How to break the LONELINESS LOOP


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Next week is Mental Health Awareness Week and the theme is loneliness. With an increasing number of over 50s feeling lonely, here’s how to create connections and boost your health at the same time…

You’ve always been surrounded by people. But suddenly you find yourself feeling lonely and you’re unsure what to do about it.

Sound familiar? You’re not alone.

Research suggests that the number of over 50s suffering from loneliness is soaring and set to increase in the coming years.

As our circumstances shift through life — perhaps we relocate, our partner dies or our health or financial situation changes — it’s not uncommon for us all to experience a sense of loneliness at some point. If we don’t act, it can become chronic.

Soon we can find ourselves trapped in a loneliness loop of avoiding social situations or withdrawing, and this can have a huge impact on our mental health. Left unaddressed, it can lead to depression and anxiety.

Far from just being ‘a feeling’, loneliness can be as harmful for our health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.

Jolie Goodman, Programmes Manager for Empowerment and Later Life at the Mental Health Foundation, says: ‘Loneliness affects millions of people in the UK every year. Yet there remains a huge taboo around it. It’s very hard to acknowledge that you’re lonely.

‘Being strongly connected to other people and feeling a valued member of our community is a fundamental part of a mentally healthy society, and there are steps we can all take towards achieving this.’

Here’s how…

Get out

If you don’t have any social plans, you might lack motivation to leave the house, but Jolie says: ‘If you can venture outside, do. Exposure to daylight’s very important for promoting wellbeing and sleep. Getting out and about, to a local shop or going for a walk around your local park, also increases your chance of having an interaction with others, which can make you feel more connected to your community.’

Exercise

According to a recent study, older adults who join group exercise classes experience decreased loneliness and feelings of isolation.

Jolie says: ‘Exercise can be a really effective way to tackle loneliness. This is because even short amounts can help boost our self-esteem and reduce stress, anxiety and depression. The more uplifted and energised we feel, the better position we’re in for actively broadening our social networks.’

Get curious

To find new people to connect with, think about your passions and interests.

Jolie says: ‘Joining organisations where you do activities you enjoy with others, like walking, singing or cooking, gives you a chance to meet people with whom you instantly have mutual interests. Sharing these experiences also starts helping you to build things in common and allows the giving and receiving of support, which is good for wellbeing. Seeing the same people week after week makes it much easier to strike up conversations too.’

Volunteer

Research suggests that volunteering just two hours a week may help to ease feelings of loneliness and social isolation.

Jolie says: ‘It can improve social connections, as well as give us a sense of belonging and purpose. There’s also some evidence that when we help others, it promotes changes in the brain, increasing feelings of happiness.’

Don’t be scared to go online

When it comes to keeping in touch with people or even making new friends, internet could be for you. Studies have shown that the impact of loneliness when living alone is diminished for internet users. Websites such as Stitch or Meetup are great for finding a social community online and perhaps for making new friends in person.

Don’t worry if it doesn’t happen overnight

Jolie says: ‘Take things gradually when making changes and building new social connections, as it can take time. The important thing is to remember you’re not alone. Just take it one step at a time, be persistent and little by little those connections around you will grow.’

Edited by Stephanie May

Mental Health Awareness Week runs from 9-15 May. For information, visit mentalhealth.org.uk

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