How Loneliness Affects Mental Health

Loneliness

Loneliness is prevalent in Australia.  And, there’s one thing almost everyone agrees on.  It’s hard to pick who is lonely and who is not.  ‘You can be lonely in a crowd’. That’s what they say, right?  Even within our busy workplaces there are workers struggling with loneliness.  Unsurprisingly, it’s not exactly a popular conversation topic around a lunchroom table. Perhaps we’ve got too good at putting up walls, when it comes to our private emotional wellbeing.   But being chronically lonely is bad for health.  So, we must talk about it.  More importantly, we have to find solutions and act to fix this issue.

Awareness, particularly around how loneliness affects mental health, benefits everybody.  Deepening our understanding of what it means to be lonely, and how one’s life is impacted, may help us become better at recognising signs of loneliness and more positively support lonely people in schools, workplaces and our broader community.

Everyone has vulnerability to loneliness.  Our susceptibility to becoming lonely changes as we progress through different stages of life.  Some people may only know transient feelings of loneliness, yet others will find it a recurring and deep-seated experience.

The Australian Loneliness Report produced by the Australian Psychological Society and Swinburne University was an eye-opener.  Their survey found one in four Australians are lonely. 24% of Australians signal that they experience heightened levels of social interaction anxiety.  Half the population feel lonely for a minimum of one day out of every week.  Almost 55% of Australians are at least sometimes feeling a marked lack of companionship.

What is Loneliness?

Human connectedness from meaningful companionship and community is an innate belonging need.  In a nutshell, loneliness is a mindset moulded when our human connection need goes unmet, matched with socially-related feelings of distress and isolation.  It differs from aloneness where a person can be alone without feeling lonely.      

Mental Illness & Loneliness Double-Edged Sword

Chronic loneliness contributes big-time to elevating the chances of depression and social anxiety.  On the flip-side, people experiencing depression and social anxiety have an increased likelihood of being lonely.  Research shows the severity of mental health symptoms rises as levels of loneliness go higher. 

Being lonely adds risk to our health in other ways too.  Not only is mental health negatively impacted, physical health becomes poorer too.  It may include diminished immunity, high blood pressure problems, and potentially shortened life expectancy. 

So loneliness is that serious?  Sure is.  Studies found being lonely and socially disconnected causes greater harm to health than physical inactivity and obesity.  Now picture this, the early mortality risk factor is equivalent to smoking 15 cigarettes a day!

Loneliness in Australian Workplaces

Employers have a duty of care for the safety and wellbeing of workers.  Loss of productivity, more mistakes, and increased incidences of sickness have been linked to loneliness at work. The Australian Report “Workplace Loneliness” by Reventure highlighted that 40% of Australian workers feel lonely at work.  That’s a big percentage of the workforce.  

So, what can be done?  Improving and implementing human support systems that enhance meaningful engagement at work are in the interests of both business owners and their workers’ personal wellbeing.  Tackling the problem of workplace loneliness is not some nice idea for sidelining, but an absolutely ‘worth it’ necessity requiring action now.

6 Steps towards Addressing Loneliness

Loneliness is a complex social issue.  Not something that will suddenly disappear.  But it is a plight we can spotlight, and together, work harder to help people improve getting their human connection needs met.  Here are 6 steps that can move us along that path.      

Awareness 

Creating greater awareness through education is essential.  Everyone deserves to know about the
prevalence of loneliness, how seriously it impacts one’s health, and that help is available.  We all have a part to play in getting that message out.  Don’t leave it to someone else to get the conversation started.  By letting people know that it is okay to talk about the experience of loneliness, the sooner we’ll smash stigma and breakdown other barriers that contribute to submergence of the topic.

Mindset Reframing 

Any person experiencing loneliness needs to feel empowered to share how they are thinking and feeling.  For some lonely people this requires challenging fears around appearing vulnerable or
fragile.  Loneliness is foremost the set of the mind from unmet human connection tied to socially-related emotional feelings.  Being self-aware and paying attention to our thoughts and behaviour is therefore an important key step.  

When we feel isolated, neglected or unaccepted we can easily find ourselves chewing over those thoughts and strengthening that narrative in our mind.  We harmfully allow ourselves to become subjected to our own harsh judgements.  Reflecting on self-talk is therefore particularly helpful in recognising sabotaging negative thinking that can cause a skewed view of ourselves and our social interactions.

When we are more mindful in our interpersonal relationships, and open to carefully considering those human engagements from different perspectives, we reduce the likelihood of misinterpretation.  For example, an office colleague fails to acknowledge you over several days and you might jump to the conclusion that it was intentional.  However, rather than accepting that negative thought, explore a different approach.  Perhaps the co-worker is simply experiencing a period of unwellness, or maybe they are just self-absorbed and distracted by the stress of working on an overwhelming project.    

By learning to reframe your mindset you may also come to recognise that being alone, in itself, is okay.  An approach could be to reframe the situation as an opportunity for more me-time or
increased independence.  Equally so, it is essential to redirect your focus on things that you find positive and life-affirming.  

Use healthy alternative thinking to counter any loneliness-related negative thoughts that play over and over in your mind.  For example, you may feel lonely and have a sense of rejection because friends have gone away for the weekend without inviting you.  Therefore, as an alternative, you can free yourself of those thoughts by refocusing and going on your own special adventure, or go and reconnect with other friends or family members that you haven’t visited for some time. 

It is important to say, however, that anyone experiencing persistent feelings of loneliness, or simply unable to switch-off troubling and disturbing thoughts should go talk with their GP.  Also seeking
out the help of a psychologist or skilled counselling professional would be another positive step.

Recognise Adverse Technology Impacts

Advances in technology has given us awesome new ways to connect and communicate.  But this technology has also created concerns around impairment to quality social interaction.  For example, researchers of social media behaviour have highlighted the adverse effects of FOMO (fear of missing out). We worry that everyone else is having fun and we’re not, so that false belief can contribute to feeling miserable and isolated.  Excessive TV watching, Facebooking, tweeting and texting may also be influencing feelings of loneliness.  That behaviour is an increasing trend, and researchers say it is keeping us from getting the level of actual intimate human interaction that we really pine for.

Social Skill-Set Training & Development

Where loneliness is linked to lacking interpersonal skills necessary for making and maintaining meaningful human connections, this is resolvable and can be overcome with the right training.  How
to mingle and make good conversation, have confidence in speaking on a phone, and understanding and using appropriate etiquette including verbal and non-verbal social cues that improve relationship-building, are all learnable.  Taking even small steps at first to develop these skills, maybe the beginning of gaining great new relationships and reduction of lonely feelings.

Employers too can become more proactive in their support of worker-wellbeing to reduce loneliness.  For example, some job roles may have an inherently increased risk of loneliness by virtue of lessened interaction with other staff. Remote or home-based employees is one example.  Situations like that require finding innovative ways to enhance interpersonal connection.  New team members may be more susceptible to a feeling of alienation, so on-boarding policies could reflect approaches that help integration and foster early establishment of quality interpersonal
relationships.  

Business owners should also consider training all staff in a range of skills that improve team member bonding as an essential part of personal development.  As well, other strategies can be developed and introduced to help early identification and rectification of worker-loneliness, particularly where associated with absenteeism, low productivity, low morale and social withdrawal.

Expand Social Support Network

Psychotherapists and other health professionals strongly encourage lonely people to create a solid social support network especially because of the link between loneliness and mental health. 
Growing a network of social supports builds a wellbeing safety-net.  These are help sources that a person experiencing loneliness can easily draw upon.  It is where they can turn to for the safe-guarding and strengthening of their physical and psychological wellness.  And, as well, where they can tap into other informational and motivational resources relevant to their needs. 

So, where to start?  Firstly, aim to surround yourself with those family members and friends who are empathetic and a positive influence in your life.  As we enter different stages of life the types of social supports we require usually change.  

Here’s just a few examples of other potential social supports:  Schools usually have guidance counsellors or chaplains that students can share their emotional feelings with.  A GP, Psychologist or specialist counsellor should be included in your network.  Many workplaces now have EAP (employee assistance program) which covers the cost for an employee who wants to reach out for wellbeing support.  Community nurses and support workers are increasingly being made available to meet the practical and health needs of the aged.  A list of phone numbers to call in the case of an emergency or crisis should always be readily accessible.

Increase Social Engagement & Integration Opportunities

As loneliness increases, the harder it may feel to ‘get out there’ and connect with others.  Let’s call it,
“Loneliness Inertia”. Think about it this way.  When a car is stopped, it takes a lot of extra effort to turn the front wheels.  But it is quite easy to turn those wheels when the car is moving.  When we create momentum, it builds more momentum.  There is a saying, “When you are on a horse, it is easier to get onto another horse”.  By being willing to make the effort to seek out ways to socially engage, you will get the ball rolling.  The important thing to remember is, you don’t have to do it alone.  Harness the help of your social support network. 

Give yourself the opportunity to meet and mix with other people and you’ll begin to see a ripple effect influencing even more relationship-building opportunities.  And, as you feel less lonely, you’re health and mental wellbeing will improve.  In turn, you can expect to feel better within yourself, and more confident in connecting with others.

There are countless ways to increase your opportunities for social engagement and integration.  Actually, many people would be spoilt for choice.  But when faced with a lot of choices, of course there’ll be some people who might find that daunting.  So, let’s unpack that.  Nobody can do everything, but we all can do something.  So, narrow your focus.  Initially, concentrate on just
‘one thing’, then build from there.  Whatever you choose, target what you are really passionate about and make certain it upholds your values.

As an idea generator, consider these areas of opportunity for making friends and overcoming lonely feelings:

  • Take Up Classes

Do you already have a hobby or area of special interest that you would enjoy learning more about, or perhaps could share your own special knowledge in that particular field?  It is generally easy to find groups or classes for photography, art, gemstone collecting, fitness, bushwalking, bird watching, cooking, dress-making, stamp collecting, woodworking and dozens more.

  • Take up a Sport

Sport is a great way to interact as part of a team, get exercise and boost your mental health too.  Find a sport that you love and that is a right match for your fitness level.  There’s field sports like soccer, football, baseball and hockey; water sports like swimming, water-polo, skiing and surfing; high-flying sports such as ballooning, hang-gliding and parachuting; sports played on courts such as tennis, volleyball and basketball; or consider more laid-back sports like fishing, golf or lawn bowls.

  • Board and Card Games

If you are limited in being able to do physical or outdoor activities, then there are many alternative indoor pursuits requiring little physical exertion.  For example, get a group of people together and play board-games like monopoly or scrabble, or participate in card games such as Canasta or Bridge.

  • Join a Community Group, Club or Vocational Association

Explore which community groups operate in your area.  Find one that meets your needs and become a member.  Most towns and cities throughout Australia have a wide range of social, cultural and faith-based organisations offering citizens a place to belong and interact.  Most occupations also have industry Associations, so consider what is available in your field of work.  Become a member of the relevant Association and then attend any local meetings, workshops or conferences.

  • Become a Volunteer

Make a difference helping others and you’re likely to find it will make a difference in you too.  Volunteerism is strong in Australia.  It connects people to one another and to their community.  Rural fire-fighting services, St Johns Ambulance, Lifeline, Red Cross, SES, Surf Lifesaving and Animal Rescue Services are just a small sample of the many types of organisations that rely on volunteers.

  • Maintain existing Relationships

Above all, continue to stay connected or reconnect with family members, relatives and friends with whom you’ve enjoyed a good relationship.  Those relationships can often act as a stepping stone, allowing you to connect with their wider circle of friends.  So, keep in touch with at least an occasional phone call.  Even consider writing a personal hand-written letter as that’s something virtually everyone appreciates. 

Belonging Matters

Finally, if you suspect someone you know is struggling with loneliness, make an effort to reach out and offer support.  Or, if it is a personal battle that you yourself are experiencing right now, be encouraged that help is available.  Go share what you are feeling with someone you trust.  If that is difficult for you, seek help from your GP or talk it over with a caring and professional therapist.  Why that is important is because early intervention increases the chances of preventing or limiting serious harm to health and mental wellbeing.   In short, belonging matters, it’s in our DNA, so let’s become more connected.

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References

Australian Loneliness Report. (2018). Australian Psychological Society & Swinburne University.  Retrieved from https://psychweek.org.au/wp/wp-content/uploads/2018/11/Psychology-Week-2018-Australian-Loneliness-Report-1.pdf

Campaign to End Loneliness. The Facts on Loneliness. Retrieved from https://www.campaigntoendloneliness.org/the-facts-on-loneliness/

Hilton, J. (2019). Do your employees feel lonely at work? HRD. Retrieved from https://www.hcamag.com/au/specialisation/mental-health/do-your-employees-feel-lonely-at-work/172016

Hunt, M.G., Marx, R., Lipson, C.
& Young, J. No More FOMO: Limiting Social Media Decreases Loneliness and
Depression. University of Pennsylvania. Journal
of Social and Clinical Psychology
. Vol. 37, No. 10, 2018, pp. 751-768.
Retrieved from https://guilfordjournals.com/doi/pdf/10.1521/jscp.2018.37.10.751

Lim, M.H. Is loneliness
Australia’s next public health epidemic? Australian Psychological Society. InPsych 2018. Vol. 40. August. (4).
Retrieved from https://www.psychology.org.au/for-members/publications/inpsych/2018/August-Issue-4/Is-loneliness-Australia’s-next-public-health-epide

Mann, F., Bone, J.K., Lloyd-Evans,
B., Frerichs, J., Pinfold, V., Ma, R., Wang, J. & Johnson, S. A life less lonely:
the state of the art in interventions to reduce loneliness in people with
mental health problems. Social Psychiatry
& Psychiatric Epidemiology
. 52, 627–638 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00127-017-1392-y
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O’Rourke, H.M., Collins, L. & Sidani, S. Interventions to address social connectedness and loneliness for older adults: a scoping review. BMC Geriatrics 18, 214 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1186/s12877-018-0897-x  Retrieved from https://bmcgeriatr.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s12877-018-0897-x#citeas

ROHAN WATSON is a member of the Australian Counselling Association and a general member of the International Association of Applied Neuroscience.  He holds qualifications in Psychology, Counselling and Education from Monash University and USQ.  As a Psychotherapist, Counsellor and Mental Health Researcher, Rohan is dedicated to helping unlock the potential in people to live life happily and more purposefully.  His Toowoomba Counselling & Coaching service provides specialist wellbeing help to people from all walks and seasons of life by phone, video or face-to-face, both nationally and internationally.  

Rohan has facilitated and delivered mental health programs across rural and remote Australia and he provides professional psychotherapy services to employees at all levels nationally through EAP based services.  He is a particularly sought-after and highly skilled Marriage Counsellor and Relationship Counselling specialist.  Rohan also has a special interest in the online delivery of mental wellness programs.  His current research is focusing on early intervention mental wellbeing in the workplaces of  Australian SMEs.  Learn more here.

About GO-TO Counsellor Rohan Watson | Counselling & Coaching