How to break out of loneliness and into thrive
How to break out of loneliness and into thrive seems utterly impossible when we’re stuck in a cycle of lost perspective and motivation. It takes courage to do it.
Loneliness is a modern-day epidemic… even when we are constantly ‘with’ people, or have a wide network of friends and family, work colleagues and other acquaintances, we can all experience loneliness from time to time. But loneliness has become another modern-day social and health epidemic.
Let’s get clear on ‘loneliness’… it’s not the same thing as ‘being alone’. Loneliness is perhaps better expressed as not feeling understood, loved or cared for by those around us.
“The most terrible poverty is loneliness and the feeling of being unloved.”
– Mother Theresa.
For some of us, that ‘unloved’ feeling is with us 24/7 and we can feel so isolated that we’re unable to do anything about it. Truly lonely people usually crave human contact, but their state of mind makes it more difficult to form connections with others. The Red Cross have suggested that as many as 9 million adults in the UK are always or often lonely.“We are the most social of all the animals. Our brains and our bodies are built to be regulated through interactions with others from the day that we are born.” – Prof. Paul Gilbert Click To Tweet
Hard-wired for social connection
Since earliest times, we humans have literally needed each other for survival; we’re hard-wired for it. Back in the day, becoming isolated from the ‘tribe’ put our ancestors into physical danger and at risk to life and limb. Isolation from the tribe (or even the prospect of it) sent our body a message of danger, ramping up our nervous system’s stress (fight and flight) response. Only by belonging could our body get the message of safety that allowed our nervous system to relax and return to its optimal ‘thrive’ state.
Our modern lives no longer put us into life-threatening physical danger. However, in our increasingly lonely and disconnected world we exist in extended states of emotional isolation, triggering a chronic stress response with chronically elevated stress hormone cortisol, which, downstream puts us at risk of physical illness and mental dis-ease
When we look at tight-knit communities in the Blue Zones, we see residents who enjoy better health and longevity, independent of diet, we see that their social environments support rituals, kinship, friendship and community.
Loneliness and our physical health
There are many reasons why we feel lonely, and each of us will have our own, often deeply personal experiences: physical isolation, working from home, moving to a new location, divorce, the death of someone significant in our lives, the loss of a relationship, the loss of a job.
Low self-esteem may also be a factor, leading us to believe we are not worthy of the love and attention of others.
When we experience loneliness, our levels of cortisol (a stress hormone) are elevated. Chronically elevated cortisol can:
- impair cognitive performance
- alter brain function
- compromise the immune system
- create and maintain systemic inflammation
- increase our risk for vascular problems
- increase or risk for heart disease
- increase our risk of depression (or worse, suicide)
- increase feelings overwhelm and anxiety
- lead to poor decision making
- encourage alcohol/substance dependency and abuse
While loneliness, in itself, isn’t a ‘diagnosable’ mental health condition, there’s no doubt that having a mental health issue will likely increase our chances of becoming socially isolated and experiencing feelings of loneliness and social anxiety.
Social anxiety might make it difficult (if not impossible) for us to engage in everyday interaction with others. Over time, lack of social engagement promotes feelings of loneliness. These feelings themselves will then negatively impact on our capacity interact and the cycle begins… and can go on and on.
Social – or anti-social – media?
Most of us use social media daily, normally several (and often many) times a day, without even thinking about it. Using Facebook, Snapchat or Instagram helps us keep in touch with friends and create ‘connections’ which can add vitality and communion to our lives.
But spending hours every day on social media can come to replace real connections, exacerbating our feelings of loneliness or inadequacy: Viewing curated snapshots of other people’s lives can leave us feeling like everyone else has a better life, better figure, is smarter, funnier, more interesting or has more friends, crushing our already low self-esteem.
Positive physical encounters with others have a physical effect on our body. Prof. Paul Gilbert suggests that the parasympathetic nervous system (the “rest and digest” system)
“is stimulated through the verbal and voice tone of relations with each other. As far as we know, it’s not that stimulated through texts. Generally speaking, you’re designed to respond to voice tone and expression, and stroking. We are physiologically designed for face-to-face interaction.”
Femergy: connections for a whole life
As women, we’re hard-wired and deeply invested in wanting to save the world – to ‘fix it’ for everyone from our partner, family to our plan and (when there’s time) for ourselves. But often, we’re trying to do so much at once that the effect on our well-being – mind, body and spirit – is overwhelming.
Even with the best support network in the world, it’s a heavy responsibility, and when we feel isolated and alone, that weight can become too much to bear. We close down and we become disconnected.
The principles of Femergy are based around the idea of connection and lifestyle holism: each lifestyle element - eat, sleep, move, be, nest - is inextricably linked to every other. Sadly, the downward bio-psycho-social-emotional spiral of loneliness leads not only to disconnections in our lifestyle, but disconnection from the self:
“Loneliness is a sign you are in desperate need of yourself.”
– Rupi Kaur
Breaking out of loneliness and into thrive
We can break out of loneliness and it may mean digging deep and making some big changes: It may mean cultivating self-awareness, self-knowledge and self-acceptance. It may mean overcoming fear with courage. It may mean preparedness to show our vulnerability and seek support from family, friends and our community. It will mean BEing.
This is Lee’s story about his loneliness, mental health and how he overcame it.
Why Spending Time with Your Friends Is More Important Than You Think
A deeply insightful conversation between Rangan Chatterjee and Dhru Purohit who is passionate about the importance of tribe and friendship.
How to break out of loneliness and into thrive
- Recognize that loneliness is a sign that something needs to change.
- Understand the effects that loneliness has on our lives, both physically, emotionally and mentally and commit to taking personal responsibility for change.
- Reflect on your environment – is it pushing you into loneliness? Make a plan to change it.
- Get enough quality sleep and nourishing food. Too little or too much sleep can have a big impact on how we feel. A nutrient-dense diet which includes fermented foods and regular meals which both feed the gut microbiome (responsible for making the neurochemicals that control mood and keeping your blood sugar stable can make a huge difference to mood and energy levels.
- Moving your body is essential (especially outside and in green spaces) for physical and mental health and some people find it helps improve their self-esteem. Join (or volunteer at) a local Parkrun - you don't need to be able to run.. it's not about the run, it's about building community.
- Use EFT – emotional freedom technique is a powerful too in reducing the stress associated with fear, depression and anxiety and helps to build new behaviours.
- Cultivate an attitude of gratitude – explicitly recognising what we have to be thankful for and accepting solitude is deeply uplifting and helps put perspective back.
- Take it slow. It can be terrifying and paralysing to think about meeting new people or going to new places. Begin by going outside for walks along a regular route where others walk too. Become a regular at a local café. Visit the cinema or a sports event to be around others, but not be expected to interact – often, simply being around others is a huge step in helping with our feelings of loneliness. Later, commit to acknowledging or smiling at people we encounter.
- Do something to help others… volunteering is a great way of meeting like-minded people and helping others can absolutely help improve our mental health.
- Make new connections. Over time, commit to trying to widen the horizon by creating opportunities to meet more (or different) people - join a class or group based on a hobby or interest … or try something completely different and playful!
- Focus on developing and nurturing quality relationships with people who share similar attitudes, interests and values.
- Journal – putting thoughts and feelings down on paper calms the nervous system and recognising and celebrating our progress and achievements sustains motivation
- Spend time with animals. Having a pet or spending time around animals in nature can help with feelings of loneliness. If a pet is not an option, offer to walk a neighbour’s dog, visit a local dog rehoming centre, trust a local community or city farm.
- Tomorrow will be the first day of the rest of your life – take one small action each day.
If this article resonates with you or someone you know… would a chat help? Please reach out for a 30-minute health consultation... I may be able to help directly, or sign-post your sources that can be of help and support.