The loneliness epidemic has reached tragic proportions during the past 15 months of lockdowns and restrictions, but it’s an issue that has been brewing for quite some time.
But most importantly, it’s got people asking, what can we do to reduce loneliness?
How common is loneliness?
The short answer? Very common. More common than you probably expect.
The Office for National Statistics found that 45% of people in the UK sometimes felt lonely during lockdown. Before Covid-19, the British Red Cross found that some 1 in 5 people felt lonely often or all of the time.
In 2015, over 1.1 million older people reported feeling lonely in the UK, and according to Age UK, this is forecast to exceed 2 million this year.
These stats are reflected throughout the world. Our World In Data shows how trends in loneliness and social isolation are increasing, not just in the UK and Europe but across every continent.
In 2018, the BBC conducted the BBC Loneliness Experiment, which revealed the shocking prevalence of loneliness. One of its most surprising findings was that 16 to 24-year-olds were the loneliest demographic.
All in all, loneliness is staggeringly common.
Why we need to end loneliness
Loneliness was once seldom considered a genuine mental or physical health issue.
Now, scientific studies have uncovered the actual impacts of loneliness, both physical and mental.
Mentally, loneliness is intertwined with depression and anxiety and can cause sleep disorders such as insomnia. The issue with loneliness-induced depression is that it creates a vicious cycle. The lonelier we feel, the less likely we are to connect and communicate with others.
Physically, loneliness increases our stress levels, raising our blood pressure and increasing the concentration of ‘fight and flight' chemicals in the blood. This can cause inflammation within the body, hardening the arteries and straining our heart. Loneliness is linked to an increased risk of cardiovascular diseases such as stroke and heart attack and can increase the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease by 20%.
But let’s not look at loneliness entirely as science and numbers. We need to end loneliness for the good of each other - and the good of the species.
“Treating loneliness is our collective responsibility.” - Stephanie Cacioppo, National Institute of Aging.
Strategies for tackling loneliness
We must work together to tackle loneliness.
Let’s focus on some personal strategies that we can all use as and when we feel lonely.
1. Go outside
Even when we feel like we can’t access other people, we can still often access nature.
The positive impacts of spending time outside have been closely studied for hundreds of years.
Spend as much time in the sun as you can to boost your mood. If you miss the sun in winter, then consider investing in a SAD lamp.
The many benefits of spending time amongst nature include lowering blood pressure and inflammation, boosting the chemicals linked to happiness, increasing cognitive ability, strengthening our immune system and reducing stress and anxiety.
Sir David Attenborough provides this powerful quote to exemplify the healing power of nature;
"It seems to me that the natural world is the greatest source of excitement; the greatest source of visual beauty; the greatest source of intellectual interest. It is the greatest source of so much in life that makes life worth living."
It might just be a simple reflection on the interconnectedness of all life - the beauty contained in nature - that helps soothe your feelings of loneliness.
2. Try meditation
Meditation is no longer pseudoscience. A recent study found that daily meditation of around 15 to 20 minutes had a profound impact on loneliness. Participants not only felt less lonely, but their bodies physically showed signs of lower stress and inflammation.
The trickiest thing about meditation is that it seemingly has a high ‘barrier to entry’ - people think it’s pretty hard to get into. Mindful has an excellent guide on meditation for beginners.
The basic process is:
- Find yourself a comfortable position. After you stop reading these 3 points, you’re going to let this article float away from you, and instead, you’ll concentrate only on your natural inhalation and exhalation of breath.
- Think about your breathing; feel the oxygen move into your mouth, down into your lungs and chest. Think about how nourishing it is - how miraculous it is to be, and to feel, alive.
- Continue to meditate on the sensation of breathing for around 2 minutes. Inhale deeply, expanding your belly as you fill your lungs with air.
Meditation takes practice. It’s something I’ve tried myself on many occasions with varying degrees of success.
Looking back now, I feel like meditation did help me get through some challenging times, even if I didn’t realise that it was helping at the time. If you find meditation challenging - or just think, “I’m just bad at this” (like I did) - then try and trust in the process and stick with it.
3. Use healthy distractions
Distractions are a potent remedy for loneliness. Humans are often at their happiest when they’re engaged in a task. The challenge is to introduce new tasks and activities into your life that aren’t monotonous or boring.
If you’re a puzzle enthusiast but find yourself bored by the standard back-of-the-paper crosswords and sudoku, then it might be time to invest in something new. There are near-endless puzzle games available online.
4. Change your relationship with social media
This depends on your current relationship with social media. The links between social media and loneliness are well-established amongst younger generations. Social media can induce feelings of isolation and FOMO - fear of missing out, which intensifies loneliness.
But, for older adults, it’s a different story.
This study showed how social media engagement for older adults increased their feelings of social support. This measurably lowered loneliness. Social media is a very promising tool for older people, helping them get in touch with friends and family from around the world.
There are also many Facebook groups dedicated to people experiencing loneliness. This one has over 60,000 members and is increasing by some 3,000 every week. There are currently over 60 posts a day from people based all around the world.
There are thousands of Facebook groups if you want to connect with others with the same interests as you, whether arts and crafts, writing, music or anything else. Use this link to head to your Facebook group area and use the search form at the top to find groups to join.
As always, though, social media is a double-edged sword. It needs to be balanced with genuine communication and real-life interactions, which older people especially value.
5. Foster your creative side
Artists, writers, and other creative individuals have long written about their tendency to be lonely and how they deal with it.
Virginia Woolf in A Writer’s Diary writes about her lonely experience as a writer and how this fuelled her creative genius.
Fostering your creative side can distract you from your loneliness whilst channelling your mind towards something constructive.
Engaging in creative activities provides you with opportunities to go out and see other people, whether it’s at arts and crafts classes or groups, craft fairs, writing or reading groups. You’ll find these types of events and clubs are full of like-minded individuals.
Volunteering is a powerful strategy for tackling loneliness. You can do this locally in the UK or even abroad.
With Age UK, you can volunteer as a befriender or digital buddy. This puts you in direct contact with others who are lonely. You can mutually help each other with loneliness, which can even lead to long-lasting friendships.
GVI has a selection of volunteering programmes designed specifically for older adults. Their programmes cover everything from wildlife conservation to public health volunteering, education and women’s empowerment volunteering.
Whilst this might seem like a bold step into the unknown, the shakeup could help you break the vicious cycle of loneliness and turn that back into a positive form of independence.
7. Focus on healthy living
Since loneliness is linked to several mental and physical health problems and effects, focussing on living a healthy life can boost your mood and alleviate some of the symptoms of loneliness.
Both diet and exercise affect our mood. Eating plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables, drinking herbal tea and avoiding over-gorging on sugary and fatty foods can substantially boost our spirits.
Healthline recommends the following foods to boost our mood:
- Beans and lentils
- Nuts and seeds
- Fermented foods
- Dark chocolate
- Fatty fish
Exercise is another superb way to boost your mood and general health. Just 15 to 30 minutes of light exercise a day can stimulate endorphins in the blood, raising our spirits and bolstering our motivation.
Joining exercise classes is also a great way to meet people. There are many classes designed for older individuals ranging from Zumba to Jazzercise.
8. Ask for help
Finally, if you feel that you want or need to talk to someone about loneliness, do not be afraid to do just that.
Sharing your feelings with friends and family should be the first port-of-call. Your relatives might be able to ring you more often, help you set up and use social media and visit more regularly.
In terms of professional help, your GP will be aware of the buzz around loneliness, so if you need help with loneliness specifically or any other mental health issue, then do not be afraid to contact them.
Your GP will be best placed to assist you with local charities and community initiatives.
Alternatively, you can search for services in your local area by visiting Age UK here.
There are many mental health charity helplines listed on the NHS website here. CALM and Mind are both appropriate for anyone feeling lonely.
The charity Mind has provided this comprehensive list of contacts for loneliness here. These can also help you organise home visits and befriending services.
How to reduce loneliness
These eight tips provide a solid starting point for tackling loneliness.
For more tips, please read our guide on seven ways to deal with loneliness.
Remember, you’re never alone if you feel lonely. By taking small steps day by day, we can break out of our lonely feelings and get back to feeling connected to the world around us.