If you're feeling lonely, you're not alone - and we've got an expert-informed plan to help

·6-min read

Pandemic-era trends are interesting things aren’t they? Some have bedded into our lives and daily routines (working from home in gym leggings; trying to micro-manage stress via a nerdy skincare routine) while others were rejected quicker than your vinegar-y homemade kombucha.

Invariably, it’s some of those more maladaptive responses – be they thoughts, feelings or actual behaviours - that have overstayed their welcome.

One of these is loneliness. Defined as an unpleasant emotional response to perceived isolation, and often associated with an unwanted lack of connection and intimacy, you don’t need a psychology qualification to grasp why its incidence ballooned during the pandemic.

It was in those strung out, darkening days of November 2020 that team Women’s Health polled over 2,000 women and found that 79% were more lonely than they had been before the first lockdown. You know, back when ‘coronavirus’ was just some alien word in a news report that you’d quickly skip over during your morning scroll.

And now, 18 months on from our findings - and with most of our lives once again playing out beyond the four walls of our homes - that pandemic-era loneliness is still hanging around. As unwelcome the six-degrees-of-separation party guest who kipped on the sofa and hangs around optimistically for eggs on toast the next morning.

Data from Samaritans - a mental health helpline often used by those struggling with suicidal thoughts - shows mentions of loneliness in their calls have increased by more than 22% in the two years since the pandemic started.

In this period, the charity’s data shows, 11% more women and female-identified callers used their services than men. And, two years on, loneliness remains the third most common issue people call the charity’s listening volunteers to discuss.

How loneliness manifests in your mind and body

That loneliness is playing an increasing part in people getting to a desperate or low place with their mental health is obviously sobering.

Indeed, in 2020 the US Surgeon General Vivek Murphy framed loneliness as a public health crisis. One that often underpins myriad - often lethal - health problems such as drug addiction, depression and suicide.

But the health consequences of loneliness aren’t always so obviously tragic. Feeling lonely for an extended period of time can sabotage your health in ways that are both corrosive and insidious.

An oft-referenced 2015 study published in journal Perspectives on Psychological Science found the impact of loneliness on a person’s health to be comparable to that wreaked by smoking 15 cigarettes a day and having an alcohol dependency.

And just last week, a new study of 15,000 adults from the University of Exeter found that those who reported experiencing loneliness often were ‘significantly more likely to encounter unemployment’.

Why psychologists want you to listen to your loneliness

Given what an uncomfortable, unwelcome - and often shameful - experience feeling lonely can be, it makes sense why so many of us would rather shove that emotion right down and not engage with it.

But here’s the thing. If loneliness is what you experience when you perceive a gap between the social connections you want and the ones you actually experience, then that sting of loneliness can be the jolt you need to take action; a psychological cue to connect in order to remedy this social pain.

This was the premise of The Loneliness Remedy, our winter 2020 mental health campaign, rooted in the latest research on the significance of social connection - and is just as relevant today.

Why it's time to start prioritising your 'social nutrition'

Much as you stack greens into a morning smoothie, bust out a midday workout and sometimes pour out a bath instead of a gin and tonic for the sake of your health, it's also vital that you make space for cultivating connection.

The simplest way to do this, by our measure, is to think about ensuring you get your 'other five a day' – that is five 'socially nutritious' interactions, every 24 hours.

In doing so, you feed your 'social biome' – a metaphor coined by Jeffrey Hall, Professor of Communication Studies at the University of Kansas, to describe the medley of contact we have with others.

Just like how your gut microbiome benefits from diverse plant foods and top-ups of fermented stuff – we see you, 'booch – so your social biome thrives when nurtured with an abundance of meaningful connections.

Think: a deep chat with your oldest mate about how you're feeling, a playful conversation with a colleague and checking in on an older family member, to show that you care.

Of course, some people have wider social circles than others, and this might not sound like an easy thing to do. If you do want to make new connections, then read up on this expert advice from a therapist.

So. What might your 'other five-a-day' look like, in practice? First off, think about the below.

Your mode of communication matters

There is a distinction between the ways that you connect. Having a phone call, for example, is far more 'socially nutritious' than commenting beneath someone's latest Instagram grid post or firing off a WhatsApp in a group chat.

‘The gold standard is always meeting face to face, followed by a phone call,’ Prof Hall previously told WH.

'Video isn’t actually all that fulfilling. Because you expend more energy in setting it up and keeping it going, it isn’t as easy as calling someone for a chat.’ After this is texting and instant messaging and, last, comes social media.

Prioritise your core people

‘The interactions that will sustain you the most will be from the people you are closest to,’ Hall explains. ‘I call this your “first 15”. Take the time to identify who those people are, then actively allocate time to nurture your emotional connection with them.’

This is extra important during a stressful time, when you want to make sure that you’re spending your limited reserves of social energy efficiently; on interactions that you know will truly nourish you.

Choose nourishing social meals over junk food

Even though going on social media allows you to consume lots of information about people, Professor Hall says it doesn’t provide the depth of connection that people need to feel really socially nourished.

'And research shows that when we have that motivation to interact decreased, then we’re less likely to turn to the more in-depth conversations, because we’ve already used up all our energy scrolling through our social feeds for an hour,' explains Prof Hall.

Plan your social life

‘More than ever, we have to build intentional social routines, like you do around work, exercising and what you eat. That includes fostering our closest relationships through routine and generally we don’t do that.'

'Diarise catch ups with your closest relationships so there’s a solid foundation of connection. And then when you feel that pang of loneliness, treat it as what it is: a cue to connect.’

Creating your 'five-a-day' plan

This means that your prep for a subsequent day might look like this:

  1. Longing for your next group hang? Drop an idea on the group chat.

  2. Pre-book an evening phone call with a close pal or family member

  3. Coordinate lunch plans with a colleague so you can actually catch up

  4. Thinking about a mate? Reach out directly, rather than on a WhatsApp group.

  5. Promise yourself that if someone comes to deliver a parcel, smile warmly, say 'thank you' and ask how their day is going. Every little really does help.

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