Coronavirus and isolation: helpful things to remember about loneliness
Even before the coronavirus outbreak, one in five of us already said we often or always felt lonely. Over the coming months, many of us will experience uncertainty and lots of change.
By Olivia Field, policy and engagement manager, British Red Cross
We know that loneliness can be triggered by stress, and poor physical and mental health. Significant life changes also spark loneliness – from stopping work to losing someone you love. Today’s coronavirus outbreak risks making even more of us feel lonely – and sadly, people who are already isolated and lonely may become more vulnerable than ever.
Here are six facts about loneliness to keep in mind as you support yourself and others.
1. Loneliness can affect anyone - but everyone can help
Loneliness can affect anyone regardless of age or background. I’ve always been struck by the number of people who also feel they have no one to rely on or turn to in a crisis. Millions of people across the UK feel this way, according to our polls last year. This, of course, shows the need for organisations like the British Red Cross to step in when no one else can.
But more than anything, it highlights how much more we can all do ourselves to show the people around us that they’re not alone. That could be as simple as connecting with friends and family over the phone or social media. You can also help by checking in on a self-isolating neighbour by text or posting a note through the letterbox.
2. Being alone will not automatically make you feel lonely
Loneliness and social isolation are not the same. Loneliness is an unwelcome feeling that happens when there’s a mismatch between the quantity and quality of relationships we would like and those that we have.
Social isolation, on the other hand, is a lack of human contact and interaction and, importantly, it isn’t always negative. You can feel lonely in a crowded room and equally, totally satisfied being alone.
But, unwanted and prolonged isolation can have a troubling knock-on effect on our attitude towards others. Eventually, it can make us distrust and disengage even when we get the chance to interact. So finding ways to connect – even from your own home – is important.
3. From phone calls to online bake-offs, you can still connect to people even from your own home
We’re all being asked to stay at home for at least the next three weeks, and even longer for those at higher risk. But just because we’re no longer able to socialise in person, doesn’t mean we must stop socialising altogether.
We’re lucky enough to live in a digital age – over the last week, I’ve attended an online yoga class with friends, had a virtual bake-off with family from across the globe over Zoom and set up an online book club with some of my oldest friends.
Meanwhile, Italians have been singing with each other from their balconies, and the UK is preparing to get everyone to #clapforourcarers later this evening. Everything from lectures to gigs to daily prayers are becoming available for you to enjoy with others online.
4. Our relationships and interactions need to be meaningful and satisfying to truly tackle loneliness
To really tackle loneliness, we must be satisfied with our relationships and interactions, and quality is key. Simply talking or being with people is not an automatic protection against loneliness – living with others or being in regular contact with people where relationships aren’t that meaningful can make things worse.
This means that for some of us, constantly connecting with people over Skype, Whatsapp, Houseparty or similar platforms will not always be the answer. Create the space to connect in a way that is meaningful to you (remembering this looks different for everyone) - and don’t feel bad about creating boundaries.
5. Just talking about feelings of loneliness helps
Even though so many of us so often feel lonely, too many of us are ashamed to admit it. A Red Cross survey of 1,000 people found that almost 60 per cent of respondents admitted they didn’t feel confident talking about loneliness. A third more said they’d never admit to feeling lonely to anyone.
Yet, simply talking about feeling lonely, like so many other emotions, helps. The same survey found that people who reported they wouldn’t talk to family and friends about loneliness were more than twice as likely to feel lonely always or often than those who would.
6.Looking after ourselves in general, and those around us, can protect against loneliness
Loneliness is as much about our connection with ourselves as it with others – when we feel good about ourselves, it’s easier to connect. The fact that loneliness is often triggered by significant life changes tells us a lot. These changes, whether losing your job or finding out you have a health condition, come with both practical and emotional implications.
The practical ones are more obvious – being unwell or being low on money may make it harder to do things, for example. Though less obvious, the emotional consequences of these experiences can have an even greater effect: they knock our sense of identity, and often make us question our role or purpose in life. Not being able to connect with yourself makes it hard, if not impossible, to connect with others in a meaningful way. While you’re at home, try to do the things that make you feel like you, stay stimulated, and do things you enjoy.
And don't forget that you can do things for others - whether formally volunteering, being a thoughtful friend or supporting your more vulnerable neighbours through this difficult time. It not only builds your sense of worth and gives you a sense of purpose, but helps protect you against loneliness too.
About Olivia Field
Olivia Field is policy and engagement manager for loneliness and social isolation in the policy, research and advocacy department at the British Red Cross.
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