Social disconnection and isolation have been a terrible consequence of the global pandemic, with many reporting a rise in depression and anxiety as a result. But loneliness is not a new problem. Many people live their lives at a distance from loved ones, physically and emotionally isolated from other people. As social beings, we need contact with others for good mental health and wellbeing. So, we welcome the focus of this year’s Mental Health Awareness Week on overcoming loneliness.
Why overcoming loneliness is important
Nobody can have escaped the feelings of stress and threat posed by the pandemic. It has affected us all. Perhaps you have experienced extended periods of isolation through the various lockdowns. Or maybe you became disconnected from friends or family who live further afield. Perhaps you have felt isolated from colleagues while working from home.
Feeling disconnected from our support networks is emotionally painful. It makes it harder for us to calm our stress response and find ways of coping. As a result, we can more easily become overwhelmed by fear, anxiety and distress. The longer this goes on, the easier it is to spiral down. We may become overfocused on the negative, hypervigilant for threat, feel out of control and hopeless.
Our family and friends are usually the first place we turn when we feel like this. Sharing our worries and concerns with someone we trust, helps to calm our stress response, build positive emotions and find solutions. Not being able to turn to those people for support during the pandemic, when we needed them most, added an extra layer of stress.
Strong bonds with other people are central to our resilience, creating a sense of belonging and sharing. We feel we are not alone, that we have each other’s backs, and this strengthens us to face challenges which might ordinarily floor us.
And when we connect, we experience a rise in oxytocin, a hormone which is linked to feelings of safety and relaxation. We experience contentment and hope, and this fuels optimism, allowing us to find ways to adapt and improve together.
In line with the directive of this year’s Mental Health Awareness Week, we encourage you to join the campaign to overcome loneliness. How can you connect with others who may be feeling isolated or alone? And when you experience loneliness, how can you overcome your own barriers to connection?
Loneliness can sometimes be difficult to spot. It is an experience that brings stigma and shame and is therefore not often talked about. Taking time to actively check in with someone you haven’t heard from in a while is a first step to connection.
And remember we can feel lonely in a crowd. Checking in with people in your community or at work that you may see regularly or with whom you have frequent online communication is also important.
Talk openly about the links between loneliness and poor mental health, particularly in the workplace. This can help put connection on the agenda and reduce stigma.
Encourage discussion about the impact on relationships of changes at work, such as working from home and hybrid working. This will open the conversation and allow you to talk together about ways you can stay connected despite the physical separation.
If you are unsure where to start, check out the advice and information provided by Mental Health UK.
Taking care of yourself
When changes happen in our lives, we can find ourselves disconnected from other people. Perhaps we have moved house, changed our working pattern, become a parent, or started a new job. At these times we need to make conscious efforts to maintain our connections with others.
If you feel you are losing touch with other people, it can help to schedule social activities. Try making a regular time to meet with friends or family. Don’t wait for them to arrange it. Share the responsibility by agreeing to make a regular habit of checking in with each other.
Try finding novel ways to connect with others. For example, joining a new in-person exercise class, a local community group, or finding others who share an interest, hobby or cause.
After a period of isolation, it can feel strange to be connecting with others again. You may feel nervous or anxious. You may feel you won’t know what to say or worry you will say the wrong thing. Try rebuilding your confidence gradually with people you would normally feel most comfortable with.
Loneliness can trigger low mood. But low mood and depression can also contribute to social withdrawal, which leads to loneliness. It is a vicious circle, which you can take action to prevent if you recognise it early. You can find out more by reading our blog on how to recognise and overcome depression.
To find out more about improving mental health and wellbeing, and growing connections within the workplace get in touch.
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