One thing I have said for years is that I genuinely believe loneliness kills more people than anxiety and depression, because when loneliness meets mental health issues - the results can be tragic.
What does it mean to be lonely?
It is actually quite a complex feeling. There is a huge difference between being physically alone (aloneness) and feeling lonely. In that, it doesn't just mean to be on your own, we can feel lonely even when we are surrounded by people and we can be content when we are sitting in a room by ourselves.
It doesn't just mean that you are free on a Saturday and no one else is around, even though this may be upsetting and lead us to feel a little lonely.
To be lonely, I think, means to feel disconnected. To have a lack of meaningful human connections, where you care about people and they mutually care for you. A prolonged feeling of loneliness can have catastrophic effects on our mental health - which can end up affecting our physical health too (there has been research conducted that supports this).
I think being physically alone is a lot harder for people who don't have any (or feel that they don't have any) meaningful connections. This may be because you feel your aloneness is not your own choice.
For example, I really enjoy time by myself (and I also enjoy spending time with friends and loved ones). I enjoy using this time by myself to recenter and relax mentally. But I haven't always been that way. When I was at my most depressed in high school, I felt particularly lonely. I felt that my friends didn't actually care for me and my mental battles had me feeling that I was a burden and an inconvenience. At this time I couldn't bear to be by myself. Even sitting in my room I felt isolated and miserable, but now I don't mind it at all. I think at that time I felt I couldn't pick up the phone and call anyone for company even if I wanted to, and that was the part that seemed to hurt the most.
The Loneliness Epidemic
Back in the caveman days (if you had a dollar for every time I started a sentence with that) being a part of a tribe or community meant having a better chance at survival. Human beings have always been a part of communities, but now we are busier with solitary tasks, busier with work and side hustles, busier scrolling through instagram. We are more "connected" technologically but we are spending less time having face-to-face time with people we are mutually connected with.
Therefore we are lonelier, and we are more depressed and anxious.
Another problem arises here. Every time I have been really depressed, I want to detach from everyone. We push people away, we isolate ourselves, we feel socially anxious. But what do we crave? We crave connection! It is a really self-destructive cycle that is something we need to consciously work at.
When someone you love asks you if you are ok, STOP SAYING YOU ARE "FINE" if you really aren't. This is easier said than done, but think about this:
They would rather see you struggling, than dead.
Why is asking "R U OK" so important?
We all know about R U OK Day - and I do feel this is something we should be talking about all the time (not just on one day) but it is great to raise awareness, especially when it comes to picking up signs that someone may not be ok.
When someone is feeling particularly depressed, it is likely that they will shut themselves off. It is very unlikely that they will ask for help, partly because of the stigma around mental illness, but there are many other factors.
When you reach out, you are breaking that loneliness barrier, you give them a glimmer of hope and you create a line of connection, whether or not they take that line. Just knowing that someone does genuinely care, makes it that little bit easier to speak up. Trying to explain to someone that you feel depressed when they haven't asked, haven't picked up on the signs, or don't really "get" mental illness is incredibly difficult. It is difficult even when someone does understand.
What to say when someone tells you they are NOT OK?
I did speak about this on my story today but I'll repeat this because it is important.
Step number one is ALWAYS telling them to speak to a professional. Even if you are the best at giving advice, NOTHING can match speaking to a professional. If they don't know how to do this, they can go to their GP or a medical centre and tell their doctor they are feeling depressed and/or suicidal.
NOTE: You do not need to be dealing with suicidal thoughts to warrant seeing a psychologist. I'd recommend that everyone sees a psychologist! There are always things we can improve with our mindset and a psychologists job is to help create tailored coping strategies for all areas of your life.
This is important - You don't need to know what to say. I get it, it can be really scary asking someone if they are ok (particularly when we have a feeling that they probably aren't). It is not your job to fix anyone, and chances are, there is nothing you can say that will magically fix everything!
What you can do is just BE there, let them vent (and help them to validate their feelings instead of saying "oh that's not a big deal"), you don't need to provide solutions. They may not want to vent, that is fine you don't even need to talk about the issues at hand. Go out and do normal every day stuff, not even to take their mind off things, but to remind them that they have connections.
What you are doing is opening that line of connection, that means more than any string of words you put together. They feel loved, cared for and WORTHY.
What can I do if I feel lonely?
This is a tricky one to answer because we can be lonely in so many different ways. Some of us have friends we don't particularly feel connected to, and a few of us may even have very little human contact in our days. Some of us are going through break ups, we were used to having someone around all the time, and we are struggling with that, now empty, void (this is completely normal by the way). Some of us do have connections and people who love us, but our demons are telling us that they don't care or forcing us to be skeptical.
I think deep-down we know. We know people do care, but that thought causes us pain. Why? Because when we are suffering from depression we don't feel worthy of love. We try to convince ourselves that people don't really love us or that they SHOULDN'T love us.
If this is you, I want you to read this:
You are not a burden.
"The fact that you're struggling doesn't make you a burden. It doesn't make you unloveable or undeserving of care. It makes you human. Everyone struggles. Everyone has a difficult time coping, and at times, we fall apart. During these times, we aren't always easy to be around - and that is ok.
No one is easy to be around 100% of the time. Yes, you may sometimes be unpleasant or difficult. And yes, you may sometimes do or say things that make the people around you feel helpless or sad. But those things aren't all of who you are, they don't discount your worth as a human being.
The truth is that you can be struggling and still be loved. You can be difficult and still be cared for. You can be less than perfect and still be deserving of compassion and kindness"
And when I read that during a tough time I was reduced to tears, so make yourself a nice cup of tea and just let it sink in for a little while.
Here are just a few things we can do to fix that loneliness in the short term.
1. Reach out to a friend
You don't even have to say you are struggling. As mentioned above, just having human connection is helpful when we are struggling with loneliness.
2. Speak to a professional
This is especially important if you are feeling depressed. Sometimes just having someone to talk to who can understand will take the pressure off existing relationships. It can help to deepen the connections with others as you are not holding onto a whole heap of bottled up emotions. It can be nerve-wracking feeling like the second you open your mouth, all those thoughts are going to burst out like a fish tank with a hole in it! Sometimes this even stops us form talking to people.
3. Animals are put on the earth to be our best friends.
I really believe this. Whenever I feel a little lonely, taking my dog for a walk is one of the easiest fixes. Seeing the happiness and appreciation on her little face makes my heart so happy! If you don't have a pet, animal shelters sometimes let volunteers walk the dogs. What better than to make an unfortunate little pup super happy for a day?
4. A longer term option would be to look for groups or teams to join. This doesn't have to be sports, there are honestly so many different types of groups out there! It obviously seems a bit daunting but you just have to remember that every single person who joins a group does so to meet like-minded people, if that isn't a great way to make good connections I don't know what is! There is a site called www.meetup.com that is made for this!
5. Volunteer regularly. There are so many great charities out there who are active, getting out there and helping the world together. Look for something local that you are interested in, not only will you be making a difference to real people, but chances are you'll meet some pretty fab fellow-volunteers with similar ethics and values (a good foundation for a good friendship).
I do want to put particular importance on this. I think it is easy to sometimes mistake boredom for loneliness, especially when we are social butterflies and love to be surrounded by people. These types of people do experience the biggest blurred line between feeling lonely and experiencing aloneness. However, we ALL face so so many distractions in our day-to-day lives that we tend to struggle when we aren't being externally stimulated.
Spending time alone is a vital part of getting connected with the most important person in your life - you! Next time you find yourself alone, take yourself out. Do something that you love to do, ie. go for a walk and put on your favourite music, go to the gym without your training buddy, run yourself a nice bath and enjoy a cup of tea in there, cook yourself an amazing meal etc. Instead of focusing on the fact that you are alone, check in with yourself.
If that is a bit of a struggle, challenge yourself to only think positive thoughts for the period of time that you are doing the activity. When a negative thought enters your head, try to counteract it with a positive or silver-lining.
Then, try to do this each week. Learn to love that time to reflect and really acknowledge everything that you are feeling in the present moment. Perhaps even keep a diary and write down some things that you are grateful for before spending your time on your own.
Being alone doesn't have to be scary, believe me! Human beings require balance and while we have a need for meaningful connections, we also have a need for connection with ourselves.
I hope you have found this article interesting and/or helpful!
Remember to reach out to people who you think might be struggling, or if you are struggling please call LifeLine on 13 11 14.
Also remember to go easy on yourself, take small steps to achieve a bigger picture. You are doing great.
Love & Strength Always,