Understanding loneliness and its impact

Many people are familiar with the feeling of loneliness, but how many people understand it and the impact it can have? Joanna Baker, Therapist and Psychoeducation Coordinator at the University of Derby, explores.

The Government published its first Loneliness Annual Report on 20 January 2020 and reassured us that:

‘The Minister for Civil Society will continue to lead this work and to chair the cross-government Ministerial Group on Tackling Loneliness, ensuring government commitments are delivered and built on so that far fewer people feel alone and disconnected over the next decade.’

Sadly the report doesn’t actually evidence much of a change. So what is loneliness and why do we feel it?

What is loneliness?

Loneliness can be described as a subjective experience that occurs when a person’s social relationships are perceived by that person to be less in quantity, and especially in quality, than desired.

55,000 people in an age range of 16 to 99 took part in last year’s BBC Loneliness Experiment, and an astounding one in three said they felt lonely most or all of the time.

But, why do we feel lonely?

We all know that we have physical needs – for food, water, warmth and shelter – which must be sufficiently met to enable us to survive and thrive. But, people often don’t realise that certain emotional needs are just as crucial for both our mental and physical health. We all have them and they were incorporated into our biology at conception. Crucially we have the need to connect with other human beings. At our core, we humans are pack animals. Safety in numbers. You were less likely to be killed by a hyena if you were in a large group than if you were alone. Even though (on the whole) we are no longer at risk of being killed by a hyena, our brains still perceive solitude as dangerous.

I’m sure we can all identify times in our lives where we have felt lonely. Perhaps in new situations such as moving to a new area, starting a new job, or indeed going to university. If we feel that we are different from other people in an important way that too can make us feel isolated. Perhaps you don’t have an intimate relationship or maybe you do but you don’t feel a deep connection with that person. Similarly, your social scene may have changed. You can be surrounded by people but if you don’t experience a deep connection, an emotional intimacy, with at least one of them you can feel lonely. Maybe you have friends but there is a lack of trust. An important element of friendship is the ability to confide and trust, so if that’s missing, you may feel lonely, even if you have fun with them.

Ironically with social networks wider than ever, people have never felt so alone. hen young people responded to the BBC questionnaire many of them said that they were lonely because they felt they couldn’t match up to their (perceived) expectations of peers, parents and society. Ironically, with social networks wider than ever, people have never felt so alone. Technology encourages us to interact remotely; we can shop online, talk online and work online, thereby narrowing our opportunity for face to face connection with others. This is the social media paradox. It can be part of the connective tissue of society, but also society’s worst enemy. The key to exploiting the advantages of this medium is not necessarily to understand the technology, but to first understand ourselves.

So then, actually being alone is not the problem. It is in the context of how we perceive it. There are times when we need to be alone, (privacy is another essential emotional need) to have time to reflect and consolidate. Feeling happy and capable within oneself is a strength and a resource.

Feeling lonely at any particular moment simply means that we are human. As with all emotions, loneliness can be a useful feeling. Just as when we feel hungry it is an indicator that we need food, similarly loneliness prompts us to make meaningful connections with others. However, like chronic hunger, chronic loneliness is bad for our health. Studies have deemed it more dangerous than smoking or obesity. It is linked to inflammation and a host of conditions including obesity, diabetes, heart disease, neuro-degenerative diseases, metabolic disorders, viral infections and atherosclerosis. People who perceived themselves to be lonely were also twice as likely to suffer with depression, anxiety or other mental health problems.

A recent YouGov poll shows that not wanting to burden others is the main reason people avoid reaching out to seek help when feeling isolated, with 75% of people saying they didn’t tell anyone despite having someone they could count on.

Loneliness support

A great place to connect with others is our Union of Students. There are also a number of useful resources out there. The BBC came up with 9 ways to feel less lonely, along with a podcast. The mental health charity MIND has practical suggestions for loneliness and student mental health in general.

There is a clear link between wellbeing and academic success. To help students make the most of their time at university, we provide a wide range of face to face, telephone and online support.  

Contact details:  

During January 2020 127 therapy appointments were missed. We understand that sometimes you may be unable to attend your appointment for one reason or another. Reminders are sent out ahead of appointments with the option to cancel the session. Wherever possible, please give at least 24hrs notice so we can make the appointments available to other students. Many of you are already doing this and 82% of cancellations in January were rebooked so thank you!

Support external to the University:

  • Samaritans is available 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. If you need a response immediately, it’s best to phone. This number is FREE to call. ☎ 116 123 (UK) 116 123 (ROI) 
  • MIND, the mental health charity: https://www.mind.org.uk/ ☎ 0300 123 3393
  • Rethink Mental Illness https://www.rethink.org/ ☎ 0300 5000 927 

Other useful links: Emotional Needs Audit http://www.enaproject.org/. This is a national project designed to find out how well innate emotional needs are being met in our society.

For further press information please contact the Corporate Communications Team on 01332 593419, pressoffice@derby.ac.uk or @derbyunipress

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