Loneliness & How to Deal With It
We’ve all felt lonely at one time or another. Sometimes the feeling is fleeting, quickly remedied by a phone call with a loved one or meeting up with a friend. Other times? It can take a more chronic form, feeling debilitating and impossible to shake off. And more often than not, the effects of loneliness can be deeply personal.
If you’re keen to learn more about loneliness, from the key facts and statistics, the main symptoms and effects, how to deal with loneliness or if you simply want to clear up your understanding on what loneliness actually is, read on for New Life Portugal’s in-depth guide.
What is Loneliness?
It might surprise you to hear that loneliness isn’t clinically considered a mental health problem. “Like many conditions, including anxiety and even depression, loneliness becomes a concern only when it begins to interfere with your normal daily functioning,” explains Daral Boles, counsellor here at New Life Portugal. “While loneliness is not recognized as a stand-alone mental health disorder, it is both a symptom and a contributing factor for depression, anxiety, and more.”
Psychologists have long tried to quantify feelings of loneliness. “The scale considered to be the gold standard was developed at UCLA in the 1970s and correlates the level of positive connection or support in a person’s life with the felt experience of loneliness,” Daral explains.
It’s a common misconception that only those with very little social contact are at risk of feeling lonely. In fact, as mental health charity Mind clarifies, “you may have lots of social contact, or be in a relationship or part of a family, and still feel lonely – especially if you don’t feel understood or cared for by the people around you.”
“Most of us have experienced episodic or situationally induced loneliness at some point in our lives,” Daral explains. “Think FOMO (fear of missing out) or the older expression ‘lonely in a crowd’. And while the felt experience of loneliness will be unique to each individual, empathy and imagination allow us to find the common ground in that experience.”
According to the Campaign to End Loneliness, loneliness is seen by many as one of the largest health concerns we face and can affect people of any age. They flag a multitude of alarming loneliness facts and statistics, including:
- 45% of adults in England feel occasionally, sometimes or often lonely.
- The number of over-50s experiencing loneliness is set to reach two million by 2025/6, a 49% increase in 10 years.
- Half a million older people go at least five or six days a week without seeing or speaking to anyone at all.
- Loneliness is likely to increase your risk of death by 26% (Holt-Lunstad, 2015).
- Loneliness and social isolation put individuals at greater risk of cognitive decline and dementia
- Loneliness is worse for you than obesity (Holt-Lunstad, 2010).
What Causes Loneliness?
While it can occur at any age, modern loneliness tends to be more common amongst certain groups.
“People who have experienced a major loss, like the death of someone significant or the ending of an important relationship often report loneliness as a central and sometimes overwhelming part of how they feel,” Daral reveals. “Other life transitions—good or bad– may lead to loneliness, like finishing university, making a career transition, or moving to a new city far from home.”
It isn’t always negative changes that can spark loneliness. “Ironically one of the times people can feel the most extreme loneliness is when they are making good changes, addressing long-standing patterns, habits of mind, or ways of being. Someone who is coming out of addiction or a dysfunctional relationship, for example, and learning new coping skills may find the road to recovery a lonely one,” Daral notes.
Undoubtedly, the Covid-19 pandemic and the associated social isolation has been a testing time for many, accelerating the spread of modern loneliness. “The pandemic has provided the perfect conditions for testing the theory that loneliness and lack of social contact are linked,” she says. “For many people isolated by pandemic lockdowns, the loss of even casual social interaction has led to a sharp increase in loneliness and its attendant negative emotions.”
Symptoms of Loneliness
It may be a key part of our emotional lexicon, but the sensation of loneliness can be hard to explain and it can manifest in different ways depending on the individual. However, some key signs of chronic loneliness include:
A struggle to connect
Even if you have friends, family or colleagues around you, those experiencing loneliness can struggle to engage, connect or communicate with others on a deep, intimate level. This means that even if you are having regular contact and conversations, the interaction doesn’t feel satisfying or substantial.
Sensations of isolation
You may feel irreversibly isolated, left out or disengaged, even when surrounded by other people.
A feeling of being misunderstood
As previously mentioned, loneliness can also occur when you feel the people around you don’t understand you, or aren’t willing to support or care for you in the way you want.
Burnout or feeling drained
When suffering from chronic loneliness, even small attempts to reconnect with others can feel laborious and taxing. This can cause you to feel drained or burnt out.
Furthermore, Daral points towards Quaker writer Parker J. Palmer, who cites dislocation, disillusionment, and unbidden or involuntary solitude as three of the primary afflictions at the heart of loneliness. “With chronic loneliness, fleeting emotions of isolation, disengagement and alienation settle in for the long haul, together with sadness and a lack of self-worth.”
In addition, the effects of loneliness can be equally as challenging. “The cluster of negative emotions generated by loneliness can impact physical wellbeing, increasing the risk of health complications or substance use,” Daral explains.
Can you die from loneliness? It might seem like a dark question but research suggests that loneliness is likely to increase your risk of death by 26% (Holt-Lunstad, 2015) while loneliness and social isolation are associated with an increased risk of developing coronary heart disease and stroke and high blood pressure.
Campaign to End Loneliness
If you’re dealing with signs of loneliness, the work of the aforementioned Campaign to End Loneliness is worth looking at. With a mission to research and share useful information on the subject of loneliness, the organisation has three key aims:
- To ensure people most at risk of loneliness are reached and supported
- To ensure services and activities are more effective at addressing loneliness
- To ensure a wider range of loneliness services and activities are developed
As well as campaigning for policy change and improved resources on national and local levels, the organisation also carries out extensive research into modern loneliness and its effects: who is suffering from it, how does it manifest and how can those feeling lonely be best supported?
How to Deal With Loneliness
As anyone who has admitted their loneliness and been told to ‘just put yourself out there’ can attest, just throwing yourself into social situations isn’t necessarily the answer. Below, Daral shares her advice for dealing with loneliness.
Seek meaningful relationships
“While the antidote to loneliness would seem to be other people, we aren’t talking about short, superficial encounters with a workmate or postal worker (though both of course have the potential to be rich and meaningful),” Daral warns. “Rather, the solution lies in cultivating not just relationships but meaningful ones that engender a felt sense of belonging and validation. The answer isn’t people per se, but community.”
“Evaluations consistently tell us that individuals who have participated in New Life programs feel they can truly be themselves in the New Life community. There is a sense of belonging that comes with participation in community life. We invite our guests to work against confirmation bias—that mental shortcut that uses what’s happened in the past (often negative or even traumatizing events) to predict the future. Instead, we encourage you to notice what it feels like to be seen and met, to pay attention to small acts of kindness or welcome, to look for moments of genuine connection.”
“The natural setting of New Life Portugal is itself restorative. Its quiet beauty is a container for change and a reminder of the larger context of our lives. These factors combine to create an environment in which loneliness is converted to solitude through contemplation and community.
How New Life Portugal Can Help You Deal with Loneliness
Here at New Life Portugal, our wellness retreats are structured into these key pathways: resilience, wellness, and rest and rejuvenate.
“At New Life Portugal, there is the opportunity to do both—to receive the gifts of solitude and introspection and also to experience meaningful relationships,” Daral explains. “These are cultivated through shared stories, meals, and activities, through community meetings, process groups, and ‘working meditations’ designed to calm the nervous system and expand the capacity for connection with yourself and others. The pandemic taught us the power and necessity of human interaction in the flesh, face to face. At New Life, we put that human need and capacity to work for health and healing.”
“We can’t say you won’t feel alone or even lonely at New Life, but we can say it makes a difference when you are surrounded by people who ‘get it,’ people who are on a related path towards resilience and wellbeing.”
To find out more about the wellness retreat offering here at New Life Portugal and how we can help, click here.