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Overcoming loneliness: How to build connections and improve wellbeing

Illustration of a lonely lady
gstudioimagen | Vecteezy

Tips & tricks by Ben East

All of us will feel lonely and experience the physical and emotional toll it can take at some point in our lives. Ben East examines why loneliness occurs, and ways in which it can be overcome.

Loneliness is a universal human experience that can affect people of all ages, genders, and backgrounds. It is a feeling of isolation, a lack of connection to others, and a sense of being disconnected from the world around you. Unfortunately, it is a feeling that many of us experience: more than 45% of adults in the UK – equating to more than 25 million people – report that they feel occasionally or often lonely.

Although feeling lonely is entirely normal, and can serve as a helpful reminder that something fundamental is missing from our lives, it is important to not let loneliness linger. If left unaddressed, its associated feelings of sadness or emptiness can draw us further into unhelpful psychological patterns and thoughts, while physically its effects are far-reaching, from affecting our energy levels and our sleep, to increasing our risk of heart disease, stroke, and dementia.

Like so many other mental health concerns, addressing loneliness can be a long and complex journey. But that isn't to say it is an impossible task – in fact, by identifying just what causes loneliness and what works for you, the long-term effects of loneliness can be avoided.

What causes loneliness?

Identifying exactly what causes loneliness is difficult. Of course, there are some obvious triggers for feeling lonely, including social isolation, loss of a loved one, moving to a new place, or a lack of social support. Other causes can be less direct, such as a chronic illness or physical disability, both of which can make it difficult to maintain social relationships.

The common thread through all of these triggers is the lack or loss of meaningful connection. This is why even those of use who aren't socially isolated, are surrounded by loved ones, and are health and able to participate in social activity – think of celebrities with millions of fans, followers, and social connections – can still feel lonely at times.

Understanding this distinction goes a long way to explaining the phenomenon we see in our social media and technology age where, despite being easier than ever before to interact with others, an increasing number of us report feeling lonely.

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What can I do to stop feeling lonely?

Before we get into how we can reduce the effects of loneliness on our lives, it's important to first distinguish that addressing loneliness does not necessarily equate to increasing our levels of happiness. Finding ways to achieve the latter can help (which is why some of the suggestions below reference improving mood) but ultimately, combatting loneliness is more about removing the sense of disconnectedness we are experiencing.

With this in mind, here are some suggestions of how you can overcome loneliness:

  • Get involved with the community – joining a club or group, volunteering in the community, and reaching out to friends and family are all ways to build and maintain social relationship, which in turn can provide a valuable sense of connection to either someone or something.

  • Exercise – studies have shown that regular physical activity can have a positive impact on mental well-being and can be an effective way to reduce feelings of loneliness. One study found that regular exercise is associated with lower levels of loneliness in older adults, while another found that people who engaged in regular physical activity reported lower levels of loneliness and higher levels of social connectedness, compared with those who were inactive. Exercise achieves this by releasing endorphins, which are chemicals in the brain that are responsible for feelings of pleasure and happiness. Endorphins are often referred to as "feel-good" chemicals because they can create a sense of well-being and euphoria.

  • Practise mindfulness – mindfulness is the practice of paying attention to the present moment, without judgement, and can help you become more aware of your thoughts, feelings, and physical sensations. Doing so can help you build a greater sense of self-awareness and emotional regulation, and reduce the negative impact of stress, anxiety, and loneliness. It's beneficial effects are proven too, with one study showing that a mindfulness-based intervention was effective in reducing feelings of loneliness in older adults, while another found that people who scored higher on measures of mindfulness reported lower levels of loneliness. Perhaps the most effective element of mindfulness in addressing loneliness is that it can help you to appreciate and find contentment in the present moment, instead of dwelling on the past or worrying about the future, which can be a powerful antidote to feelings of loneliness. Actually practicing mindfulness can be done through various techniques, such as meditation, yoga, and deep breathing exercises.

  • Take time to reflect – how you do this is up to you, although one of the most common ways is to keep a journal. Try noting down your thoughts, feelings, and experiences either when they occur or at a given time of the day (e.g. first thing in the morning or before bed). Doing this can help you gain a better understanding of what is occurring in your life and how it affects you.

Finding purpose

Perhaps the most powerful way to reduce feelings of loneliness is to find your sense of purpose. Now, this is by no means an easy feat. Finding purpose can be a difficult and often trial-and-error process, and can change throughout your life. It may not be obvious, and it may take some time and self-reflection to figure out what truly matters to you.

But doing so can do wonders for reducing loneliness. People who have a sense of purpose and meaning in their lives tend to have a more positive outlook and better psychological well-being. This could be because having a sense of purpose can provide a sense of direction and motivation, and consequently a sense of belonging and fulfilment.

One way to begin the process of finding meaning and purpose is to start exploring different activities, interests, and causes. Some people may find meaning and purpose through their work, while others may find it through their relationships, hobbies, or volunteer work. Try new things, get involved in your community, and see what resonates with you.

Another way is to reflect on the things that you value most in life. What are your core values? What is important to you? How do you want to make a difference in the world? Asking yourself these questions and reflecting on the answers can provide insight into what gives your life meaning and purpose.

Feeling lonely is normal

It's important to remember that loneliness is not a weakness, and it is not something to be ashamed of. Loneliness is a common and normal human experience, and it is something that can be addressed and overcome.

If feelings of loneliness persist for you, or you are unsure of how to go about addressing them, professional help can be an effective solution. A counsellor or therapist can provide guidance, support, and practical strategies to help you cope with loneliness and build stronger, more meaningful connections with others. They can also provide an opportunity to explore underlying issues that may contribute to feelings of loneliness, while therapy sessions can provide a safe space for individuals to talk about difficult emotions, thoughts and feelings that are hard to share with others.

Whatever route you choose to take to overcome loneliness, know that there are many ways in which you can do so, even though it might not always feel like it.


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