As fundamentally social beings, humans have a basic need for contact and connection with other people, to access and offer support. The impact of being unable to see or help family members and friends is therefore huge.

With restrictions on our freedom tightening and the prospect of more lockdowns looming, worries about social disconnection and isolation are on the rise again. So, when loneliness strikes, what can we do to help ourselves get through?

Connection with others protects our mental health

Maintaining contact with our support network is essential when we feel under threat, as our social connections help us to cope and build positive emotions.

When we turn to loved ones for help or advice, we experience a calming of the sympathetic nervous system. This soothes the stress response and helps us to think more clearly and creatively and to problem-solve.

Connecting with others also stimulates our parasympathetic nervous system. This triggers the release of endorphins and oxytocin, leading us to feel more relaxed. We experience positive emotions such as contentment and hope. This fuels optimism and further enhances our ability to cope.

How does loneliness affect our mental health?

Research shows that loneliness is linked to a range of both physical and mental health issues, including depression, substance misuse, obesity and cancer.

Feeling disconnected from our support networks makes it harder for us to calm our stress response and find ways of coping. As a result, we can 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 further signs of threat. We can end up feeling out of control and hopeless.

As a consequence of feelings of loneliness and social isolation, our mental health can be undermined and existing mental health problems can be exacerbated.

How to manage the impact of loneliness on mental health

The key is not to give up. We can learn to manage the negative mindset and rumination that often accompany feelings of loneliness.

Recognise the downward spiral

The first step is to learn to recognise when your mood is spiralling down. You might notice changes in your:

  • Body – increased tension, churning stomach, loss of concentration or memory problems.
  • Emotions – feelings of panic, worry or hopelessness.
  • Behaviour – loss of motivation, the urge to withdraw even further from other people.
  • Thinking – negative self-talk, self-criticism or self-doubt, rumination.

Step back

When you notice these features of psychological distress, try taking a step back:

  • Calm the body through relaxation, slow rhythmic breathing or mindfulness.
  • Still the mind through distraction or writing thoughts down and setting them aside.
  • Manage negative thinking by asking yourself: is thinking this way helpful or making me feel worse? Try challenging negative thoughts by finding alternative ways of seeing the situation.

Take action

  • Shift your focus by doing something you enjoy: a hobby, taking time to relax, being in nature.
  • Make a plan, schedule activities, praise yourself for getting things done. This will help you to establish new goals and see them through.
  • Try to build a new routine to create opportunities for positive emotions such as interest or joy.
  • Connect with positive emotions by noticing what is good in the situation. Even if the only positive is that the immediate situation will eventually pass, remind yourself of what you have to be grateful for.
  • Try asking yourself ‘what is there to celebrate?’,
  • Find novel ways to connect with others: Join a new Facebook group or local community to pursue a shared interest or cause.

How to reconnect with others during the pandemic

Try scheduling regular time with friends and family. Don’t just wait for them to arrange it, share the responsibility by agreeing to make a regular habit of checking in with each other. Put it on the calendar.

Make a note of good things that have happened. Keeping a diary of three good things every day can form the basis of a more enjoyable conversation, building interest and positive emotions.

Allow some time for talk about the pandemic, but don’t let it dominate your interactions. The more you focus on the negative, the more difficult it will feel to pull yourself back.

Make a plan for an online get-together. This will start building positive emotions like excitement and interest, even before it begins.

Take time to savour the pleasurable aspects of an enjoyable experience. Whether you do this with other people or alone, these memories can generate lasting positive emotions.

As we move into this second wave, taking time now to put in place strategies for managing the challenges of lockdown and isolation will boost and maintain your wellbeing. Finding ways of staying connected with friends and family in whichever way is possible, will limit how loneliness affects your mental health so that you can stay healthy and resilient.