Updated: May 10, 2022
Mental Health Awareness Week 9-15 May
When considering what to write for a blog post on the topic of mental health, I was somewhat intimidated. Mental Health means so many things. Where do I even begin with an issue that affects every single one of us? Whether you are struggling with your own mental health, or know somebody who is, or even if you are fortunate enough never to have experienced mental illness, we all have mental health. However, as this year’s theme is loneliness, I realised it would be remiss of me not to focus on this particular issue. While loneliness or even chronic loneliness is not recognised as a specific mental health condition, there is no doubt that experiencing feelings of loneliness and isolation can have a profound effect on our mental wellbeing.
According to research by the British Red Cross, more than 9 million people suffer from loneliness in the UK. So much so that, following Jo Cox’s commission, Theresa May appointed a minister for loneliness.
In many ways, due to the rise of digital technology, we are more connected than ever – why then, is loneliness so prevalent in our society, that we need a minister to shed light on the matter?
There are many reasons why we may all, at some point in our lives, experience feelings of isolation and loneliness - including traumatic life events such as bereavement, relationship breakdown, redundancy or illness. As a survivor of mental illness, I know how isolating a condition like depression can be. You may be surrounded by well-meaning family, friends and colleagues but the very essence of a condition like depression is your mind telling you are alone even if the reality is very different. On the other hand, if you are not fortunate enough to have loved ones to support you in a crisis, this in itself can be enough to bring about and exacerbate feelings of loneliness.
During the pandemic, many of us relied on technology to stay connected – under these circumstances, technology was our friend – a God-send and a lifeline for many. Although living in an era of technology allows for seemingly effortless communication with distant loved ones, it poses a threat when social interactions are increasingly played out through screens – via platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram – meaning that, for many of us, screen time replaces the face to face contact that is required for us to establish true bonds, inadvertently creating a false sense of community and a subsequent rise in loneliness.
Being alone, with nothing to distract us, when we are forced to examine our thoughts and feelings in all their ugly reality, can feel like a terrifying prospect.
However, in order to tackle loneliness, we must attempt to connect with ourselves fully even if this means sitting with some unpleasant emotions or unpicking some complex psychological baggage. While the mental health discussion is happening all around this, there’s no doubt that stigma still exists and there is still a prevailing notion that feelings are more of a nuisance that need to be held within. Stiff upper lip. Keep calm and carry on. And other similar clichés that tell us that expressing our feelings isn’t really the done thing.
Addressing the factors that contribute to our feelings of loneliness can be challenging but there are tools and techniques that we can put in place to help us to identify these factors, such as journaling, seeking support from a qualified therapist or healthcare professional, meditation, and creating positive habits like positive affirmations or a gratitude list.
Most of us have developed the tendency to distract ourselves from unpleasant feelings or emotions. However, the more we ignore these feelings, the more they intensify and the longer they tend to persist. The problem with distraction is that it only ever provides a temporary relief and you never actually get to the source of the problem.
Self-reflection can be challenging for many of us and in the case of somebody who has experienced trauma, it is recommended to have the support of a qualified therapist or healthcare professional, but being able to sit with an emotion and give it your full attention, to connect with yourself 100% even when it feels uncomfortable, is, for our mental wellbeing, one of the most useful skills we can learn, and often the quickest and most effective way to allow that feeling or emotion to move through our body.
Embracing silence is another way that we can be more in tune with ourselves. Again, this can be tricky if you are used to a lot of background noise – a blaring TV, loud music, notifications on your phone, children playing – so start off with a realistic time limit where you engage in an activity that allows you to be in silence and to be as present as you can with everything around you and within you.
Mindful mediation may serve a similar purpose. Contrary to what some believe, the aim of meditation is not to erase all thoughts from your mind and you are not doing it wrong if you can’t get a busy mind or ‘monkey mind’ as many practitioners like to call it, to slow down; instead, try to simply be with the sensations, thoughts, and emotions that arise without trying to control or change them. Observe them as though they belong to somebody else or think of them as being like the weather – constantly changing. No feeling or emotion ever lasts forever and there is truth in the old adage, ‘this too shall pass’. Although meditation is simple, there is a reason why it is called a ‘meditation practice’. It can be tricky to begin with and requires patience. For that reason, set the bar low and start off by setting a timer for 5 minutes. Try not to berate yourself if you find your mind wondering. This is normal. It can help to focus on your breathe. Think of it as your anchor – every time your mind wanders, simply come back to the breath. It may also help to listen to a guided meditation through one of the many downloadable apps.
My personal recommendation is Calm, the #1 app for sleep and meditation which features guided meditations on areas such as reducing stress and anxiety, personal growth, gratitude, focus, work life and increasing happiness.
The process can be painful, but to be fully connect to yourself and to recognise feelings of loneliness as they arise can help us to identify the factors that might be attributing to them – from lifestyle choices to our thoughts, attitudes or limiting belief systems. Only then can we take action and move forward.
Building your social connectedness is a good start.
Social connectedness and feeling you belong are vital for mental wellbeing. In our modern, busy society, loneliness is an issue in every age range; disconnect is on the increase but, as human beings, we are not designed to be alone. We thrive in community, in connection, in giving and receiving love. Studies have shown that, when asked what single activity brings people the greatest fulfilment, the most common answer was spending time with loved ones.
By spending more time nourishing our relationships with those around us, and seeking support from friends, family and colleagues or your community, you can build you social connectedness and sense of belonging, reduce feelings of isolation and loneliness and strengthen your support networks.
If connecting with people is a challenge, connect with nature. Studies show that eco-therapy offers a range of benefits for our mental health including reduced stress, better immunity, improved mood and better sleep. A recent study even showed that taking walks in nature can increase our wellbeing, even reducing symptoms of depression, and another study showed that exposure to nature increases our sense of connectedness and can even make us more caring.
“Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle”. No matter what our capabilities, we all have something we can offer others even if it’s just a ‘Hello’ and a smile to a passing strange. Even one small act of kindness can brighten somebody else’s day. However, it’s not just the wellbeing of others that benefits from an act of kindness. Helping others can immediately change our perspective and outlook, making us feel happier, due to the so-called ‘helper’s high’. As Mahatma Gandhi wrote, “The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.”
Often, when we feel lonely or sad, our existence can seem very narrow. Volunteering, for example, takes our focus away from unhelpful, negative thoughts that are often synonymous with poor mental health. Being pushed towards a positive action – known as a behavioural intervention – can break this cycle of negativity that can lead to low mood and anxiety. Even if it’s just for an hour or two, changing your focus to something more positive can give your mind a much needed rest from negative thoughts and you might even find yourself experiencing some positive ones which can change your cycle of thoughts, emotions and actions into an upward, instead of a downward, spiral. Done repeatedly over time, this can dramatically reduce feelings of and anxiety depression.
Research shows that volunteering provides a range of benefits and is typically found to have a positive impact on mental health - for example, by enhancing social integration and engagement. In other words, volunteering can help you meet new people, make new friends and build your social connectedness.
We often resist solitude for the same reasons we run from loneliness. We fear being alone. But being alone doesn’t have to mean feeling lonely. In fact, it can mean doing what you please. No compromises. No arguing over the remote control. Being alone is often the only time we are without distractions and interruptions, where there is opportunity to truly rest and recharge. Audrey Hepburn said, “I have to be alone very often. I’d be quite happy if I spent from Saturday night until Monday morning alone in my apartment. That’s how I refuel.”
When writing this piece, I read something really rather lovely, and it’s those words I would like to share with you now:
Know that you are not alone. We are all deeply vulnerable. We are all intricately connected. May this knowledge alone open your heart and make you feel connected to all.
Written by Volunteer Emma Ramsay.
You can follow her on Instagram @a-wellness-work-in-progress