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The feeling of loneliness - how to overcome it

Loneliness. This aching feeling of isolation, emptiness and perhaps even the fear of being unwanted. Slowly spreading from your chest, into your body until it fills your mind. The dreading voice in your head making you wonder about how exactly you ended up feeling that way? Was it by pure choice, life circumstances, or for no reason at all? Maybe there is no right answer to this question, but the truth is everyone feels lonely from time to time, and more so it has grown into a major public health concern. You could say loneliness has become a common feeling. 

The statistics have shown; the number of adults who report feeling lonely is on the rise, with less and less people having what they describe as a best friend. Social connections, whether online or offline, are fundamental for humans.  Humans are social beings created to live with others and rely on them physically and emotionally. Parts of yourself; beliefs about yourself and the world, are and were built through your relationships. 

There is no doubt the pandemic has played a part in the increase of loneliness. Being confined at home has caused magnificent isolation as people have been unable to gather together at offices, bars, clubs, and sports. However, even before the social distancing and work-from-home order, people have been feeling lonely. Research in 2019 found most people in Britain don’t have anyone they feel they can turn to for help in their personal lives.

Being alone and being lonely are not the same thing. It has far less to do with the number of people you surround yourself with and much more with feeling unseen, disconnected, or lacking emotional closeness with others. When I talk with someone feeling lonely or worried about having enough friends, I hear them use harsh words to describe themselves, which is a very harmful way to view and judge oneself and speaks to the most significant misunderstanding of loneliness.

Loneliness can be experienced differently depending on the individual. Whether you’ve moved to a new town, experienced a bereavement, the end of a relationship, or none of these, anyone can suffer feelings of isolation and loneliness. Everyone has a unique and personal level of contact that they are comfortable with and makes them feel content. This is why some people feel fulfilled in solitude and others are left longing despite appearing to have a vast circle of friends or being in a relationship.

‘We’re social species.’ 

Psychologist John Cacioppo describes ‘the purpose of loneliness being like the purpose of hunger. Hunger takes care of your physical body, and loneliness takes care of your social body, which you also need to survive and prosper.’ Like hunger which prompts you to find food, feelings of loneliness can motivate you to seek out connections, but it is best to treat feelings of loneliness as a signal, an alert. While suggestions to join a group or other mediums as a way to meet more people may sound like an intelligent solution, sadly, they don't solve the problem.

Paradoxically, as much as it makes one feel alone, loneliness is a shared experience. Something to remember, when you feel lonely, is that your perception is altered, which changes your picture of how you interpret social situations. There is a stronger focus on rejection or rudeness, or remembering awkward situations, which increases self-doubt that accumulates in significant social avoidance. Difficult as this may sound, it is crucial to understand this means it is not an accurate representation of reality, when feeling lonely it is important to remind ourselves of that. It remains unhelpfully hard to admit when you are lonely but acknowledging loneliness enables people to take steps in moving forward.

Ultimately, is it intimacy and a sense of closeness within connections that cures loneliness. This can be scary as intimacy involves being vulnerable, which puts us at risk for possible rejection, do not forget that vulnerability includes bravery, and distancing ourselves is overall far more damaging to our mental and physical health.

Yet a further facilitating factor is how little we talk about the work of friendship these days. Many still hold on to impossible expectations of friendships, which can lead to shying away from conflict, minimizing how painful it can be when an imbalance, disappointment, or friendship is lost. Building connections that allow room to discuss such things and cultivate compassion is essential.

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