How To Cope With Isolation & Loneliness

How To Cope With Isolation & Loneliness

If there’s one thing we’ve all been touched by this year, it’s feelings of loneliness or isolation. True, it’s all relative – but whether you live by yourself or are just missing seeing your friends, lockdown and social distancing have made many of us feel more alone than ever. From identifying and understanding your feelings to the coping techniques to know, we asked experts from the fields of psychology and mental health for their advice.

First, how would you best define what’s meant by the term ‘loneliness’?

Research from The Campaign To End Loneliness shows isolation or feeling lonely can often be described using a wide range of negative words, including, but not limited to fear and sadness, distress, anxiety, feeling abandoned or helplessness. “Loneliness is a kind of disconnect,” explains Charlotte Fox Weber, psychotherapist and co-founder of soon-to-be-launched therapy practice Examined Life. “It happens when we are by ourselves, but it can also occur when we are with others, but still feel at odds. We are relational beings, so connecting means a great deal to us, and when we fail to connect – when we are isolated, or when we are with others but feel misunderstood, ignored or unseen – the psychological consequences can be staggering. However painful loneliness can be, it’s also universal and almost inevitable as an occurrence at some point in life.” There’s also a great deal of shame around feeling lonely, says Charlotte. “It’s hard to admit loneliness, even though it’s universal. When we can accept that it’s part of the human condition, we can get more comfortable with the discomfort.” 

What might cause you to feel this way?

According to mental health experts at the NHS, loneliness has many different causes and can affect people of all ages. “It's often linked with things that could prevent you spending time with other people, such as: living or working alone, retirement, illness or disability, bereavement (losing someone or something), moving to a new area, your job, school or university, or social anxiety.” However, it’s important to recognise you don’t have to be on your own all the time to feel lonely. “Many people feel lonely in a relationship or while spending time with friends or family,” the experts add. “Other significant life events such as buying a house, having a baby or planning a wedding could also lead to feelings of loneliness. You might find it hard to explain to people why you feel this way, but talking to someone could help you find a solution.”

Mark Newey, psychotherapist and founder of Headucate Me adds: “Different people experience the feelings of loneliness differently, but the components are likely to be the same. The feelings underneath loneliness are definitely sadness and even depression. But there are two other components that are more fundamental. First, there's a subtle feeling of deprivation. Human beings are social creatures: we need connection with others. Secondly, there's the inevitable slaying of our self-esteem. When we're lonely, we feel worthless and helpless. We blame ourselves and as things get worse, we even become hopeless that things could change or that people would want to come into our lives.”

How might these feelings be exacerbated by the current situation? 

“With social distancing, there’s too much space from lots of people, and not enough space from the people we are living with,” explains Charlotte. “The combination of not having enough personal space and feeling cut off from social interactions has left most of us reeling, at least to some degree. Not having enough personal space has an insidious impact on loneliness – we might not realise we are lonely because we feel crowded, but actually, having no breathing room makes it harder for us to feel attuned internally. Our sense of self gets fuzzy when everything is claustrophobic.” Even for the most introverted of people, Charlotte warns a lack of socialising – even just in the office – also plays a huge part. “We are missing out on exciting parties and events, but also on ordinary, incidental banter,” she says. “Not working from shared spaces, it’s harder to feel that sense of belonging that comes with camaraderie and communal experiences. Many of us have also felt considerable fear, and terror and suffering can evoke childlike feelings of helplessness and solitude. It’s one of the tricky aspects of being human, that suffering makes us feel alone, even though it’s something we have in common.”

Mark adds: “There’s no doubt lockdown has amplified feelings of loneliness to the point where even the most gregarious people are experiencing a huge gap in their lives. Any anxiety about our health, with regards to the virus, is made significantly worse by our inability to share ourselves and our lives with others. And Zooming is not only not the same as actually being with others, but is causing all sorts of self-esteem and body issues.”

What’s the first step to combat these feelings?

Like most health or wellbeing issues, recognising the problem is often the first step in moving towards correcting it. “Acknowledge that loneliness is part of the human condition,” advises Charlotte. “There’s inevitably a gap between the self and others, but when we can accept this, we don’t need to struggle so much. Connect – not just with others, but it also with books, nourishing food, art, beauty, nature, and most importantly, yourself. Keeping ourselves better company goes a really long way.”

From there, the NHS experts advise the following. “Try creating a regular routine of checking in with others, as it can make it easier to reach out at the time you feel lonely. You could try messaging old friends or colleagues on social media or text someone you have not spoken to for a while. Or set up a group chat on WhatsApp or Messenger if you prefer to talk with a few people at the same time. Most of us love hearing from people we have lost contact with – and that's especially true now. It may also encourage them to contact you more, or you could ask if it's okay to have a regular check-in.”

Most of us love hearing from people we have lost contact with – and that's especially true now.

Any practical tips or tricks for identifying loneliness before it becomes a bigger problem?

Identify, acknowledge and improve the way you keep yourself company, says Charlotte. “Combatting loneliness is about connecting with others and getting support, and it’s also about showing up for yourself in a kinder, more generous way. Keeping yourself good company goes such a long way. Start with radical self-compassion. Here’s an exercise you might try: write a letter to yourself about yourself. Describe what you see. Be there to witness your own existence. It’s not comfortable feeling unseen by others, but that doesn’t mean you have to ignore yourself.”

What’s the best way to connect with wider society at the moment?

“An easy way to think of it is to think of the formula of curiosity plus vulnerability equals connection,” explains Charlotte. “Acknowledging loneliness can be hard, but also exhilarating and liberating. It’s perfectly normal and relatable as a struggle, for people feeling crowded and for people living alone— it’s a shared human struggle. There’s a certain cosiness that comes with the realisation that we are not alone with our feelings. With that in mind, take a risk. Send a message to someone who is reaching out. Admit that you’re feeling a certain way. Ask someone how he or she is feeling. Enquire. Seek. Explore.”

According to the NHS experts, try talking about your feelings to a friend, family member, health professional or counsellor. You could also consider joining a group or class that focuses on something you enjoy or just go along to watch first if you're feeling nervous. Consider visiting places where you can just be around other people – for example, a park or a café and consider seeking out peer support, where people use their experiences to help each other. Work on ways to raise your self-esteem, listen to free mental wellbeing audio guides and search and download relaxation and mindfulness apps or online community apps from the NHS apps library.

We’ve all shared a lot of the same experiences this year – how might one use that to their advantage?

“This year has been a period where struggle and suffering are actually considered reasonable,” says Charlotte. “Use it to start important conversations about how we are actually doing. “How are you?” when asked in a genuine way, is one of the kindest, most generous conversation starters we have. Start with that and go from there.”

It's important however, warn the NHS professionals, not try to do everything at once. “Set small targets that you can easily achieve and do not focus on the things you cannot change – focus your time and energy into helping yourself feel better.” Also, try not to compare yourself to others. “On social media you usually only see things people want to share – the reality is many people feel lonely at some point in their life and support is available.”

Finally, it goes without saying that Christmas can be a very isolating time for some people – of any age. Any advice?

“In some ways, this will be a gloomy Christmas, but it may relieve the usual pressure to be joyous and festive for some people,” admits Charlotte. “Christmas can be hard work anyway, the insistence on being jolly and merry and with loved ones and all that. So, this year, when none of us expect it to be the best time ever, it could be quite relaxing and consoling for some. We can embrace this time with full awareness that we are in for some more darkness, but it’s always darkest before the dawn.”

As Mark explains, one of the positive outcomes of the pandemic has been the rebuilding of local communities and looking after the elderly and vulnerable. One way to feel better about yourself is to stay busy by helping others, add the NHS experts. “You can volunteer during the coronavirus outbreak from home or in your community, but follow the government guidelines if you are going out. If you would prefer to help others from home, you could volunteer to be a phone buddy to someone. Some charities run groups, like Age UK's Call in Time, that put volunteers in touch with people to call for a chat and see how they're doing. You may even find you make new friends while volunteering.”

If you’re struggling with feeling lonely, and could do with some support, consider reaching out to your GP or mental health charities like Mind. The Samaritans can also be contacted on 116 123 for free or by emailing

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