Despite all the advances in communication technology, the way we live now can make us more susceptible to feeling lonely. People move around more easily than they once did, and often have to because of their jobs. That can mean that children and grandchildren no longer live in the same town – or even the same country – as their parents and grandparents. An increasing number of us – 12 percent in 2008, compared to six percent in 1972 - live on our own. There’s little doubt that loneliness is a growing problem.
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The effects of loneliness on health
While it’s obvious that loneliness affects us mentally, research over recent years has shown that it can also affect our physical health. Lonely adults tend to drink more, take less exercise and have worse diets than those who don’t feel cut off from other people. But there are other, less obvious ways in which this condition affects us.
Research by psychologists at the University of Chicago, led by John Cacioppo, Professor in Psychology at the university, makes interesting reading. His team found that older Americans who were lonely had higher systolic blood pressure (the top figure in a BP reading), than those who weren’t lonely.
"Loneliness not only alters behaviour, but loneliness is related to greater resistance to blood flow through your cardiovascular system," said Professor Caccioppo. "Loneliness leads to higher rises in morning levels of the stress hormone cortisol, altered gene expression in immune cells, poorer immune function, higher blood pressure and an increased level of depression." It’s not surprising that these findings suggest that loneliness could be as much of a risk factor for our health as smoking, obesity and lack of exercise.
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What makes us lonely?
The simple answer would be feeling alone, but as Bridget O’Connell, Head of Information at mental health charity mind explains, it isn’t as straightforward as that. "All the research finds it difficult to pull out cause and effect. The contributing factors tend to be tightly bound together.
"For instance, losing a life partner, often because they have died, is a cause. But retirement or redundancy can precipitate divorce, as can the kids leaving home. When people’s lives have been bound up with each others' for a very long time, it means that a massive social support has gone," Bridget explains.
"That can include a huge network of friends. It can be very difficult to maintain those contacts after a couple split up. These situations can lead to loneliness, and it can be very difficult for someone who’s had this type of support for so long to know where to start to rebuild it. Finding new friends is almost like starting to date again."
Feeling lonely from time to time is a normal part of life. Nearly everyone will have experienced times when they have felt a sense of isolation. Often this feeling will come and go, and won’t have a major impact on us. It is when feeling cut off and alone becomes a regular – or even constant - part of our lives, and has the potential to lead to depression, anxiety and the physical health problems outlined above, that we need to find ways to deal with it.
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Breaking the cycle of loneliness
"Although it can be very hard to break out of the cycle of feeling lonely, there are some proactive steps you can take to help yourself," said the Mental Health Foundation’s Senior Research Officer, Daniel Robotham. "There are a range of charities that offer befriending schemes, or support groups which can help in certain circumstances - if your relationship has broken up, for instance. There are also many social groups catering for all types of hobbies and interests, from sewing to running, and playing chess to reading books."
"One of the most useful first steps you can take is being brave enough to look at yourself, think about what interests you, and take that up as a social activity," says Bridget O’Connell. "Group activities, usually with an educational element to them are a good way to start. Adult learning and volunteering can provide small steps to feeling more confident. And the more you do it, the more your confidence will recover.
"Men can be especially reluctant to seek help, but they tend to respond well to activities that are reciprocal," says Bridget. "Volunteering and working in adult learning are good choices. They’re activities where you can make a valuable contribution, and get something back from it too."
Anyone who lives with loneliness will know that there are times when this emotion can feel overwhelming. Don’t be afraid to talk to your GP – they’re there to look after your mental health as well as the physical side of things. Your doctor may be able to suggest local bodies that can offer help, and may have a counselling service based within their surgery.
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Help for loneliness
"There are a range of therapies that GPs can consider for you, depending on your circumstances," says Daniel Robotham. "Talking therapies can help people address underlying issues that may reinforce their sense of isolation or make it hard for them to form new relationships. If the loneliness is linked to a deep anxiety about social situations, cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) may help people overcome that fear."
Another piece of research by Professor John Cacioppo, published in 2014, found that changing how people perceive and think about other people was an good way of helping to deal with loneliness. "Effective interventions are not so much about providing others with whom people can interact, providing social support, or teaching social skills as they are about changing how people who feel lonely perceive, think about, and act towards other people," Professor Cacioppo explained. In the studies that his team examined, using CBT was particularly effective. Talk to your GP if you think this might be a useful approach for you.
Don’t forget that you can take simple steps to help yourself, by picking up on existing interests, or exploring new ones. If you’d like to find out about local activities and groups, or opportunities for volunteering to help others, visit your local library, and sports centres and clubs. "If you have reduced mobility or live in a rural area, look on the internet for online communities," said Bridget O’Connell. "There are groups out there for everyone. Doing something that gives purpose and structure to your day and helps you meet new people, is a move in the right direction."