Loneliness is a public health issue that was causing many people pain long before the coronavirus pandemic - with 45% of adults in England feeling lonely occasionally, sometimes and often, according to the Campaign to End Loneliness.
It’s a problem that, for some, has been perpetuated by the events of 2020. A study by the Mental Health Foundation found that during the spring lockdown, “social distancing left millions more people in the UK feeling isolated.”
As we approach winter, when shorter, darker days and more time spent indoors can impact people’s mental health negatively, it’s vitally important that we feel able to speak out about feelings of loneliness. This year, the winter period will have the additional challenge of restrictions put in place to stop the spread of coronavirus, which could mean families and friends are kept apart and people living alone will have less human contact.
Here, a GP, a counsellor and psychotherapist share their advice for dealing with loneliness and separation from loved ones this winter and in the lead up to Christmas.
If you are feeling lonely, know that’s totally normal
“It’s a very natural feeling so don’t worry if you’re feeling that way. It is hard, when we can’t connect,” reassured Dr Farzana Hussain, GP at The Project Surgery.
Joanne Hipplewith, a family and systemic psychotherapist, thinks it’s important that people try to be kind to themselves and remember they’re not alone in feeling alone.
“People should try to accept they’re not the only ones going through this. Everyone’s going through it in different ways, but since March it’s been a period of uncertainty, so they’re not alone in that,” she said.
“The thing is to not be hard on ourselves – we’ve had this environmental thing happen to us and it’s perturbed us all. I’m not saying everyone’s gone through the same thing to the same degree but there’s some kind of acknowledgement that actually, what’s happening is new to us all.”
Christmas could be hard this year
Christmas is, for many people, a time to be with loved ones, so it’s understandable that some are already concerned about being separated during December. It’s a problem that many people in the UK have already had to deal with, for example when regional restrictions were brought into force shortly before Eid celebrations were due to happen in July.
“I think it is particularly hard, and over summer, that was very hard for me personally,” Dr Farzana said.
“At Christmas, we’re wanting to be around our family and loved ones, snuggled around the fire. It’s a time when perhaps we’d see extended family. It is going to be difficult to not be a part of that. But I think the positive is, we can do things together using technology. One of the things that I did for Eid, with some friends, was to eat at the same time. Although we might not all have Christmas dinner in the same room, we could all still make something then if you’re lucky enough to have a smart phone, go on FaceTime. It’s doing the things you would have done if you were in the same room, but adapting," she added.
“I think it really will be hard due to a combination of it being winter when naturally people can suffer from seasonal affective disorder (SAD) and the changing of the clocks so it’s darker and colder. That increases people's depression and anxiety anyway,” said Holly Roberts, Relate counsellor.
Holly advised putting plans in place ahead of the coldest, darkest, festive months.
“I think it's perhaps the time to almost pre-empt these anxieties and do something about it now. So maybe it's talking to other family members now and working out alternative ways of being able to stay in contact, whether that’s a once a week meet up or even five minutes over the garden fence,” she said.
“Having something that you know is going to happen really helps that feeling of hopelessness. It's not so hopeless because you put things in place and know that it won't be as bad as you think it's going to be. I think having those conversations now to pre-empt the difficulties that people might come across will probably be really helpful.”
Getting into the habit of connecting with others regularly is a good idea, too, according to Holly.
“For people that feel a bit anxious about how the day is going to be an extremely long one, that idea of having structure gives them something to anchor their day by. It's the same with having breakfast, lunch and dinner at the same time, that helps to give routine, a sense of familiarity, and secureness.
“So I really think diarising those kind of things [phone or video calls] can help from that point of view, but also to help the people that might not be struggling so much with feeling lonely, to make sure that they also don't forget.”
Use technology to facilitate connection
“People can increase phone or Zoom contact and help their loved ones who are experiencing loneliness to feel more included in their lives - that can be done in a variety of ways. Technology is really helpful,” Joanne said.
“I think it really does make a big difference. It’s those small things, a bit of a nudge that makes you realise there is somebody out there who cares about you. Even if it’s just a quick phone call to wish someone Happy Christmas and ask what presents they got,” Holly said.
“Maybe sending Christmas cards might make a resurgence as we realise the importance of the written word and how evocative that can be in terms of expressing our emotions and our love for other people. It’s those small acts, that can really make a big difference and can really change how you feel in that sense of isolation,” she added.
As well as simple phone calls to chat about daily life, using technology to facilitate activities is a good way to keep connections going.
“Maybe it’s having a book club and catching up to talk about books, so it doesn’t feel so forced. Or some kind of activity like watching TV, playing Scrabble on Facebook, or even just a WhatsApp conversation sharing funny pictures with each other or talking about what you ate today. For vulnerable people that are isolated and alone, they can maybe feel like they’re a burden to somebody else and it can help them feel like less of a burden if it’s something you’re both enjoying,” Holly advised.
“It’s about the little things that can make someone feel thought about and present,” Joanne said.
Reach out for help if you need it
We will all experience feelings of loneliness at some point in our lives, but it’s important to understand when it’s becoming more than just a bad day and you might need someone to help you work through your problems.
“If you’re feeling very upset, down and crying every day for about two weeks, I think that’s more than loneliness. If you’re feeling that you’re just not wanting to get out of bed in the morning and you’re starting to feel more hopeless, these could be signs of depression rather than just feelings of loneliness,” Dr Farzana advised.
“If you’re not quite sure whether you’re just feeling lonely, or depressed, it doesn’t matter, contact us anyway. There’s no rule that you have to fall into depression before you go to your GP. That’s exactly what we are here for and we’ve got lots of people who can help you.
“Where I work, we have brilliant COVID Champions, these are volunteers from the community. We have a talking service. You don’t have to be depressed to use those. If you’re really not sure where to start, your GP would be able to tell you about community services in your area. Then there are the charities, like Age UK if you’re in that bracket. If you’re finding it too hard to navigate, that’s what we’re here for,” she said.
Four ways to feel connected with others
- Use technology to connect, if you can. “Think about creative ways that we’ve already found to connect. We know that things like FaceTime and video calling has really taken off,” said Dr Farzana.
- Remember you’re not alone. “Perhaps people will have an extra sense of resilience because they’ve been through this once before. And perhaps also knowing that everyone else in the country will maybe have to go through something similar, they might feel almost connected to others in their isolation,” said Holly.
- Little things show you care. “Rather than going out and buying Christmas presents, you could make some at home. I think it’s about finding different ways that you can engage with people to show that they mean something to you,” said Joanne.
- Ask for help if you need it. “If you don’t feel you have loved ones, you can contact your GP and we can help connect you with others,” said Dr Farzana.
Loneliness can be a hard emotion to deal with, and talking through your feelings with a therapist could be a helpful option.
“We would always recommend people get help or speak to somebody if they don’t have friends that they feel comfortable talking about with,” Holly said.
“Connecting with any kind of therapy, whether that’s self-help therapy on the internet, or speaking to somebody and trying to work through those issues, is really helpful for people to do, because then that gives them another perspective. I think that outsider perspective might help to give a better view as to why that loneliness feels so hard. What is it about the loneliness that is so difficult? It’s possibly harder to ask that question on your own and kinder to do it in a supportive way with someone else.”
Try to see the positives in the situation
Now could be a time to pick up new hobbies that make you feel uplifted, while also employing techniques you used during the spring lockdown.
“When we went into lockdown it was spring, and going out might have been easier. The weather’s getting worse, so it might be less easy to do now. So, it might be an opportunity to find new hobbies – things people have thought about before but never done,” Joanne advised.
“I think it’s important to try and see it as an opportunity. It’s hard, but we still have opportunities.
“The pandemic is affecting everyone, whether you’ve actually caught COVID, whether you’ve lost people to it, or whether you’ve just experienced life very differently since COVID struck. No one’s feelings are greater than anybody else’s. We’ve all got to acknowledge how we’re feeling and also seek help if we need to. Also, we need to think about what we can do creatively as family units, distant relatives, whatever it might be, to create a better sense of connection if that’s what people are looking for.”
“Let’s be easy on ourselves,” Dr Farzana added. “It probably won’t be the winter we all hoped for but let’s try to get through it and keep connections going in different ways.”
You can find a therapist through the Institute of Family Therapy and Relate. Information about choosing a therapist can be accessed through AFT. You can also get online information and support regarding mental health on the NHS website as well as through charities like Mind and Age UK. Samaritans' helpline can be contacted for free at any time of day on 116 123 and you can also email the charity at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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