Loneliness levels have soared as life’s remained in lockdown.
From the complete isolation of those shielding, to the cabin fever of seeing the same four walls and flatmates daily; we’re all experiencing greater levels of loneliness. Humans are social creatures by nature and long stretches of time with limited contact are tough on a primal level, affecting both physical and psychological wellbeing. Remaining socially distanced is essential but feeling completely alone doesn’t have to be.
Studies by the office for national statistics show that loneliness pre-lockdown affected 5% of adults they surveyed. That number jumped from 2.6 million to 7.4 million people during the first lockdown. Groups who were already prone to feeling isolated haven’t changed; but it’s spreading across the rest of society too.
With 45% of adults feeling ‘sometimes, occasionally or often lonely’, it’s surprising that the issue isn’t more widely addressed. Feelings of shame around mental health issues are frequently a barrier in people seeking the help they need. Despite being such a common concern, it seems a lot of us still struggle to reach out. The landscape for accessing support is particularly challenging at the moment too. Often those who are already most vulnerable to feeling lonely are the ones having to keep social contact to the strictest minimum. And where a hug would have banished a bad mood, phonecalls are having to suffice. The limiting of our interactions is necessary, but the lack of substitutes is a growing problem in itself, particularly as time goes on.
The brain vs Loneliness
If you’re feeling overwhelmed, it’s worth remembering that science has proven isolation negatively affects your brain and body. In other words: You’re not overreacting at all. There are obvious links between loneliness and depression, but it can also have a negative impact on memory, concentration and other cognitive functions. On top of everything else going on, it makes everyday tasks feel twice as difficult and sufferers often report feeling extremely fatigued.
Physical health has also been shown to suffer from extended periods of isolation. Chronic loneliness heightens risk of cardiovascular disease and stroke. Increased stress levels, poor quality of sleep and a weakened immune system are also common factors. Keeping in touch with people really does help keep you fitter and healthier.
Lack of stimulus in general, which has grown increasingly challenging, has also been proven to hurt the brain. A 2019 study by researchers at UCL demonstrated that people who took part in cultural activities [attending concerts and going to museums etc] were associated with a lower risk of dementia. Keeping the mind active as well as getting out and about, especially around other people, is hugely beneficial. Finding alternatives has never been more important while these pastimes are off limits.
But social distancing remains as important as ever. And while life is still being carefully controlled, it’s worth looking into as many ways as possible to keep up connections with others. Back at the start of the health and safety measures, we were all making the effort to stay in touch; the novelty of the situation was something to fixate on in itself. But months later, it’s getting tricky to keep up the enthusiasm. There seems little change to daily life, and many of us are falling into cycles we’re not entirely happy with. But investing a bit of effort can help you, and the people you’re missing.
We’ve put together some of the most effective and recommended ways to combat lockdown loneliness; with others, and by yourself:
It’s the most obvious, but as lockdowns go on for longer, it’s easy to start slacking. Lack of anything new to talk about can make the videocalls we used to look forward to feel like hard work – which in turn, makes things all the more isolating. Acknowledging that you may not have any exciting news can lift some of the weight from making small talk. Look for other activities to keep Zoom from feeling stale; find a new book to read or series you can both watch and catch up for reviews, make and eat dinner together, try an art project over FaceTime. It doesn’t always have to be an endless loop of ‘what have you been up to?’. Shifting focus away from the usual back-and-forth chats and onto activities can help keep conversations flowing.
Pencil in a few water cooler chats. If you’re feeling like nobody can relate to what you’re going through, take a moment to remember those folks you used to see at work 8 hours a day; chances are they’re in a similar boat. Meetings might still be going ahead if you’re working from home, but when was the last time you had a coffee with your work bestie that didn’t involve shop talk? Catch up with a few colleagues from time to time as well as your usual circle for a change of pace.
But often, there are small adjustments we can make without even having to shcedule a video call. People might not always be available for a catch up, but you can always make some quality time with yourself. When was the last time you really checked in and enjoyed your alone time? Rather than always looking to avoid nights in, it can help to go all out and indulge to make the time meaningful.
Staying occupied =/= Staying busy
Keeping your mind active is essential. Hours spent doing nothing aren’t going to help your mood, and you can sulk your way into some seriously bad places. But it’s easy to go charging towards a burnout here. Keeping yourself occupied with enjoyable, productive activities isn’t the same as overdoing it and exhausting yourself. Find that special balance. New hobbies, creative projects, or even some major tidying can all help engage the parts of your brain that boost mood and ease anxiety. Volunteering will give you a buzz while you’re doing good. The more meaningful your pastimes, the more beneficial they are to your wellbeing.
You already know that exercise = GREAT. It releases feel-good chemicals in the brain, keeps your body healthy, and can be a great excuse to get some fresh air. But it’s also useful for keeping your mind stimulated, without overworking it. If you’ve found yourself glued to the couch with far too much time to dwell on missing your mates, this can really help get you into a more positive headspace with a rush of endorphins. Taking up an online class like yoga can be a handy way to keep you fit while socializing with some new faces. Plus you’ll be staying active without having to brave the bad weather; keeping you warm AND maxing out the social distancing.
Step away from the doom scrolling. Avoid things which will bum you out – if you’re already feeling lonely, piling on depressing articles and gloomy content isn’t going to do you any favours. It can be tempting to go all out and wallow when you’re feeling low but it does more damage in the long run. Switching from social media to a brand-new book will keep the content you engage with fresh, without running the risk of FOMO and existential dread. Finding a few podcasts is another great way to keep your mind occupied without taxing it; it’s also a really easy hack if you’re feeling low on human interaction.
Need an extra boost? Get a bit of help you can keep in your pocket. The NHS has a fantastic list of mental health apps they’ve given their seal of approval RIGHT HERE