It is the month of love, and as relationships are brought to the fore, it can become apparent just how lonely you feel.
Loneliness reportedly affects around 1 in 10 South Africans, both young and old. Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, however, it is affecting increasingly more, and in some ways has become an epidemic on its own.
Being lonely isn’t the same as being alone
Loneliness is not the same thing as enjoying alone time. Rather, it’s about feeling physically and emotionally isolated. Essentially, loneliness refers to the difference between the amount of social connection you have, and the amount that you want or need.
Despite how common loneliness is, the impact it has on both physical and mental health is often underestimated. Persistent loneliness is not only emotionally painful, but has a negative effect on heart health, immunity, sleep patterns, brain function and overall longevity.
Approaches to curing loneliness
The growing cost of loneliness has led researchers to investigate different interventions to “cure” it. These include interventions that aim to:
- Improve social skills – some experts believe that loneliness may be due to not having the right kind of “people skills” needed to make and maintain relationships.
- Enhance social support – seek out professional help and counselling when experiencing loneliness, especially when it is as a result of a change in situation. Examples may include relocation, has lost a loved one, or is a victim of abuse
- Increase opportunities for social interaction – focus on creating opportunities through organised group activities. (In the time of Covid this may be a challenge, but it’s not impossible. Many resort to online game-nights, online dinners or socially distanced walks.)
- Changing maladaptive thinking – maladaptive thinking refers to a belief that is false, and without support. Over time, chronic loneliness makes you more sensitive to, and on the lookout for, rejection and hostility. In other words, in a social situation, you immediately think the worst.
A study done comparing the effectiveness of each of these different types of interventions found that those aimed at changing maladaptive thinking patterns were, on average, four times more effective than other interventions in “fixing” loneliness.
How you think has a big effect on how you feel
To get a better handle on your feelings of loneliness, you need to face, and get comfortable with your fears. Your first step is to have a one-on-one chat with your inner voice, and begin to change the way you think.
Download a “thought record”, or make your own, to identify those things that worry you most about social connection and interaction. For example: “People are going to laugh at me for asking a stupid question”. Once you have all your thoughts down:
- Challenge the evidence for those thoughts. Has anyone ever really laughed at you?
- Replace the maladaptive thoughts with more realistic, balanced alternatives. Instead of “I can’t contact my her – she will feel I’m a nuisance!”, consider “Maybe she will be glad I reached out. She may also want to have some connection and contact.”
- Nip those negative thoughts in the bud. As soon as you feel a negative thought “I don’t belong here, I’ve just been invited out of pity”, catch yourself and replace it with something positive. “Good news, another invite… whoop!”
Changing your perspective and becoming more positive isn’t going to be one of those overnight success stories, but as they say, practise makes perfect. You don’t need to spend hours poring over lists of your worries, but you should start becoming more aware of how your thoughts could be sabotaging your connections, and more importantly, how they could change your life for the better.