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Do you ever feel lonely?

Was it that time when you moved interstate for work and found yourself with no one to hang out with despite being surrounded by people all day?

Or when you were going through that tough time and your family and friends were either too far away or seemed too busy to help?

Loneliness. It’s a killer, it’s really bad for our mental wellbeing and it’s a growing problem.

Whether you’re a business leader, CEO, busy professional, student or a homeless person it’s estimated that one in four Australian adults are experiencing loneliness with 50% feeling lonely for at least one day and week and over 25% feeling lonely for three or more days.

We know smoking is bad for our health but so is social isolation and loneliness.

It’s not something that just afflicts the elderly, certain cultures or gender.

Of those surveyed, young adults are the loneliest (62%) compared to the over 65’s who are the least lonely (46%).

What’s causing the loneliness epidemic?

There are a number of factors but the one causing most concern is reduced social connection.

  • More people are choosing to live alone
  • More people are working remotely or from home on their own
  • More people report having fewer friends
  • More people have social interaction anxiety
  • More people are dealing with depression
  • Many people don’t know their neighbours and aren’t engaged in the local community

Michelle Lim Scientific Chair of the Australian Coalition to End Loneliness and lead author of the 2018 Australian Loneliness Report believes there is an urgent need to get serious about finding effective ways to combat the epidemic.

Because it’s costing us dearly. We don’t appear to have figures for Australia but in the UK the economic cost was calculated at 2.5 billion pounds sterling (AUD $4.5 billion) in 2017 and the situation is seen as being so serious, a Minister for Loneliness was appointed.

Loneliness is a health issue

Research has shown loneliness increases our risk of dying at an earlier age, it’s bad for our heart, our ability to sleep and results in increased levels of inflammation in the body.

Worse still, it’s contagious.

Loneliness can become the veritable pity party where participants jointly spiral down into increasing social disconnection and loneliness. A longitudinal study showed how lonely people ‘infected’ others around them, leading them towards the edge of their social circles and deepening the sense of loneliness.

Loneliness and mental health

The coexistence of loneliness and depression can make it difficult to separate the two. Neither is the direct cause of the other, but both can share common origins. Depression per se reflects how you feel, while loneliness is a reflection of how we feel about our relationships and can be accompanied by depression.

Living alone has been associated with a higher incidence of mental health problems regardless of age or sex. It’s also been shown how it’s the perception of social isolation vs connectedness that influences how people report their level of health and wellbeing. Older adults who felt isolated unsurprisingly report up to 65% more depressive symptoms irrespective of the actual level of social connection. This compares to those who feel most social connected who are 5x more likely to report they enjoy good or excellent health.

The thing is when we feel lonely we are more vulnerable and the potential is we are then at greater risk of suicidal ideation and suicide.

Ways to combat loneliness. The way forward.

1. Ask for help

As with mental illness, there can be a lot of embarrassment, shame and stigma attached to loneliness. It’s time to get better at accepting what is happening and to ask for help. Loneliness begets loneliness. It might feel awkward or stupid but speaking up is the fastest way to get the support you need, especially if there is an associated mood disorder such as anxiety or depression.

2. Social prescribing

This is where a GP or allied health provider refers a person to a community-led initiative providing a safe environment such as local men’s sheds, art classes, gardening groups, community projects for the gradual reintroduction of human connection

Every GP I know, and this was certainly true in my own practice have a number of frequent attenders whose main problem is loneliness and isolation.

3. Use technology to support you.

The beauty of our technology is that it has made it a lot easier to stay connected with friends and family online even if they’re a long way from where you are.

Scheduling a regular phone call, Skype or Zoom provides you with something to look forward to – and that makes us feel better straight away.

Find an online community group that you share a common interest in as a way to make new online friends.

4. Join a voluntary organisation

Doing something for someone else or your community is a great way to feel part of something worthwhile and meaningful.

5. Smile at strangers

Not in a creepy way, but in a way that reflects you’re acknowledging the presence of another human being. It can also make it feel easier to move to the next step of saying “Good morning” or “Hello.”  A ten-second interaction to make both parties feel good and of course the next time your paths will cross you’ve already established the first rung of connection.

6. Show some self-compassion

It’s OK to acknowledge how you feel. You might hate the thought of networking or going to some social event where you’re worried about not fitting in, not knowing what to say or saying the wrong thing.

The funny thing is when we acknowledge our nervousness about being in a social event, others may share they feel exactly the same way while simultaneously lightening the load of worry about how things might turn out. This makes it easier to relax and hey before you know it, you could be having a really good time.

Remember, there is nothing wrong with you. Loneliness can affect anyone in certain circumstances. Believing you are worthy of friendship or a relationship will boost your confidence and make you more socially attractive to others.

7. Take that first brave step

Staying stuck in the pain of loneliness won’t fix the problem. As difficult as it may feel, choosing to reach out and extend that invitation for a coffee, a walk or lunch at a café is the best start to negate the tyranny of loneliness.

We benefit so much from the joy of a rich and full social network, which is why it’s so important we all start now to combat the rising tide of social isolation and loneliness that’s leading to a loss of human connection, a negative perspective of our relationships and a greater risk of suicide.

Dr Jenny Brockis

Dr Jenny Brockis is a medical practitioner and internationally board-certified lifestyle medicine physician, workplace health and wellbeing consultant, podcaster, keynote speaker and best-selling author. Her new book 'Thriving Mind: How to Cultivate a Good Life' (Wiley) is available online and at all good bookstores.

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