Mental Health Awareness Week this year is highlighting the issue of loneliness, a very relevant issue given a global pandemic, lockdowns, remote working and isolation from our support networks. Even before we’d heard of Covid-19 though, loneliness was seen as an increasing problem across the UK with all the health risks associated. In 2018 a Minister for Loneliness was appointed and a cross government strategy set up to tackle the problem. In a hyper connected world, loneliness is on the increase and the negative impact it can have on our mental and physical wellbeing can be profound.

Loneliness can mean different things to different people. It’s something that is normal and something that we all experience at some point in our lives. In my last blog post I touched on the relationship between listening and loneliness. As a company working entirely remotely throughout the pandemic with new people joining Unboxed, it was a huge challenge for all of us to remain connected and supported. We were hugely conscious of whether people were feeling lonely or isolated and what, if anything, we could do about it. We really had to think about the space and opportunities to talk about our experiences, to keep in contact, and while we begin to return to more face-to-face and hybrid working, being aware of loneliness and isolation remains firmly an issue to think about. After all, we’ve probably all experienced being among people but still felt lonely.

MHAW22-UK-Twitter

What does loneliness mean?

“When I think about loneliness I probably initially think of my elderly father living alone, or people isolated from communities or even within them. But then I also think about the times I have felt lonely. They have often been triggered by circumstances or events such as bereavement or illness but it also applies to when my children left home and the loneliness that comes with feeling your purpose or job is done! I’ve also felt momentary loneliness during a much needed night out with friends, and feeling invisible or misunderstood. So I’ve experienced both momentary and prolonged loneliness at different periods but I have also been very lucky to have a fantastic family, colleagues and friends to support me through and to share experiences with. When restrictions were allowed during Covid, sometimes a glass of wine at opposite ends of the picnic bench in the park provided the connection and sharing I needed to help.” Vicky’s story

Loneliness is complex and often misunderstood. It can be experienced emotionally, physically and existentially. We may often think of it as a chronic experience, where someone feels lonely for most of the time, often attributing this to particular groups of people such as older people. But it can also be a more transient or situational experience where feelings may come and go, or a reaction to a particular circumstance such as a bereavement, job loss or even a temporary low mood when your wellbeing has been compromised by something. There is often a confusion between loneliness and social isolation which also clouds understanding of the experience. The Institute for Ageing describes loneliness as the distressing feeling of being alone or separated, whereas social isolation is a lack of social contact and having few people to interact with regularly.

Loneliness feels awful and we can all experience it, even amongst a room of friends or colleagues. If we feel a lack of companionship, or a mismatch between the quantity and quality of the social relationships that we have, and those that we want then our needs are not being met in some way and we are liable to feel more isolated. The quality of our relationships, with our colleagues, our family, friends and community really matters for our wellbeing.

Celia and Ali sitting on stairs

Loneliness and our mental and physical health

There is good evidence showing that loneliness and lack of good connections can have a really negative impact on our physical and mental wellbeing. For our physical health it significantly increases the risk of premature mortality and other serious health conditions including high blood pressure, coronary heart disease, stroke and obesity.

And it makes us feel pretty rubbish mentally too. It puts us at greater risk of cognitive decline, dementia, depression and in older age more prone to suicide.The Covid-19 pandemic has significantly increased the experience and impact of loneliness on us all. We’ve had to “socially distance” - the phrase says it all and while we may enjoy a period of quiet of isolation now and then, as humans we are not designed to function well alone. We need people, we need to feel connected, listened to and valued to keep our wellbeing in balance, to support our resilience and keep us engaged and productive in our work place and our personal lives.

Bringing loneliness to light

Storytelling is a powerful tool. We all tell stories about ourselves and our experiences, it’s a way of creating a narrative to make sense of our lives. The Mental Health Foundation this week is encouraging people to share their stories and at Unboxed we are encouraging each other to share our own experiences, even just take a moment to think about what loneliness means to us and to talk about it. It’s not always a comfortable process but to know that your experience may resonate and land with someone else can go a long way to feeling less isolated or to find ways to reach out and connect.

It can be hard to admit that we feel lonely. Loneliness can be found in all corners but by encouraging people to be able to speak and share their experience, common ground and connection can be found and chronic states avoided.

“I think the common theme for loneliness is that when we’re feeling isolated and lonely, it can feel like everyone else but you have their life together.

Having lived in London most of my adult life, I’ve experienced the wonderful highs of being in the thick of a social scene, out every night, loving life - to a very scary low of things not going so well. There’s so many reasons or triggers for life flipping this way, and nobody is immune from things taking a turn. Having a safety net of people to catch you when you fall is so important, but sometimes we don’t see it, or know how to ask for help.

The best advice I can give is that life is continually changing, what might seem like the worst situation will never stay that way, and there is always a way to turn things around. Your friends and family are never too busy “living their own lives” to support you because you ARE their lives.” Jo’s story

What can we do to help ourselves and others?

Anastasia, Fiacre and Ali on comapny day

Our collaborative culture and an intention to think about people’s wellbeing sits at the heart of our values of healthier relationships and care and attention, no more so than as we adjust and adapt to hybrid ways of working at Unboxed. We need to think about how we keep those of us largely remote, included and connected to everyone. We also need to ensure that even in the room, people aren’t feeling isolated or lonely and if they are, what are the processes for addressing it. Feeling enabled to speak up and say what you need or how you’re feeling is key and in our communication we have to be intentional about listening to each other as much as we talk to each other.

If you’re struggling with loneliness or know someone who is and want to support them, then there’s plenty of advice and help available:

  • Share your story. It can be hard to talk about and 1 in 5 of us hide our feelings of loneliness from others. Talking and sharing with others can really help to feel less alone. We aren’t the only ones.
  • Try to do enjoyable things that keep you busy. Small activities are energising and create a positive feeling. It might be pursuing a hobby or starting up a new one.
  • Try to do things that stimulate the mind. Keeping your mind busy with activities helps with feelings of loneliness.
  • Engage with people you meet in your daily life. If you’re feeling lonely it can be hard, but reaching out to make even small connections can make all the difference.
  • Try to find people that ‘get you’. Connecting with others that can relate to you can give you a sense of belonging that may be missing.
  • Hang out with your pets! It might sound trivial but the unconditional love that animals give can be a real support and offer structure to the day.
  • Use social media in a positive way to support your interests and not detract from them. Finding digital communities that share passions and interests can be great.
  • Talking therapies can be really helpful if you’re struggling with loneliness.

Mental Health Awareness Week is an opportunity for everyone to reflect both on our own experiences of loneliness and on those of others, and how small gestures may go a long way to helping someone. It might just be a good reminder to call a relative, knock on an elderly neighbour’s door, have a conversation with someone in a shop or simply check in on a colleague. The rewards will go both ways!

Written by Vicky Peel