranger about their fears and insecurities, or who might be struggling financially and feel they can’t afford to pay a professional counsellor or therapist, but I firmly believe that the benefits far outweigh the costs. There are lots of things you can do to address loneliness, and I’ll cover some in a moment, but please just really hear what I’m saying about tackling the root cause before you jump into solution mode.
How to overcome loneliness (or at least feel a bit less lonely)
Alright – let’s get into the good stuff: how to overcome loneliness, or at least feel a bit less lonely.
Get out more – nothing changes if nothing changes, so don’t just sit at home and expect to connect with people because it’s not going to happen. Now, I know first-hand how hard it can be if you’re struggling – I went through an agoraphobic phase for a few months after my breakdown and I couldn’t even go to the letterbox to collect my mail without freaking out – so if that’s happening, see if you can invite a friend, a family member or a neighbour over once a week or once a fortnight for coffee and a chat. Even a ten minute chat to someone can make a monumental difference in your sense of connection, and if you can increase that over time and get out more often then you will start to feel more connected to others. I’ve talked to you all before about how I work from home so I spend most weekdays on my own while my partner is at work, and I’ve taken to working from a cafe one or two mornings a week so that I’m not completely isolated from the world. I’ve even had some lovely chats with people doing exactly the same thing – sure, they’re just general “how’s the weather?” small-talk types of conversations, but even that makes a massive difference if you’re feeling lonely or isolated. On that note…
Talk to one new person each week – even if it’s just the person at the shop and even if it’s a brief “how has your day been?” conversation, it’s better than nothing. I make a point of smiling politely at anyone who catches my eye at the supermarket, especially older people, and as a result I’ve ended up having some brief but lovely interactions with total strangers. It takes effort, but it’s worth it. Small steps make a difference.
Community involvement – you’re likely a part of several communities: communities related to your geographical area, your hobbies and passions, your spiritual beliefs, etc. Get out, find your tribes and connect with them. Just don’t only focus on connecting with people who are exactly like you – diversity is the spice of life, so make an effort to get to know people from all walks of life.
Online forums – another way to connect with people, especially those with common interests, is using online forums, but I’m going to put a whole bunch of caveats on this. Forums like Reddit and Twitter have become breeding grounds for hatred and vile behaviour over the past few years, so while they can serve to connect you with others (especially if you’re geographically isolated), they can also be horrendous for your mental health. There are far too many cases of people ending their lives because of a social media pile-on, so if you are struggling with your mental health it’s wise to take precautions and be prepared to step back if you find yourself being attacked. Online forums are handy, but they are no substitute for genuine physical connection.
Make a point of regularly connecting with your friends and family in person (phone or video call if you must, even better in person) – nothing can replace real human contact, so while social media and group chats can be great for keeping in touch, they are only ever superficial means of connection. When we left Melbourne in 2015, I was in full time study and couldn’t afford to make trips back to see my friends and I made the mistake of relying on social media to stay in touch with people. Do you know what happened? Most of those friends would now be better described as acquaintances, because we just don’t have the same connection that we used to. It is what it is and I can’t change what has happened, but I sure as hell can learn from it and so can you! Social media is never going to be a substitute for real deep and meaningful connection with other human beings, so put down your devices and go talk to the people you love in person.
Volunteering – you can make a positive difference in the community and tackle your loneliness by volunteering your time. Work with the elderly, support a children’s sporting team, drive a van for an organisation that helps people with a disability to get around… there are many different opportunities to help others and by doing so you’ll be rewarded with a sense of purpose, a sense of giving, and a sense of connection. And, often you’ll be reminded that there are always people facing greater challenges than you are in life – which, in turn, can serve to increase your sense of gratitude and life satisfaction.
Pets – speaking of satisfaction, let’s talk about companion animals. 62% of households here in Australia have a pet (Source: AIHW, 2019), and as the proud parent of a fur baby (our cat, who is about to turn 17 and still makes me go all gooey every single day because she’s utterly adorable), I can testify to the positive effects they can have on your sense of connection, especially if you’re struggling with social isolation – bonus points for taking your pet out for walks which can help to connect with other people. Don’t just take my word for it – a 2016 survey by Petplan Australia (cited in AIHW, 2019) found that 60% of pet owners felt more socially connected as a direct result of having a pet.
What it all boils down to is this: having the motivation to tackle loneliness head-on. We all have things that happen to us, but it’s up to each of us to decide whether to let circumstances control us or to take control of our circumstances. Don’t let life just happen to you – every decision you make is a decision that can shape your life, so make choices that serve to improve your mental health and wellbeing.
Summary and three main points to consider
To summarise: loneliness can happen to anyone, regardless of age or where you live, and it can feel isolating and confronting and miserable – but there are plenty of things that you can do to feel more connected with other people. Make a conscious effort to understand what things you can do to connect with people and minimise your loneliness, and consider how you can help other people to feel a little less lonely as well.
To wrap up, here are my three main points for you to consider:
- Loneliness can affect anybody and it can have negative consequences for your mental and physical health
- There are lots of different reasons that you might be experiencing loneliness and it can fluctuate depending on what’s happening in your life or because of more serious factors like mental illness, which might require you to seek some professional help
- You can make choices to do things that are likely to increase your sense of connection to others, like getting out more, getting involved in your community or even by volunteering – the choice is yours, but it does take conscious effort to turn loneliness around; nothing will change if you just stay at home on your own or don’t interact with other people, so make an effort
As always, I’m going to close out with a quote I’d like to encourage you to reflect on and consider what it means for you. This week’s quote is an anonymous one, and it is:
“Always remember that you are not the only one who has ever felt rejected, unloved and lonely at some time. Reach out and help someone else in trouble, and you could be amazed at the changes in yourself – and your life!“Anonymous
So, that’s it for this week! For more content, go to:
- Website: Head over to www.letstalkaboutmentalhealth.com.au for more information about Let’s Talk About Mental Health and to sign up so that new posts/newsletters will land in your inbox, and you can also find past episodes on the website (click here to jump to the Episodes page)
- Podcast: You can listen to the Let’s Talk About Mental Health podcast via your preferred platform (Spotify, Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts and others) as well as an audio-only version on the LTAMH YouTube channel
- Social Media: Connect with me on social media – you can find Let’s Talk About Mental Health on Instagram, Facebook and Pinterest as @ltamhofficial (I post extra content daily)
Next episode I’ll be talking about accountability – I’ll be talking about the importance of taking accountability for your words and actions for the sake of your mental health and wellbeing, and how accountability and self-improvement go hand-in-hand. I hope you’ll join me for that episode, which will be released on Monday morning Australian time. On Friday I’ll be sending out the next issue of the Mental Health Talk newsletter, which is a weekly round-up of articles and resources focused on good mental health and wellbeing – sign up via the website to have the newsletter land in your inbox each Friday.
Until next time, look after yourself and make a conscious choice to put some positive energy out into the world – you get back what you give out! Take care and talk to you next time.
PS: If you enjoyed this week’s episode/post, please share it with someone you know. Thanks!
Let’s Talk About Mental Health.
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Let’s Talk About Mental Health. © 2020 Jeremy Godwin.