by Dr Radha Modgil
Why do we find it so difficult to say that we feel lonely? It is, after all, a feeling that all of us have from time to time, and sometimes for a prolonged period of time. And yet it can be so hard to open up and tell someone how we are feeling.
Research has shown that before the Covid-19 pandemic one in five people reported being often or always lonely, and 41% of UK adults report feeling lonelier since lockdown.
What is loneliness?
It’s the feeling that we experience when the amount or nature of social interactions in our lives doesn't feel right. It may feel mild or intense. It may come and go, or it can become chronic. It may be triggered by different life events like bereavement or illness.
Chronic loneliness can have a serious impact on our health. Research suggests that it can be as bad for our physical health as smoking 10-15 cigarettes a day. It can also contribute to depression or anxiety, among other things.
Social connection: the health benefits
As a GP and doctor, I see lots of people who are lonely. And I know the benefits of community and connection for health and wellbeing.
We are made aware of the benefits of medication for our health - but what we don’t often speak about is just how good connecting to others is for our not only our mental and emotional health, but also for our physical health.
As humans we are social creatures, and we need to feel connected to other people in our lives. Connection is not just about having people physically around us, it is the feeling we get when we feel valued and heard and listened to. And when we feel seen properly for who we are and what we are about.
How to feel a sense of connection
One way of finding a sense of connection is by doing activities and hobbies with other people. Doing things we enjoy - and doing them with people who validate us - makes us feel good and feel like we’re part of something with a purpose.
It can make a huge difference to know that someone will miss us if we don’t turn up to that activity, or that someone who will celebrate our achievements and progress.
We never know who might be feeling lonely, but we all know that we have felt that way too. By connecting with others, we not only help ourselves but we support others too.
Five tips if you're feeling lonely
1. Realise you are not alone in feeling this way.
There is a stigma associated with speaking up and telling someone we feel lonely. We may feel ashamed or embarrassed. But telling someone can help you feel better, get the right support and protect your health too.
2. Think about why you might feel lonely.
Is it the number of people around you or the quality of those relationships? Have you got a health condition that means it is difficult for you to get out and about? Have you become bereaved and feel isolated? Once we understand why, it can be easier to do something about it.
3. When do you feel lonely?
There might be a particular time of the day or night, or maybe an anniversary that makes us feel even lonelier. Can you reach out to people you know to get their support at this time, or keep busy, or get out and try something new to take your mind away and meet new people?
4. Know that connecting with people is a habit that we can get back into.
Our confidence in meeting new people is a bit like a muscle that we can make stronger the more we do it. Take small steps and go slowly to start getting out and meeting people. You will soon realise your confidence grows quickly.
5. Try social prescribing.
Social prescribing is a supported way of finding groups and activities in your area that can help you feel less lonely. It’s all based on your interests and circumstances, and on what matters to you.
You can ask your GP practice to refer you to a Social Prescribing Link Worker, who can spend time with you working out what matters to you and what you may need, and then help you find the right support.