Why a holistic approach is needed to address the loneliness epidemic
The Lockdowns raised our collective awareness of loneliness and social isolation. Constrained to our homes, the absence of our nearest and dearest was jarring and forced many of us to get creative. With dinner parties, quizzes and film clubs transferred online. Yet, we also felt the absence of other less obvious connections. We missed trips to the coffee machine with work pals, bantering with our favourite barista and the familiar faces at the gym. The Lockdowns catapulted Loneliness into the public consciousness. However, the public health crisis associated with Loneliness has been brewing for many years. Prior to the Covid 19 pandemic, research from the Red Cross indicated that 1 in 5 people in the UK reported feeling often or always lonely.
Loneliness is a subjective, unwelcome feeling of lack or loss of companionship, it stems from a perceived mismatch between the quantity and quality of the social relationships we have, and those we want. Loneliness is a natural emotion, something we all encounter and is usually temporary. Increasingly, research indicates we should treat loneliness as an early warning system, like thirst or hunger to seek out what we’re lacking: connection. However, deeply rooted stigma and the cognitive impacts of loneliness on our brains can make it difficult to take the action needed.
Stigma means we often view loneliness as a personal failure, blaming our presumed lack of social skills or character flaws. Our brains are also deeply unhelpful to the situation! Loneliness can trigger hypervigilance for social threats. Creating 'cognitive biases towards perceiving threats, even when they don’t exist', This can result in behavioural changes that unintentionally reinforce our experience of feeling lonely. Belief in loneliness being a result of individual failings obscures the fact that it is an incredibly multi-faceted topic. Creating a less lonely society, requires action at a personal, community and societal level. We need to get more intentional about looking after our collective social wellness!
Social Wellness refers to our ability to form and sustain meaningful relationships. A multitude of internal and external factors influence our capacity to do so. There are psychological, practical, structural barriers to overcome. Our sense of self, ability to regulate our emotions and communication skills can impact our capacity to relate to others. Equally, the physical environment, our work, belonging to marginalised groups and practical limitations like ill health can also affect us.
Taking action to explore the solutions that feel right for you when you encounter initial feelings of loneliness is fundamental. When feelings of loneliness become chronic, it can have a significant impact on our physical and mental health, and even our mortality risk . Taking a proactive approach to managing your own social wellness and being aware of how the signs of loneliness can show up in your friendship circles, can help reduce the volume of people slipping into chronic loneliness.
Social wellness is a team sport. We each have a role to play in nurturing our relationship with our selves, nurturing our circle of friends and nurturing the communities we belong to. I’ll be exploring different themes associated with social wellness in future blog posts. If you have any specific questions you’d like me to explore, leave a comment below.