We have all experienced a sense of loneliness at one time or another in our lives, whether caused by a relationship breakdown, health problems, moving home, changing school or job, becoming a parent, or after a bereavement. Under the current restrictions to our daily lives, loneliness is an increasingly familiar feature.
Loneliness impacts both our physical health and mental health. Researchers have discovered that the effects of loneliness on the body are the same as smoking 15 cigarettes a day; when we experience loneliness, our levels of the stress hormone cortisol increase which can impair our immune system, negatively affect our cognitive performance and increase the risk of cardiovascular problems. It is unsurprising that loneliness can affect our mental health; loneliness is felt in the same part of the brain as physical pain.
Earlier this year, the Aga Khan Social Welfare Board (AKSWB) held their annual convention at the Ismaili Centre with the theme of “Listening for Loneliness”. The shame and stigma surrounding loneliness was confronted head on. Through workshops, stories and discussions, personal experiences of loneliness were shared. Realising that others had similar feelings of exclusion, self-doubt and insecurity when they felt lonely, created empathy for those who find it difficult to seek support. It also provided an insight into how to recognise loneliness in others.
Human beings are social creatures, our connection to others enables us to survive and thrive. In these difficult times, where connection is challenging to say the least, here are some tips to stave off loneliness:
• Establish a daily routine including activities – this can help you feel more settled, provide a sense of normality and a feeling of control over your time
• Stay in virtual contact – maintain connections with friends and family as much as possible through Whatsapp, Zoom, FaceTime etc
• Have authentic conversations – at the AKSWB convention, Dr Shermina Sayani talked movingly about the power of meaningful connection as the key to combatting loneliness; by allowing ourselves to be vulnerable, we enable others to do the same and through that honest exchange, genuine connection occurs
• Eat healthily and exercise – keeping physically healthy can boost your immune system and improve your mood so it is important to eat well and to get regular exercise
• Plan activities – consider doing things that you haven’t had time to tackle before e.g. updating a photo album, finally reading that book you bought months ago, tidying ‘that’ cupboard. Try setting a challenge for yourself e.g. learning 20 conversational sentences in another language(s), cooking something you’ve not made before, writing a short story (or a long story!) – the sense of achievement will help to boost your mental well being
• Adjusting your mindset and expectations – accepting that events are beyond your control and knowing that being physically away from the people and the things you love is only temporary. Remembering that everyone else is going through the lockdown too can help you feel grounded and is a reminder that you are not alone
• Practise self-care – studies show that self-compassion improves well-being and happiness. Consider keeping a journal of your emotions during this period and make a note of things that made you feel happy or accomplished throughout the day
Loneliness is a universal experience. If you remember someone with whom you have not had recent contact, give them a call and make that connection – you never know how a tiny interaction can positively impact someone else’s life.
The Womens Activity Portfolio (WAP) are holding a virtual workshop on the same topic on on 19 April 2020 at 2pm.
If you are struggling with loneliness, please call the Coronavirus Support Helpline on 020 8191 0911.