Loneliness arises as a negative feeling when your social needs aren’t being met by the quantity and quality of your current social relationships. To survive and thrive as a social being, you rely on safe, secure, rewarding social surroundings and when this isn’t happening, your ability to thrive can be overshadowed by increased feelings of vulnerability. This may take a toll on both your body and your mind.2
Solitude, while sometimes feared as a stepping stone to loneliness, is not always bad, in fact, it can even be restorative or advantageous in other ways.3 Valuing solitude is therefore important and time spent alone can be treasured in a very healthy way.
“Being alone also gives a chance to reflect, evaluate and realign our life so that it starts heading in a direction that is driven by ourselves. So often a lot of personal growth happens in our alone time", says Health & Community Psychologist, Marny Lishman
The Black Dog Institute notes that for some, loneliness may be temporary while for others, it may be more long-term. This is due to the subjective nature of loneliness and means that you can live a relatively solitary life and not feel lonely while someone else may lead a seemingly rich social life and feel quite the opposite.2
It’s important to remember that loneliness is not a sign of weakness, and it doesn’t only occur in people who are physically isolated or who are elderly. You can have many people around you and still feel lonely.2
A brief history of loneliness
First, some history. In the 16th and 17th centuries, loneliness seems to have been defined as ‘far from neighbours’ 4 and spoke to the danger of being too far from other people and the protection they afforded should you encounter someone or something that might harm you.
In the 21st century, with most people residing in cities and in close proximity to their neighbours, loneliness can take on a new form. You don’t need to worry about being set upon by a random wild animal when you pop out for groceries on High Street. But while your 17th century ancestors needed only to leave the wilderness and return to society to prevent their version of loneliness, addressing modern loneliness is somewhat more complex.
The health rebound of loneliness
An estimated 1 in 3 (33%) Australians reported an episode of loneliness between 2001 and 2009, and in surveys undertaken since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, just over half (54%) of respondents reported that they felt more lonely since the start of the pandemic (2020).1
While it’s hard to believe that loneliness can contribute to health problems, it has been linked to conditions such as:
- heart disease
- metabolic disorders
- alzheimer’s disease
- psychological issues like stress, depression, and anxiety.5
With so many complex health implications, addressing and alleviating your loneliness could be a positive thing you do for your physical, mental, and social health.
What steps can I take to feel more connected (and less lonely)?
Whether you are already feeling lonely, or just want to take pre-emptive measures, addressing these feelings and prioritising social connectedness is a worthwhile endeavour. We asked Psychologist, Marny Lishman to walk us through some steps to feel safe and enthusiastic about prioritising social connection.
- Make a plan
You may find it helps to approach connection as you would any important project: with a plan. Map out what feels unsatisfactory in your current situation, what your goals are, and possible steps you can take to get there. Make time for conversations and catchups, and treat them as a priority.
- Consider your relationship with social media
It’s easy to get caught up in social media when you are lonely. As wonderful as it is as a distraction as well as a chance to feel connected to others. We often overuse it and unhelpfully compare ourselves to others. A healthy use of social media is recommended, and always be mindfully aware that people only show the snapshots of their life, not their 24/7 video reel!
- Try a new way of connecting with people
There are many community resources, programs, and groups available where you can meet people who share your interests. Your local council and library are good sources of information, as well as online platforms like Facebook events and Meetup.com.
Walking groups come with the added benefit of exercise, and if you try something like volunteering, you can make a meaningful contribution and establish a sense of purpose while interacting with others. Making sure you spend time doing activities that you love matters (and often, it’s a bonus is that you might meet people with the same values).
- Improve the quality of your social connections
Reducing loneliness is not just about surrounding yourself with as many people as possible; the connections should be meaningful and positive2. You can strengthen the connections you already have by making more time for regular conversations6and improving your communication skills. Preparing talking points, actively listening, and learning to relax9 can help you have better conversations that lead to more satisfying connections.
- Reduce the loneliness in being alone
You don’t always have to be with people to combat loneliness, and it’s important to work on loving your alone time as well. Engaging in meaningful activities—whether they be sporting, creative, or intellectual—and achieving a state of ‘flow’ can reduce loneliness9 and improve mental wellbeing.
- Tap into resources
There are extensive resources available for understanding and alleviating loneliness, including tip sheets, informative articles, webinars, podcasts, TED talks, and books.
Some health benefits of social connection to connect with
- Simply shaking hands or giving a high-five is enough to release oxytocin.8
- Social connection strengthens your immune system.7
- Studies show those who feel socially connected have higher self-esteem, greater empathy for others, are more trusting and cooperative.7
- Social ties affect not only your personal health, but also extend to broader society. People who spend more time with each other forge happy, productive communities.10
When to get help
Sometimes, taking the steps to better connections may seem overwhelming or even impossible. If your loneliness is having detrimental effects on your life and feels difficult to tackle, know that there is help available. Your GP can help you connect to the best services and resources for your situation, so you can start creating a happier, healthier, more socially connected, and fulfilling life.
Urgent support links and phone lines
24 hours, 7 days
- Lifeline: 13 11 14
- Suicide Call Back Service: 1300 659 467
- Beyond Blue: 1300 224 636
- MensLine Australia: 1300 789 978
- Kids Helpline: 1800 551 800
- Headspace: 1800 650 890
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This article contains general information only and does not take into account the health, personal situation or needs of any person. In conjunction with your GP or treating health care professional, please consider whether the information is suitable for you and your personal circumstances.