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Do You Have to be Alone to be Lonely?

Consultant Business Psychologist Ellie Caley MSc, MABP, MBPsS

Mental Health Awareness Week provides us with an opportunity to focus on achieving good mental health and is now recognised as one of the biggest awareness weeks across the UK and the world. Each year the Mental Health Foundation sets a specific theme for the week, which this year is loneliness, and it feels like there is no more appropriate time to be raising awareness around such an important topic as we slowly raise our heads out of the global pandemic which has brought several periods of isolation and disconnection across the world.

As innate social human beings our connection to other people and our community is fundamental to protecting our mental health and psychological studies definitely highlights this as researchers at Oxford University found that friendship and positive connections reduced stress in the body, helped to fight depression, and boosts the levels of brain chemical endorphins (happy hormones) which have a stronger effect of stronger than morphine.

With research suggesting that it is estimated that over 40% of us will feel some form of loneliness at some point in our lives, we need to develop a greater understanding of what it truly means to be lonely, and how we can combat the different feelings loneliness invoke that can be so detrimental to our mental health and wellbeing.

We all undoubtedly feel lonely from time to time, but feelings of loneliness are personal, and everyone's experience will be different. One of the most important things to acknowledge is that you do not have to be alone to feel lonely. Psychologists explore loneliness according to a cognitive discrepancy theory, whereby there is a mismatch in our experiences of the quality and quantity of relationships that we have, in comparison to what we desire. This explains the negative thoughts and feelings of loneliness experienced when our social relationships are unsatisfactory such as negative feelings of isolation, loss from one’s true self, disconnection and/or involuntary rejection.

However, solitude is voluntary and can be a very positive experience for people who choose to balance time with others with time alone. There is certainly pleasure and comfort to be found from being on your own and I think this quote by Happiness Expert Gretchen Rubin really reflects this; “Loneliness feels draining, distracting, and upsetting; desired solitude feels peaceful, creative, restorative.”

One person may choose to be alone and live happily with a selected number of people around them, while others may find this a lonely experience. Someone else may have lots of social contact, or be in a relationship or part of a large extended family, and still feel lonely – especially if you don't feel understood or cared for by the people around you and research from an individual study found that more than 60% of lonely people in their sample size were actually married.

There is likely to be times where we are feeling alone, whether that is physically or mentally, but what we should start to think about is embracing solitude and the time we have alone. So stay tuned for part two of our loneliness blog where we will explore some top tips on how you can reframe the idea of being 'alone' to be a more positive and empowering feeling.

It is important to remember that you are not alone in how you are feeling and there is always someone there to listen.

Helpful Resources:

Shout – Text 85258 (24/7)

Samaritans – Call 116 123 (24/7)

Campaign Against Living Miserably - 0800 585858 (5pm-midnight every day of the year)

SANE – Call 0300 304 7000

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